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Regarded as one of the best emerging novelists of the twenty-first century, Jonathan Franzen is also a strong believer in both the power and necessity of literature. His award-winning novel The Corrections (2001) is often deemed one of the best works of literature written in the last twenty years. While Franzen’s work is commonly held in high esteem, the author has managed to garner significant controversy for his resolute convictions about publishing, writing, and the direction of American tastes. In addition to his fictional works, Franzen has also published several highly regarded essay collections, including The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (2006).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Franzen was born on August 17,1959, in Western Springs, Illinois, to Earl T. and Irene (Super) Franzen. His father was a railroad company executive; his mother, a homemaker. His family moved to the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, Missouri, where he grew up. Webster Groves later became the setting for at least two of his novels. As a child, Franzen was quite timid and he focused most of his energies on reading and academic achievement.
Franzen majored in German at Swarthmore College, and earned his BA in 1981. While at Swarthmore, he also penned a column for the student newspaper. The following year, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, which he used to spend the year at the Freiet Universitat (Free University) in Berlin, which was still divided by the superpowers into western and eastern sectors. When Franzen returned to the United States, he married writer Valerie Cornell. Then, from 1983 to 1987, he worked at Harvard University as a research assistant in earth and planetary sciences.
Focus on Literature
During this time period, Franzen and Cornell dedicated themselves to the creation and enjoyment of literature while living in Somerville, a relatively inexpensive part of Boston. Though their financial situation was difficult, Franzen describes these years as idyllic. In 1987, he submitted an eleven-hundred-page manuscript that eventually became his first novel. The edited version of this work became The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), which focused on the political maneuvering of Susan Jammu, as she leads the police force of a futuristic St. Louis, Missouri, and tries to turn the city around. The Twenty-Seventh City won the Whiting Writers’ Award. Hailed by critics as a writer of great promise, Franzen emerged as a literary celebrity despite his young age and lack of credentials.
Even with the success that came with The Twenty-Seventh City, Franzen and Cornell’s marriage began to suffer. Using royalties from the book, the couple traveled through Europe and hoped to mend their relationship. While in Europe, Franzen began working on what became his second novel, Strong Motion (1992). Set in Boston, the novel presents a complex series of events, including a number of earthquakes and illicit dumping of toxins into wells below the city, which cause the city’s underlying bedrock to become unstable. The story centers on Louis Holland, a radio enthusiast who becomes involved in the mystery behind these events. The book sold poorly. Franzen suffered personal losses at this time as well: both of his parents died and his marriage ended. For a time, Franzen considered quitting writing entirely.
Turn to Journalism
Ultimately rejecting this idea, Franzen approached The New Yorker about writing his piece of journalism. The magazine accepted his idea and he eventually became a contributing writer for the periodical. While writing for The New Yorker, he also contributed pieces to other magazines, including Harper’s.
In 1996, the year Franzen received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and published the essay ”Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels” in Harper’s. The essay focused on the reasons authors write. He also lamented the power that certain media and entertainment outlets—particularly the Internet and television—have over the minds of the American public, as well as the seeming inability of a literary novel to engage the masses. Reaction to the article was relatively mild, but it earned Franzen a reputation among critics as a high-minded if pretentious writer.
While he continued his association with The New Yorker, Franzen also continued to work on his fiction. While working on minor characters, he wrote a scene about an elderly couple on a cruise ship—a piece that he considered perhaps the finest writing of his career. In near seclusion, Franzen focused exclusively on these characters, ultimately creating the Lambert family, who form of the core of his novel, The Corrections (2001). A 568-page opus, the book relates the disintegration of the family at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.
A seriocomic tale, the book details the desire of family matriarch, Enid Lambert, to gather her three children— Gary, Chip, and Denise—for a final visit before their father is lost to Parkinson’s disease. The Corrections charts the reluctance of the Lambert children to return to their childhood home. It also touches on contemporary events in the United States, including the Internet stock bubble of 1997-1998, and the subsequent ”market correction” of 2000.
Written over six years, The Corrections was somewhat autobiographical. Franzen believed he had written a work of ”high art” that would engage the masses. Despite his own missteps—including his publicly stated discomfort with The Corrections being selected by Oprah Winfrey for her highly rated television show’s book club, and his implied assertion that the book might be beyond the comprehension of a typical reader—the book became a best seller. The novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2001.
Success as an Essayist
After The Corrections, Franzen published a collection of thirteen essays that originally appeared in The New Yorker and other periodicals. Most of the pieces in the well-received How To Be Alone: Essays (2002) comment in some fashion on the modern world, and on the effects a media-saturated culture brings to bear on both writers and their readers. Other topics include a description of his father’s demise due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Critics noted that the essays show the continued development of Franzen’s writing and thought.
Franzen followed How to Be Alone with another collection of essays, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (2006), which form a memoir. The six essays therein cover Franzen’s life from childhood to adulthood, and delineate his journey of self-discovery. Critics praised the collection for both its wit and its revelations of a complex and conflicted author. In 2007, Franzen published his translation of the 1891 play Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind and provided an extensive introduction. Franzen lives and works in New York City.
Works in Literary Context
In his novels, Franzen attempts to tackle what he perceives as significant social ills in contemporary American culture. In particular, he focuses on the excessive level of control businesses exert over American thought. Corporate America and the ruthlessness of the New Economy—which he paints as working against improving the world in order to achieve potentially disastrous and shortsighted goals—are frequent targets of Franzen’s writings. He also rails against modern American consumerism, ennui, and corruption, and describes how individuals and families in the United States are affected by these situations. In Franzen’s first three novels, events that could be corrected with relative ease if acted upon promptly instead spin out of their participants’ control. As an author, Franzen was greatly influenced by writers such as Don DeLillo and William Gaddis.
Cities Suffering from Corruption
In Franzen’s first two novels, a primary focus is on major American cities, already in a state of disarray, that become further corrupted by mankind. Both The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion also feature people who seek to save their cities. The Twenty-Seventh City, for example, is based on the premise that St. Louis, once the fourth largest city in the United States, later fell to twenty-seventh. Hoping to revitalize St. Louis, city leaders hire Susan Jammu, an American-born cousin of Indian leader Indira Gandhi, to head the police force. Many Indian families move to the city, changing its demographic makeup. Jammu comes to the job with her own plans, and she pushes through a proposal to reinvent the city center. She is not afraid to use underhanded means to reach her goals. In contrast, Strange Motion is set in Boston and focuses on Renee Seitchek, a Harvard seismologist, and Louis Holland, a young employee at a failing radio station. The pair become embroiled in a mystery involving a series of earthquakes that rock Boston and the chemical company responsible for causing them. The company, it is revealed, has been disposing of waste products by injecting them into abandoned wells beneath the city.
Family and Personal Struggles
In both his fiction and nonfiction, Franzen touches on ideas about families—and individuals therein—in conflict within themselves and each other. Franzen admitted that the family of Louis Holland in Strange Motion was partially based on his childhood observations of his parents’ friends. Family conflict takes center stage in his best known work, The Corrections. Alfred and Enid Lambert are a long-married couple reaching their twilight years when Alfred develops Parkinson’s Disease and other medical problems. Enid is forced to take charge of their lives, and decides to invite their three children home for one final Christmas before Alfred dies. Sections of the book focus on the separate lives of the Lambert siblings and their parents in states of personal, professional, and emotional crisis. While Fran-zen admits that The Corrections has autobiographical elements, he offers more personal examples of the struggles of himself and his family in The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History.
Works in Critical Context
While they acknowledge the flaws of his early novels, reviewers have consistently recognized Franzen as a master of the story form. Many critics regard him as the standard-bearer of the ”Great American Novel”—a work employing compelling ideas and intense, precise language to inspire thought and debate about the course of American culture. In this regard, critics favorably compare Franzen to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Franzen is also often commended for his shrewd sense of humor. While critical reaction to Franzen’s novels has been generally positive, some reviewers have expressed dissatisfaction with his style and manner, especially his wordiness. These commentators maintain that he frequently loses control of the central focus of his novels, veering through an unnecessarily labyrinthine passage of complicated plot twists and unrelated elements.
The Twenty-Seventh City
Critics were divided over Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. While Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times Book Review noted that the book’s plot was obscure and complex, he praised the young novelist’s imagination and foresight. He wrote that Franzen’s view of America is ”startlingly exact.” Calling The Twenty-Seventh City ”unsettling and visionary,” Michele Slung declared in the Washington Post Book World that it ”is not a novel that can be quickly dismissed or easily forgotten: it has elements of both ‘Great’ and ‘American.”’ Desmond Christy, writing in the Manchester Guardian commented, ”Novelists are expected to understand their characters; few bring a city to life so vividly as Franzen.”
Better received than his first two novels, The Corrections was praised by reviewers as a complex, movingly honest portrayal of family dynamics. Critics also asserted that he fulfilled much of the early promise he demonstrated with his first two works of fiction. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called the novel ”a remarkably poised performance, the narrative held together by a myriad of meticulously observed details and tiny leitmotifs that create a mosaiclike picture of America in the waning years of the twentieth century.” Entertainment Weekly reviewer Benjamin Svetkey also reviewed the book favorably. Svetkey remarked:
It’s a big, ambitious, unwieldy hybrid of a book, a literary novel and a social document, an intimate family portrait and a sprawling cultural landscape, a floor wax and a dessert topping—but Franzen somehow manages to glue it all together with surprising warmth and wit.
- Dempsey, Peter. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2005.
- Christy, Desmond. Review of The Twenty-Seventh City. Guardian (January 29, 1988): 17.
- Eder, Richard. Review of The Twenty-Seventh City. Los Angeles Times Book Review (September 4, 1988).
- Kakutani, Michiko. ”A Family Portrait as Metaphor for the ’90s.” New York Times (September 4, 2001): E1.
- Slung, Michele. Review of The Twenty-Seventh City. Washington Post Book Review (September 4, 1988).
- Svetkey, Benjamin. ”Domestic Drama: Jonathan Franzen’s Carefully Crafted The Corrections Finds One Family on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Entertainment Weekly (September 14, 2001): 85.
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