Franzen: The author of the moment
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Jonathan Franzen is not Superman or Mighty Mouse or William Shakespeare or William Faulkner. He's not here to save the day -- or even the modern literary novel.
But try telling that to the publishing industry, which has made his new novel, "The Corrections," The Book of the fall.
Even before its publication in early September, "The Corrections" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) was being hailed as the greatest popular literary novel since ... well, since the last great popular literary novel. (Don DeLillo's "Underworld"? David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest"? Something by Irving or Doctorow or Pynchon or Donna Tartt?) His publisher took the time to write an introductory letter of tribute to reviewers. The folks at the National Book Award put it on their shortlist. And the book angel herself, Oprah Winfrey, picked it as her October selection.
Certainly, something has been at work here. A good book, yes; but also a hunger, a determination, a desire to promote and celebrate fiction that wrapped itself around Franzen's baby.
The attention is not lost on Franzen. But he's trying not to get caught up in it.
Given the blockbuster mentality of the publishing industry, he figures there was a demand for an accessible, but multileveled, work of fiction. "And part of me feels like I wrote a good book, and it should get attention," he says in an early-September phone interview from his home in New York. "But I have friends who do very good work, and ... I'm not 100 times better than them. That's a sorrow."
Big ideas, little people
Franzen has seen both sides of the publicity whirlwind. His first novel, "The Twenty-Seventh City" (1988), received positive reviews and decent sales for a debut work. But his second book, "Strong Motion" (1992), did less well commercially, despite also earning praise.
At that point, Franzen put himself at the center of a controversy by writing a fierce, occasionally despairing essay for Harper's Magazine about the demise of the social novel.
Works of modern literature were getting little attention from publishers, he pointed out. The publishers had gotten caught up in pushing saleable genres like memoirs and thrillers. Worse, literary writers weren't writing books that connected with modern readers and their lives. Instead, their books of big ideas were meeting with dulled eyes.
"The Corrections" is Franzen's attempt to address his own concerns. At one level, the book is the story of a Midwestern family, the Lamberts. The father is succumbing to Parkinson's and dementia; the three children are coping with a multiplicity of contemporary issues, from depression to addiction to sexual confusion. And the mother, trying to remain willfully ignorant of her family's problems, is determined to get everybody together for Christmas.
But the book is also about big ideas. The family's careers and personal crises put them in contact with faceless conglomerates, political correctness, cynical media, psychoactive medication, and the post-Communist New World Order.
"The Corrections" didn't come easy. A New York Times Magazine article reported that Franzen worked on the novel for seven years, sometimes sitting blindfolded in a darkened room, and threw away thousands of pages. Franzen acknowledges that the work took time, but shrugs off the effort.
"It's not easy to write a good book, and the large majority of the work I do consists of figuring out how to do it," he says. "It consists of innumerable false starts and days of frustration ... but when you do figure it out, it goes quickly.
"Sure I blindfolded myself on occasion, and I like a cool, dark, quiet room," he adds. "But it's a great privilege to be allowed to try and do a work like that. Even when I was unhappy, I was happy because I was in the service of something." And more than half the book, he observes, was written in a few months in 2000.
'I feel like it is a balance'
"The Corrections" is now done, and Franzen can relax -- almost. There is still the matter of the reviews and the book tour and the "Oprah" appearance.
The reviews have been almost uniformly positive, with one of the few criticisms being that Franzen, in trying to keep so many balls in the air, occasionally drops one during his 568-page juggle. The book, the quibble goes, should actually be longer.
"That's a comment I've had gratifyingly often," says Franzen. But what to make longer? The flights into postmodern absurdity, such as the idea of a former Communist country literally selling itself on the Internet? Or the passages about the Lamberts' domestic life? He pauses. "I feel like it is a balance. ... It'll have to wait for the next book."
"The Corrections" has also been optioned by Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, known for his fondness for literary properties such as Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys" and Michael Cunningham's "The Hours." But Franzen is going to steer clear of Tinseltown.
"There's only misery for a serious novelist who gets seriously involved (in a movie version) with any hope that the movie will 'do justice' to his work," he says. He hopes a movie version of "The Corrections" comes out well -- Rudin's track record is good -- but says he has no interest in writing the screenplay.
Franzen says he plans to talk about other authors on his book tour as well as his own work. In his Harper's essay, he went into a detailed discussion of Paula Fox's then out-of-print "Desperate Characters" (a book now back in print with a Franzen introduction); he's also fond of Don DeLillo and Alice Munro.
After the time spent on "The Corrections," the book tour will be somewhat welcome, he says. But only for a time.
"I've been locked up for a number of years. I care about fiction in general. I like to talk, and I like to give readings," he says. "But, at the end, I'll be ready to go back to a quiet room."
FSB Associates: 'The Corrections'
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