Franzen, Jonathan 1959–
Franzen, Jonathan 1959–
PERSONAL: Born August 17, 1959, in Western Springs, IL; son of Earl T. (a civil engineer) and Irene (a homemaker) Franzen; married Valerie Cornell (a writer), c. 1982 (divorced, 1994). Education: Swath-more College, B.A., 1981.
CAREER: Writer, 1981–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright fellow at Free University of Berlin, 1981–82; Massachusetts Artists fellow, 1986; Whiting Writers' Award, 1988, for The Twenty-Seventh City; Guggenheim fellow, 1996; National Book Award, 2001, Pulitzer Prize for fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, all 2002, all for The Corrections. The Corrections was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Los Angeles Book Prize, and IMPAC/Dublin Award.
The Twenty-Seventh City, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.
Strong Motion, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1992.
The Corrections, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.
How to Be Alone: Essays, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to New Yorker.
ADAPTATIONS: The Corrections was optioned for film.
SIDELIGHTS: Jonathan Franzen is a novelist and essayist whose writings reveal "one of the most nuanced minds at work in the dwindling republic of letters," according to Richard Lacayo in Time magazine. Franzen's first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, created an evocative portrait of modern America as seen through the lens of St. Louis, Missouri; his second novel, Strong Motion, again offered social commentary, this time in a story set in Boston, Massachusetts. Several years passed before the author completed and published his third novel, The Corrections, a complex family saga that earned Franzen a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. The Corrections is, according to Donald Antrim in Bomb, "an absolutely thrilling work, brave and funny and beautiful and, above all, generous. There is something monumental about this novel. It is the product of a deep and prolonged struggle. Its intelligence is everywhere apparent. I could go on in search of words to praise this novel, words that might in some way be truly compatible with, might truly address, Jonathan's achievement. Reading The Corrections, I feel myself to be in the presence of a work of art."
Franzen's writing has drawn praise from the start of his career. His debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, was published just a few years after the author graduated from Swathmore College. Ostensibly set in St. Louis, Missouri, the narrative is laced with references to reallife streets and settings of the city, but readers are not "likely to confuse Franzen's fictional replica of America's twenty-seventh largest city with the real St. Louis," reflected John Blades in the Chicago Tribune Books. Rather, he explained, "Franzen has transformed St. Louis into a paranoid reflection of itself, comically and grotesquely distorted, cracked and splintered, a xenophobic fantasyland." St. Louis was, according to the author, once America's fourth largest city; by 1984, the year in which the book is set, its rank has dropped to twenty-seventh. In the book, the population of St. Louis is dominated by Asian Indians. The plot follows the political machinations and psychological warfare of the newly-appointed police chief, S. Jammu. Jammu, a former Bombay police chief who is a cousin of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, resorts to seductions, pet-killings, bombings, and kidnappings to convert opponents to her plan for revitalizing downtown business and residential districts. Her methods, however, suggest to some that she is actually seeking total control of the city.
Richard Eder analyzed Franzen's premise in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "The United States is in a decline—in its economy, its health, its social vigor—and risks being superseded by non-Western societies of greater discipline and purpose." Some reviewers, including Eder, found the book's plot overly complex; yet Eder praised the young novelist's imagination and foresight, and added that Franzen's view of America is "startlingly exact." Calling The Twenty-Seventh City "unsettling and visionary," Michele Slung noted 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, reviewing The Twenty-Seventh City for the Manchester Guardian, wrote: "Novelists are expected to understand their characters; few bring a city to life so vividly as Franzen."
Strong Motion, Franzen's next novel, was another densely-plotted story, one that describes how complacency in the city of Boston is literally shaken loose by a series of devastating earthquakes. The book's central characters are Louis Holland, who works at a failing radio station, and Renee Seitchek, a Harvard seismologist who is investigating a series of mysterious earthquakes. Also central to the plot of Strong Motion are Louis's father, a former hippie turned college professor; his socially ambitious mother; and his older sister Eileen, a would-be hipster who is beginning to embrace middle-class values. Louis's mother inherits a million dollars' worth of stock in a chemical company that coincidentally turns out to be responsible for the quakes. Renee then discovers that the company has been disposing of waste products by injecting them into abandoned wells beneath the city. A subplot of the novel involves women's reproductive rights and Renee's conflict with a Christian antiabortion group.
Franzen told an interviewer for Publishers Weekly that in writing Strong Motion, he "specifically set out to write a second book that was different from The Twenty-Seventh City: "I wanted it to be … a more personal book, I wanted it to be about the kind of people I know, as opposed to the kind of people I knew watching my parents' friends as I grew up in St. Louis." Reviewing Strong Motion for Newsday, Dan Cryer called it "equally ambitious and even better than his first—more emotionally gripping, more grounded in the everyday. With maximalist gusto, it summons up Boston cityscapes and some of the great social torments of our time, notably the controversies over abortion and environmental decay. With tender regard, it charts the uncertain course of romance between two loveshy protagonists. Blending John Updike's eye for social observation, John Irving's penchant for broad Dickensian plotting and Don DeLillo's gift for quirkily beautiful phrasing, Franzen emerges as a hugely talented original."
Franzen's third novel, The Corrections, was more than eight years in the making. It relates the story of a dysfunctional American family, headed by Enid and Alfred Lambert, a long-married couple entering their twilight years. Alfred was once the dominant force of the pair, but now suffers from Parkinson's disease; his affliction forces Enid to take charge of their lives. She decides to invite their three children home for one final Christmas before their father passes away. The eldest son, Gary, is married, with two children and a wife who disparages him. The second son, Chip, has lost his tenure as a college professor after seducing a student, and is trying to escape into an affair with a married woman. Denise, the youngest of the trio, has been fired from her job as a chef after sleeping with her boss's wife. Franzen reveals the lives of his subjects in great detail, shifting back and forth between children, parents, and a host of subsidiary characters. The family does eventually come together for the Christmas reunion, which is related in the final hundred pages of the book. The Lamberts' story illuminates the relationship between generations, as well as providing biting commentary on the state of modern life.
Reviewing The Corrections in New York Review of Books, John Leonard wrote: "Full of understatment and overreaction, irony and anger, anthropology and surrealism, glut and glee—the rising gorge, the falling tear, politics, parody, pratfall, and prophetic snit—The Corrections is the whole package, as if nobody ever told Franzen that the social novel is dead and straight white males vestigial. You will laugh, wince, groan, weep, leave the table and maybe the country, promise never to go home again, and be reminded of why you read serious fiction in the first place: to console and complicate the extreme self with the beauty and truth of sinewy sentences and the manners and mystery of characters from outer space, to see the shadow, and then the teeth, of social context and momentous history." Sven Birkerts, reviewing the book in Esquire, observed that while there are many books exploring the theme of life at the end of the twentieth century, "none moves so perfectly between black comedy and tragic pathos." Franzen stirred up considerable controversy after The Corrections was selected for the Oprah Book Club, hosted by television talk-show personality Oprah Winfrey. The author expressed some misgivings about having Winfrey's trademark logo appear on the cover of his book, which in turn led Winfrey to cease her discussion of the novel, although it did remain on her list of book club selections.
In 2002, Franzen published How To Be Alone: Essays, a collection of previously-published writings. All of the essays 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. "In tones that are sober but never lugubrious, Franzen weighs the pressures upon the self in a culture that manages the neat trick of discouraging real solitude and genuine community, substituting for both the paradox of media-overloaded isolation," mused Lacayo. In "Why Bother?," a revised version of a piece he had published six years earlier, Franzen looks to serious fiction to bridge the gap of cultural alienation, and seeks to define his place as a writer in the modern world; according to Lacayo, this piece is the "keystone" of the collection. Kyle Minor, assessing How To Be Alone in Antioch Review, found that the essays in this book show the continued development of Franzen's writing and his thought. He is, according to Minor, "a master novelist emerging as a man of letters."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, spring, 2003, review of How to Be Alone: Essays, p. 370.
Bomb, fall, 2001, Donald Antrim, interview with Jonathan Franzen, pp. 72-78.
Book, July-August, 2003, Stephen King, review of How To Be Alone, p. 42.
Boston Globe, August 14, 1988; January 17, 1992, Matthew Gilbert, review of Strong Motion.
Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1992, review of Strong Motion.
Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 1992, L.S. Klepp, review of Strong Motion, p. 48; Benjamin Svetkey, "Domestic Drama: Jonathan Franzen's Carefully Crafted The Corrections Finds One Family on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown," p. 85.
Esquire, October, 2001, Sven Birkerts, review of The Corrections.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), December 24, 1988; August 28, 2001, Simon Houpt, interview with Jonathan Franzen, pp. R1, R9; October 27, 2001, Sandra Martin, "Judging Oprah by the Cover," p. R11.
Guardian (Manchester, England), January 29, 1998, Desmond Christy, review of The Twenty-Seventh City, p. 17.
Houston Post, March 1, 1992, Jonathan Yardley, review of Strong Motion.
Journal of European Studies, December, 2003, Catherine Toal, "Corrections: Contemporary American Melancholy," p. 305.
Library Journal, October 1, 2002, review of How To Be Alone, p. 94.
Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1992, Richard Eder, review of Strong Motion; November 1, 2001, David L. Ulin, "A Reluctant Member of the Club," p. E1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 4, 1988.
Mirabella, January, 1992, Will Dana, review of Strong Motion, pp. 50-51.
New Republic, December 2, 2002, James Wolcott, review of How To Be Alone, p. 36.
Newsday, August, 1988, Dan Cryer, review of The Twenty-Seventh City; January 5, 1992, Dan Cryer, review of Strong Motion.
Newsweek, August 29, 1988; September 17, 2001, Malcolm Jones, "The Emperor's New Pravda?," p. 66.
New Yorker, December 19, 1988, Terrence Raffert, review of The Twenty-Seventh City, pp. 101-106.
New York Review of Books, September 20, 2001, John Leonard, review of The Corrections, pp. 33-35.
New York Times, August 17, 1988, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Twenty-Seventh City, p. C21; September 4, 2001, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Corrections, p. E1; October 21, 2001, Monica Corcoran, "On the Dust Jacket, to O or Not to O"; October 29, 2001, David D. Kirkpatrick, "'Oprah' Gaffe by Jonathan Franzen Draws Ire and Sales."
New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1988, Peter Andrews, review of The Twenty-Seventh City, p. 22; September 9, 2001, David Gates, review of The Corrections, p. 10.
People, October 17, 1988, review of The Twenty-Seventh City,; September 9, 2001, Maggie Haberman, review of The Corrections, p. 51.
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 19, 1992, Ephraim Paul, review of Strong Motion, p. L1; January 25, 1992, Carlin Romano, "A Writer Basking in the Raves."
Poets and Writers, September-October, 2001, Joanna Smith Rakoff, interview with Jonathan Franzen, pp. 27-33.
Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1991, review of Strong Motion, p. 79; December 6, 1991, Michael Coffey, "Jonathan Franzen: A Distinct Turn to More Personal Issues Marks His Second Novel," p. 53; September 2, 2002, review of How To Be Alone, p. 65.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 1988.
Sydney Morning Herald, May 10-11, 2003, Malcolm Knox, interview with Jonathan Franzen, pp. 4-5.
Time, November 25, 2002, Richard Lacayo, review of How To Be Alone, p. 93.
Tribune Books, August 21, 1988, John Blades, review of The Twenty-Seventh City, p. 1.
Washington Post Book World, September 4, 1988, Michele Slung, review of The Twenty-Seventh City, p. 1.
Yale Review, April, 2002, T.M. McNally, review of The Corrections, p. 161-170.
American Prospect, http://www.prospect.org/ (April 20, 2005), Keith Gessen, review of The Corrections.
Now Culture, http://www.nowculture.com/ (February 17, 2002), review of The Corrections.
Oprah.com, http://www.oprah.com/ (October 15, 2001), review of The Corrections.
Slate, http://slate.msn.com/ (November 1, 2001), "Jonathan Franzen: A Defense."