This interview was originally broadcast on September 9, 2010. Freedom is now available in paperback.
Jonathan Franzen's new epic novel Freedom is a portrait of a Midwestern suburban family — two parents and two children slowly losing track of each other and themselves. It has been called a "masterpiece of American fiction" by Time Magazine and "an indelible portrait of our times" by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.
In an interview on Fresh Air, Franzen says one of the central themes of Freedom is how people change as they straddle the world between their childhood and grownup lives.
"The key part of becoming an adult is that adults relinquish a certain kind of freedom," he tells Terry Gross. "You can't lie on your bed all afternoon, and you can't be possibly any number of things. You have to only be one thing or a couple of things."
Franzen also discusses the massive publicity generated by Freedom in the weeks before publication. He says that up to six months ago, he imagined that the book would sell slowly and that people would purchase it via word of mouth or perhaps at small readings he would give around the country. But the recent publicity — and critical backlash from other authors — did something entirely different: It made his publishers "tear their hair out because the books were not in the stores," he says.
In recent weeks, Freedom has generated controversy in the culture-at-large, particularly among several female writers who have criticized the extensive attention showered on his book by critics.
"The little bit that has trickled back to me hasn't sounded particularly ad hominem," he says. "It seems like there's ... a feminist critique, and it's about the quality of attention that writing by women gets compared to the quality of attention by male writers. I actually have a lot of those feelings myself and have over the years."
And, he says, he didn't expect any sort of critical acclaim from his fourth novel, particularly after the success of The Corrections and the changing face of the publishing industry.
"Going into it, there was all the talk of the rise of the e-book and a general sense on the street — two years ago — where 'We really don't have to read novels anymore unless they're by Stieg Larsson.' I didn't know what to expect," he says. "So it's really fun to see that people are still looking for a book about what they're feeling now. ... The Corrections did well [critically] and you sort of tee yourself up on the batting tee to get knocked down [by critics]. And who doesn't enjoy doing that as a critic or as an assigning editor? It's fun. It's good sport. The fact that they haven't felt like doing that is nice and, I think, has driven a lot of the pre-publicity."
Jonathan Franzen won the National Book Award for his third novel, The Corrections, which was also a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He is also the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone.
On how he got the idea for Freedom
"The phrase that popped into my mind was 'becoming one's own parent.' ... I recently passed the age that my father was when I first knew him as a person. Right around the time he was 50, I start having memories of him. So I find myself, without him around and without parents of my own, feeling like him, and also, since my parents died when I was relatively young, the kind of adult presence I had in my life that they provided, I've had to learn to provide myself. ...
"I wanted in this book to write about my parents' marriage and their parental experiences as I observed them ... but I didn't want to set it in the 50s, 60s [and] 70s. I wanted to set it in times contemporaneous with my own. So in that way, too, I turned my parents into people my age; into people I might be or I might know. And that was the real engine. It was something that came from inside."
On whether he feels like an adult
"Strangely, in the last couple of years, yes. I have come to feel like an adult."
[Gross asks what changed?]
"I wrote this book. I think it's occurring to me now. It's probably the biggest thing that changed. There was — the death of my friend David Wallace might have been a part of that, as well.... It wasn't enough to lose my parents. I still was the angry, rebellious teenager who occasionally stepped into the, you know, stern parental role and wrote somewhat forbidding essays about 'let's not be kids anymore. Let's try to write more adult fiction.' But in the main, as I walked down the street, I continued to feel at some level like I was, maybe not 16, but 23 — and that feeling has suddenly disappeared. And I'm noticing it now, because the last month has been kind of crazy with the pre-publicity and publicity for the book. And as I sit here this morning talking to you, I'm noticing I feel more like a single person, [rather than] a person divided between a teenager and an old man. I feel, actually, about 51, and it's shocking."
On how David Foster Wallace's suicide forced him to think about mortality and adulthood
"Death looks different when you see it in a parent or somebody of your parents' age than when you see it in a contemporary or a dear friend that's even a couple of years younger. It was a limited closeness but it was a very intense closeness we had as writer buddies, and it was played out mostly in biweekly telephone calls and I had the sense that I could pick up the phone, call him, and anything I was feeling — however strange — that had to do with the writing life or negotiating some position for one's self in the culture, all I had to do was start a sentence and he would finish the sentence and say, 'Yep.' And I would do the same for him. And to suddenly have that end and know it was never coming back and feel that as an irreparable loss — the world was no longer opening up ahead of me. I was the surviving person suddenly. ... Coinciding with turning 50 and feeling how fortunate I was to still be alive and how fortunate I was to still have the capacity to write, I think that had a lot to do with that sudden turn toward feeling my own age."
On the difficulty of writing a novel
"I don't want to be a performer. I less and less want to be a performer. And I can't seem to be a performer. If I'm just writing about something moderately interesting and using interesting, well-termed sentences, it just has no life. It has to come out of some issue that's still hot in me, something that's distressing me. And there are plenty of things to be distressed about and for a long time, I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress — even aesthetic distress. ... And that kind of anger has become less interesting to me because it seems like a younger man's game a little bit. ...
"You are still armored in your anger. Particularly in the new book, I tried to let go of that. I found myself letting go of that. [I] went to the deeper, more upsetting things, which were much harder to get onto the page but whose presence I could feel ... like some pool of magma beneath the crust. There is heat down there, if only I could find a way to tap into it."
On how the Mel Brooks lyric "Hope for the best / Expect the worst" is applicable to his life
"I don't even know if I was brought up with it. I certainly witnessed it with my father, and suddenly it began to be genetically expressed in me. I think about the time I finished college, which was the early Reagan years, when there was a dark nuclear shadow over everything. I didn't have to be taught. It didn't have to be modeled for me. It really was almost hard-wired."
On writing and depression
"I wanted to write long before I was in need of therapy. But having said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional's office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist — or at least for this one — has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences... [but] feeling that it's absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.
"And I keep trying — I kept trying, through much of the last decade — to access these subjects, these dreamlike relations with important people from my past in direct ways.... So there was a lot of self-psychoanalysis, certainly, that goes into the work. And, along the way, becoming depressed — although it certainly feels lousy — comes to be a key and important symptom. It's a flag. And it's almost as if, when I start to crash, I know I'm getting somewhere because it's being pushed to a crisis."
This review was originally broadcast on September 9, 2010. Freedom is now available in paperback.
Jonathan Franzen is in trouble again. You'll recall that back in 2001, Franzen made the misstep of expressing authorly ambivalence about the fact that his novel, The Corrections, might be mistaken for a "women's only" read since it had been chosen for Oprah's on-air book club. Soon enough, Oprah booted The Corrections off her syllabus and Franzen got the reputation in some circles of being a snoot.
Now all the hullabaloo over Franzen's long-awaited new novel, Freedom, is generating something of a feminist backlash. Why all this adulatory attention, critics ask, for Franzen's latest domestic drama about marriage and family? So many terrific contemporary female novelists cover the same terrain, yet their work receives a fraction of the highbrow fanfare that greets Franzen. It's like how men still get praised for doing housework and taking care of their own kids: Any male involvement in the domestic realm still merits applause.
All true. And, yet, even though Franzen gets more praise for doing what many fine female writers do "backwards and in heels," in the case of the blandly titled Freedom, it's well deserved. I heretically think Freedom is even more powerful than The Corrections, sections of which I found contrived. Freedom is looser and more revelatory and ambitious. It's the novel — by a man — along with novels by women like Allegra Goodman, Lionel Shriver, and the incandescent Sue Miller, that I'd elect to put in a time capsule to give a sense of the texture of middle-class American life to future readers. And, I sincerely hope that last phrase is not an oxymoron.
The husband and wife at the center of scrutiny in Freedom are Walter and Patty Berglund, who meet in college in the '70s. We know that Walter is in for a rough time when we're told at the outset that his "most salient quality, besides his love of Patty, was his niceness." Patty, in the opening paragraphs of the novel, is the reigning stay-at-home mom of her gentrified neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn. — a cooking and crafting queen. But a crack in Patty's chipper progressive Democratic veneer soon surfaces when we learn she's slashed the tires of a noisy Republican lout who lives next door.
Soon, all hell breaks loose as the Berglunds' adored teenage son, Joey, literally defects over the fence to live with the neighbor's vacant and sexually voracious daughter. Even worse, Joey will go on to work for shady civilian contractors supplying defective truck parts to the American forces in Iraq. And, then there's Walter's best friend from college, Richard Katz, an aging bad boy and lead singer of an indie band called The Traumatics. Richard turns up erratically in the Berglunds' life and, simply by his very existence, reminds Patty that, although she married Walter, she was only, at best, "somewhat more than sort of into him."
The unspooling of the Berglunds' marriage as they become more and more their destined selves is chronicled through a variety of perspectives, including a brutal, but often hilarious therapeutic memoir that Patty writes, titled "Mistakes Were Made." One of the great pleasures of reading Franzen's work is savoring how he turns personalities this way and that, so, for instance, from one angle Patty is a victim; from another she's a shrewish and controlling depressive. And, all interpretations are somewhat true. Even Richard, who could so easily have devolved into a rock'n'roll stereotype, is dense and surprising. Because he's a cynic, Richard is also the source of some of the sharpest takes on his friends and the world they live in. Midway through the novel, Richard achieves midlevel fame. Here are his thoughts about a young girl who won't stop bothering him:
She was like a walking advertisement of the late-model parenting she'd received: You have permission to ask for things! ... Your offerings, if you're bold enough to make them, will be welcomed by the world! ... [Richard] wondered if he'd been this tiring himself at eighteen, or whether, as it now seemed to him, his anger at the world — his perception of the world as a hostile adversary worthy of his anger — had made him more interesting than these young paragons of self-esteem.
There's not one throwaway scene in Freedom and, yet, for all that effort, nothing feels overwritten or false. Like The Corrections, Freedom celebrates and extends the possibilities of the good old realist novel — at a time when realism is out of fashion, even in autobiography. Franzen makes us skeptical post-moderns believe again, if only for a space, that literature really can and should hold a mirror up to the world.
Fiction and nonfiction releases from Jonathan Franzen, William Trevor, Nelson Mandela and more.
My friend's obsessive 10-year-old son begins writing his next year's list for Santa as soon as the last Christmas present of the current season has been torn open. Maybe he'll grow up to be a book critic! For, in the dreary light of early January while the natural world slumbers, I, too, open up a fresh computer file and begin the process of putting together my new list — my "Best Books of the Year" list.
Every week throughout the year, I receive roughly 100 new books delivered to my home; an additional 25 or more delivered to my office. I wade through those books (and the publisher's catalogues that precede them) and decide what to review. Some books I start to read and discard; others receive a much-deserved pan; still others I never get to for one reason or another. (Much to my mother-in-law's dismay, I haven't read The Help yet!) The happy news for book lovers is that every year, I read and review more good books than this list can hold. Some are even Great.
And, if you want to know how a book earns its place on my "Best of the Year" list, well, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, you know a book is a winner when it takes the top of your head off.
By Patti Smith; Hardcover, 304 pages; Ecco, List price: $27
Sometimes there is justice in the world. That was my first thought when I heard that Patti Smith had won the National Book Award this fall for her glorious memoir, Just Kids — which has just come out in paperback. Smith wrote the book to honor Robert Mapplethorpe, her youthful partner in love, art, and ambition; but Just Kids is also a celebration of the frayed beauty of New York City in its so-called years of decline — the late 1960s into the 70s.
Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage
By Hazel Rowley; Hardcover, 368 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, List price: $27
Hazel Rowley's revelatory biography of a marriage, Franklin and Eleanor, explores an even more famous couple who defied convention. Rowley charts the evolution of the Roosevelt union from a standard-issue high society alliance to something we don't even have a label for — maybe "semi-open marriage" comes closest.
Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women
By Rebecca Traister; Hardcover, 336 pages; Free Press, List price: $26
Speaking of conformity and rebellion, Rebecca Traister's so-very-smart and lively book about the 2008 presidential campaign, called Big Girls Don't Cry, teases out how our reigning cultural narratives about femininity and "playing nice" came to wield so much power during the campaign and, finally, in the voting booth.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
By Yunte Huang; Hardcover, 354 pages; W.W. Norton & Co., List price: $26.95
For all its daring allure, early 20th century American detective fiction played by the rules when it came to the look of its detective heroes: Same Spade and company were white straight males who were quick to pull the trigger on any characters who were "different." It's still a mystery whether the exception to this standard profile — Charlie Chan — challenged or confirmed reigning cultural narratives about Asian Americans in mid-20th century America. Yunte Huang's fascinating mish-mosh of a book, also called Charlie Chan, explores the honorable detective's legacy in film and investigates the story of the real life Hawaiian police detective on whom Chan was based.
There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America
By Philip Dray; Hardcover, 784 pages; Doubleday, List Price: $35
In the late 19th century, ordinary people — mill girls, railroad and garment workers and miners — embraced the revolutionary idea that by banding together they might better their lives. Philip Dray's spectacular narrative history of the American Labor Movement is called There Is Power In A Union. Dray's chronicle reads like a novel, filled with dramatic acts of barbarism and bravery.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand; Hardcover, 496 pages; Random House, List Price: $27
Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken is a superb follow-up to her 2001 bestseller, Seabiscuit. Unbroken recovers the incredible and, yes, inspirational tale of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who joined the air corps during World War II, Zamperini was shot down; survived, with his pilot, for 47 days on a raft in the Pacific; and, subsequently became a prisoner of war of the Japanese, Zamperini puts to shame all of us these days who use the word "survivor" casually.
Searching for Tamsen Donner
By Gabrielle Burton; Hardcover, 328 pages; Univ of Nebraska Press, List price: $26.95
Gabrielle Burton, a writer now in her 70s, has nurtured a near-lifelong obsession with Tamsen Donner, the wife of the leader of the notorious Donner Party. A few years ago Burton wrote a fabulous feminist on-the-road memoir, called Searching for Tamsen Donner about piling her husband and five daughters in the family station wagon and retracing Tamsen's life. This year, Burton published an evocative recreation of Tamsen's lost journal; the novel, called Impatient With Desire, gets its title from a phrase in one of Tamsen's 17 extant letters.
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen; Hardcover, 576 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, List price: $28
Certainly, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom — the decades-long saga of a long and fraught marriage — deserved all of its applause, despite the literary spitball fight over Franzen's demi-god status. There's not one throw-away scene in Freedom and, yet, for all that effort, nothing feels overwritten or false.
So Much for That
By Lionel Shriver; Hardcover, 448 pages; Harper, List price: $25.99
My personal favorite novel of the year was Lionel Shriver's So Much For That, a black comedy about the emotional and financial cost of health care in America. Shriver's satire tackles the twin questions about cutting-edge medical treatments of life-threatening illnesses: "At what cost?" and "To what end?"
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
By David Mitchell; Hardcover, 496 pages; Random House, List price: $26
I also admired David Mitchell's beautiful novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which traces the life of its title character who starts working in 1799 on a small European outpost in the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan.
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart; Hardcover, 352 pages; Random House, List price: $26
Finally, Gary Shteyngart's novel, Super Sad True Love Story moves at warp speed rat-ta-tat telling a dystopian but comic story about a future where books are derided as objects that "smell like wet socks."
I want to end this list by doffing my hat not to a book, but to an independent bookseller and small press publisher. David Thompson was known throughout the mystery world; he died suddenly this year at 38. David introduced me to the wonders of noir writers like Reed Farrel Coleman, Daniel Woodrell and Martin Limon. His legacy is a reminder to all of us who love books that, as someone once said about the late critic Irving Howe, enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect.
Five of my favorite books published this year are not just great reads — books you put down reluctantly, not a slog among them — but meaty, serious stories that manage to provide a few laughs while raising controversial questions you'll want to discuss with others, whether they've read the book or not. These issues encompass health care and bioethics, the existence of God, race in America, child-rearing, nature versus nurture, our gluttonous society, marriage, love and adultery. In the case of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, probably the most discussed book of 2010, there's the additional question of what makes a book chat-worthy. Herewith, my guide to some of the best literary conversation starters of 2010, guaranteed to give you something to talk about.
By Jonathan Franzen, hardcover, 576 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $28
If you want to be in on the cultural must-read of the year, Freedom is your ticket. Jonathan Franzen's first novel since his wildly acclaimed National Book Award-winner The Corrections (2001) has been hyped, praised, debated, disdained and anointed by Oprah for real this time, although oddly passed over for a National Book Award nomination. Much of the heated discussion has been about whether it's really any good. Readers who don't love Franzen seem to love to hate him, but the answer is, yes, it's really good.
Like The Corrections, Freedom dissects the vicissitudes of an unhappy, white, middle-American family, zeroing in on a destructive ongoing love triangle to illuminate problems in contemporary American culture. Personal moral lapses reverberate and spill over, until domestic, political, environmental and global issues all become intricately, impressively commingled.
For Franzen's characters, freedom means, in part, the liberty to make mistakes. But is there such a thing as too much freedom for one's own good, Franzen asks? How can we heed the engraved message his heroine notices during a college visit, "Use Well Thy Freedom"?
So Much For That
By Lionel Shriver, hardcover, 448 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99
If you want ripped-from-the-headlines relevance in your fiction, Lionel Shriver's outraged and occasionally outrageous ninth novel, So Much For That, nominated for the National Book Award, takes on our hurting health care system with a story that gives life to the issues. Shriver's hero is about to quit his detested job and retire to a less expensive Third World country when his wife, an artist who works in metal, announces she has deadly mesothelioma and needs his health insurance. He hunkers down and dedicates himself to her care, but soon learns how inadequate their insurance is. At the same time, his father needs to be moved into a nursing home, and his best friend, whose teenage daughter suffers horribly from a rare degenerative disease, succumbs to a vanity procedure that goes wildly awry. Shriver's graphic descriptions of various grotesqueries rival for shock-and-guffaw value the memorable castration scene in John Irving's The World According to Garp.
There's plenty to discuss here, beginning with penetrating questions about the value of a human life and government's role in health care. What is the ultimate merit of prohibitively expensive, misery-inducing procedures that barely prolong life? Is there such a thing as a better way to die?
By Emma Donoghue, hardcover, 336 pages, Little, Brown and Co., list price: $24.99
Irish-born Emma Donoghue's gripping novel Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, may feel like it's been ripped from the headlines, but what's news here is what she does with her heart-stopping story of a kidnapped teenager held captive in a hidden, hermetically sealed garden shed for seven years.
Narrated by the girl's 5-year-old son, whom she has resourcefully provided with a happy childhood while protecting him from her rapist, Room gives twisted new meaning to the notion of a sheltered childhood. Young Jack's skewed point of view and extreme disorientation in the world outside what he calls Room lead to a fresh look at our culture of glut and fascinating questions about childhood development.
More than just a prurient horror story, Donoghue's tour de force probes the intensity and many challenges of motherhood, including the difficult but essential need to carve individual space and identities for both mother and child — rooms of their own.
36 Arguments For The Existence Of God
By Rebecca Goldstein, hardcover, 416 pages, Pantheon, list price: $27.95
Rebecca Goldstein and I became friends in the early 1990s, when I interviewed her for an article about contemporary philosophy and we couldn't get off the phone. Happily, I wasn't alone in finding 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction one of the more fun, substantive reads of the year, further grist for the conversational mill. Not just ours, but everyone's. After several darker, less playful books, 36 Arguments recaptures the joyousness (and jokiness) of Goldstein's popular, equally brainy first novel, The Mind-Body Problem.
Her hero, a professor of the psychology of religion, has been dubbed "the atheist with a soul" after the runaway success of his twist on William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, called The Varieties of Religious Illusion. In lieu of religion, Cass Seltzer worships at the altar of various unworthies, including his first wife, an icy French poet; his risibly pompous academic mentor; and his current girlfriend, a cutthroat economist dubbed "the goddess of game theory." Filled with stunningly clear explanations of seemingly abstruse mathematical concepts and brilliant riffs on the clash between faith and reason, 36 Arguments is an academic satire that deftly mixes heft and hilarity. The 50-page appendix, which cogently spells out 36 arguments (and counterarguments) for the existence of God, is worth the price of the book, and will provide ammunition for endless debates.
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot, hardcover, 384 pages, Crown, list price: $26
Back in 1951, a poor African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Before she died, scientists harvested tissue from her cervix. Dubbed HeLa cells, these were the first human cells to thrive in culture, spawning an industry that has changed medical research and is worth billions today. These cells have been instrumental in viral and cancer research, as well as in developing the polio vaccine and drugs to treat leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, herpes and Parkinson's disease.
Yet, as science reporter Rebecca Skloot discovered in her intrepid 10-year pursuit of the woman, her family and the ethical issues behind the famous HeLa cells, Henrietta's children continued to live in poverty, unremunerated for their mother's contribution to medical science and unaware of her strange immortality. Approached by scientists to donate their own cell samples for gene research, they were discomfited to learn that parts of their mother had even gone up in space missions to test what would happen to human cells in zero gravity.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction. It also raises sometimes uncomfortable questions with no clear-cut answers about whether people should be remunerated for their physical, genetic contributions to research and about the role of profit in science.
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org.