Franzen, Jonathan 1959-
Franzen, Jonathan 1959-
Born August 17, 1959, in Western Springs, IL; son of Earl T. (a civil engineer) and Irene (a homemaker) Franzen. Education: Swarthmore College, B.A., 1981.
Home—New York, NY. Agent—Steven Barclay Agency, 12 Western Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952.
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, and one of Salon's favorite books of the year, both 2001, and finalist for Pulitzer Prize in fiction category and for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and winner of James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, all 2002, all for The Corrections.
The Twenty-seventh City (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.
Strong Motion (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1992.
The Corrections (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.
How to Be Alone: Essays, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (memoir), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2006.
Spring Awakening: A Children's Tragedy, Faber and Faber (New York, NY), 2007.
Frequent contributor to New Yorker.
The Corrections has been optioned for film.
Jonathan Franzen is an award-winning writer, whose 2001 novel The Corrections put him in the front rank of American literary authors. In addition to several works of fiction, Franzen has also published How to Be Alone: Essays and a memoir, the 2006 title The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History.
Franzen's widely acclaimed debut novel, The Twenty-seventh City, examines America's present and projects its future. The book is set in 1984 in a fictional version of St. Louis, Missouri, a city the book describes as once America's fourth largest but now its twenty-seventh. The story portrays the city's population as dominated by Asian Indians, and follows the political machinations and psychological warfare of the new 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 to revitalize downtown business and residential districts; her methods, however, suggest to some that she is actually seeking total control of the city. Richard Eder noted 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Times Book Review: "The United States is in a decline—in its economy, its health, its social vigor—and risks being superseded by non-Western societies of greater discipline and purpose." Despite joining other reviewers who found the book's plot too complex, Eder praised the young novelist's imagination and foresight, adding 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 of the London Guardian wrote: "Novelists are expected to understand their characters; few bring a city to life so vividly as Franzen."
Reviewing Franzen's next novel, Strong Motion, for Entertainment Weekly, L.S. Klepp stated: "Having upended St. Louis in his first novel … Jonathan Franzen does his best to rattle the complacency of Boston in his second, employing a series of earthquakes for the job." The book's central characters as described by Klepp are "two disaffected young adults." Twenty-three-year-old Louis Holland works at a failing radio station, while thirty-year-old Renee Seitchek is 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 mother, a social climber, 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 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 anti-abortion group. Franzen told an interviewer for Publishers Weekly: "I specifically set out to write a second book that was different than 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." Klepp found "two discernable novels uneasily cohabiting amid the lofty ambitions and agile prose of Strong Motion," and went on to remark: "One is wry, meticulously realistic, and good. The other is earnest, melodramatic, and puerile." While offering high praise for Franzen's character portrayals and development, Klepp was critical of the novel's "preachiness," saying that the plot—"a sort of children's crusade assisted by well-timed earthquakes—allows the book's tough-mindedness to be drubbed by implausibility and sentimentality." On a similar note, a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded: "After the stunning perfections of Franzen's first novel, this second effort is a paler achievement. Though his descriptive gifts are still in evidence, the plot becomes an all-too-obvious untying of a highly improbable knot."
Franzen's third novel, The Corrections, was more than eight years in the making. The book earned extensive critical praise and a National Book Award, as well as becoming the subject of a controversy. After television's Oprah Winfrey selected the novel for her Oprah Book Club and invited Franzen to appear on her talk show, the author, as related by David D. Kirkpatrick in the New York Times, "publicly disparaged Oprah Winfrey's literary taste—suggesting at one point that appearing on her show was out of keeping with his place in ‘the high-art literary tradition’ and might turn off some readers." Winfrey withdrew her invitation, but let the novel remain as one of her book club selections. Kirkpatrick went on to note that "instead of rallying to Mr. Franzen, most of the literary world took [Winfrey's] side, deriding him as arrogant and ungrateful."
Described by a publicity writer for the Oprah Book Club as a "dense, layered, multigenerational saga" with "complex, marvelously drawn characters," The Corrections tells the story of a dysfunctional American family. Enid and Alfred Lambert are a longtime married couple just entering their twilight years. Alfred, once the dominant force of the pair, is suffering from Parkinson's Disease, forcing Enid to take charge of their lives. Enid decides to invite their three children home for one final Christmas before their father passes away. Oldest son Gary is married, with two children and a wife who disparages him. 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 and parents and a host of subsidiary characters. The family does comes together for the planned Christmas reunion, which is related in the final hundred pages of the book.
Maggie Haberman of People found The Corrections to be "a spellbinding novel … both funny and piercing." Malcolm Jones of Newsweek felt that "inside this immense book there is a slim extraordinarily moving story struggling to get out." Jones conceded that the story comes to life in the final hundred pages, which he described as "an unforgettably sad, indelibly beautiful piece of literature," but criticized the preceding portion as excessive in length and both "snide" and manipulative with respect to its characters. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times also faulted The Corrections as "self-indulgent and long-winded," but nevertheless felt the novel offers "a devastating family portrait and a harrowing portrait of America in the late 1990s." Sven Birkerts of Esquire observed: "There are a million novels on just this theme, but none moves so perfectly between black comedy and tragic pathos."
Franzen turns essayist in his 2002 work, How to Be Alone, a book that Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, felt reveals the author's "qualities of mind that make him a relentlessly questioning thinker, and piercing and candid writer." Here Franzen gathers twelve articles published in magazines from Harper's to the New Yorker, for which he is a regular contributor. His themes range from the state of the novel to a plangent detailing of his father's demise from Alzheimer's. Writing in the New York Times, Janet Maslin thought "the author makes himself a colorful presence throughout these essays, complete with his slew of improbably attractive quirks." John Freeman, reviewing How to Be Alone in the San Francisco Chronicle, observed: "These are essays about the pain of being an American in a time when the means to alleviating pain threaten to dehumanize pain itself, when the means for entertaining ourselves have become so sophisticated it's almost hard to complain." Similarly, Book contributor Eric Wargo termed the book a "wise, entertaining collection," and Kyle Minor, writing in the Antioch Review, felt that, "assembled together, these essays form a picture of a master novelist emerging as a man of letters."
In The Discomfort Zone, Franzen presents a "cycle of magnetizing meditations on family and culture, love and death, art and nature," according to Booklist contributor Seaman. In six long essays, the author pays close attention to segments of his life from his rather nerdy youth growing up in a suburb of St. Louis, and following the faux philosophical ruminations of Charles Schulz's cartoon creation, Peanuts, to the strained relationship of his failed marriage, and to his mother's death. Seaman called this work a "gratifyingly unpredictable and finely crafted collection." Similarly, Terren Ilana Wein, writing in Library Journal, found The Discomfort Zone "energetic and engaged." Similarly, Heller McAlpin, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, felt that this "is a book that could have been written only by someone who has grown more comfortable with himself." However, New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani was less impressed with this memoir, complaining that the reader feels "suffocated and claustrophobic" by a surfeit of personal detail. "Just why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr. Franzen's mind remains something of a mystery," Kakutani further observed. On the other hand, Washington Post Book World reviewer Bob Ivry had a much higher assessment of The Discomfort Zone: "Here, we get the small, unexpectedly fraught moments that accumulate into a life. They're interesting merely because they happened to Franzen, who has the enviable ability to make them so." A Kirkus Reviews critic added further praise, calling the collection "quirky, funny, poignant, self-deprecating and ultimately wise."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Franzen, Jonathan, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2006.
Antioch Review, spring, 2003, Kyle Minor, review of How to Be Alone: Essays.
Book, November-December, 2002, Eric Wargo, review of How to Be Alone, p. 85.
Booklist, September 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of How to Be Alone, p. 47; August 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of The Discomfort Zone, p. 27; January 1, 2007, Mary McCay, review of The Discomfort Zone, p. 126.
Boston Globe, August 14, 1988, review of The Twenty-seventh City.
Christian Century, December 26, 2006, "Wandering Pilgrim," p. 32.
Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 1992, L.S. Klepp, review of Strong Motion, p. 48; September 8, 2006, Gregory Kirschling, review of The Discomfort Zone, p. 163.
Esquire, October, 2001, Sven Birkerts, review of The Corrections.
Financial Times, October 7, 2006, "The Rejections Jonathan Franzen's Memoir Is a Book of Youthful Worries and Lost Loves," p. 37.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), December 24, 1988, review of The Twenty-seventh City.
Guardian (London, England), January 29, 1998, Desmond Christy, review of The Twenty-seventh City, p. 17; October 6, 2006, Zoe Williams, "Bringing It All Home."
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of How to Be Alone, p. 1093; June 15, 2006, review of The Discomfort Zone, p. 614.
Library Journal, October 1, 2002, Nancy R. Ives, review of How to Be Alone, p. 94; July 1, 2006, Terren Ilana Wein, review of The Discomfort Zone, p. 78.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 4, 1988, Richard Eder, review of The Twenty-seventh City.
Newsweek, August 29, 1988, review of The Twenty-seventh City; September 17, 2001, Malcolm Jones, "The Emperor's New Pravda? Hold on Now—Not Everyone Loves the Fall's ‘Hot Book,’" p. 66.
New Yorker, December 19, 1988, review of The Twenty-seventh City; October 6, 2003, Amy Davidson, "Speaking with the Speaker."
New York Times, August 17, 1988, review of The Twenty-seventh City; September 4, 2001, Michiko Kakutani, "A Family Portrait as Metaphor for the '90s," p. E1; October 29, 2001, David D. Kirkpatrick, "‘Oprah’ Gaffe by Jonathan Franzen Draws Ire and Sales"; November 4, 2002, Janet Maslin, "Alone with a Good Book, You Are Never Alone," p. 6; August 29, 2006, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Discomfort Zone.
New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1988, review of The Twenty-seventh City; November 10, 2002, "Vaulting Ambivalence: Essays by Jonathan Franzen," p. 7; November 17, 2002, review of How to Be Alone, p. 58.
People, October 17, 1988, review of The Twenty-seventh City; September 9, 2001, Maggie Haberman, review of The Corrections, p. 51.
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; May 29, 2006, review of The Discomfort Zone, p. 44.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 1988, review of The Twenty-seventh City; October 13, 2002, John Freeman, review of How to Be Alone; September 3, 2006, Heller McAlpin, review of The Discomfort Zone.
School Library Journal, February 1, 2007, Will Marston, review of The Discomfort Zone, p. 150.
Seattle Times, September 13, 2006, review of The Discomfort Zone.
Time, August 28, 2006, "How Jonathan Franzen Learned to Stop Worrying," p. 62.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 21, 1988, review of The Twenty-seventh City.
Variety, January 31, 2005, "Zemeckis May Make ‘Corrections,’" p. 2.
Washington Post Book World, September 4, 1988, Michele Slung, review of The Twenty-seventh City; October 1, 2006, Bob Ivry, review of The Discomfort Zone, p. 11.
Writer, February, 2002, "Jonathan Franzen," p. 66.
Bomb Magazine,http://www.bombsite.com/ (June 7, 2007), Donald Antrim, interview with Jonathan Franzen.
Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (June 7, 2007), Sarah Brennan, review of The Corrections, Eileen Zimmerman-Nicol, review of How to Be Alone, and Alexis Burling, review of The Discomfort Zone.
Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com/ (June 7, 2007), "Jonathan Franzen."
Jonathan Franzen Home Page,http://www.jonathanfranzen.com (June 7, 2007).
NNDB,http://www.nndb.com/ (June 7, 2007), "Jonathan Franzen."
Oprah's Book Club,http://www.oprah.com/ (October 15, 2001),"The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen."
Powells.com,http://www.powells.com/ (October 14, 2001), Dave Weich, "Jonathan Franzen Uncorrected."
Steven Barclay Agency Web site,http://www.barclayagency.com/ (June 7, 2007), "Jonathan Franzen."