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In the introduction to his 2002 essay collection, How To Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen writes about how his novel The Corrections was published only a week prior to 9/11, yet soon after, he was giving interviews about an old-fashioned book about a regular Midwestern family, during a time in which a big novel couldn’t have seemed more frivolous. Less than a decade later, The Corrections sat atop many, if not most, best-of-the-decade lists.
In 2010, in response to the much more subtle, drawn-out catastrophes of lingering wars in the Middle East, environmental devastation, and technology’s determined march to eradicate all forms of print media, Franzen has written another old-fashioned book about a regular Midwestern family during a time in which a big novel couldn’t seem more frivolous. But this time, that appears to be the purpose of his fourth novel, Freedom—reclaiming the importance of literature in the face of the forces eager to lay waste to it. In the story of Walter and Patty Berglund, their children Jessica and Joey, and the hovering, interfering coolness of musician Richard Katz, Franzen has written a grand kaleidoscopic chronicle of people trying hard to be good before it’s too late.
In a recent visit with The A.V. Club, Franzen sat down to give ample consideration to topics as light as Laura Bush and Glenn Beck, as tangential as old laptops and creaky chairs, as alliterative as Bright Eyes and Balzac, as weighty as depression and David Foster Wallace, and always and most importantly, books.
The A.V. Club: Salon posted a story the other day titled “Why Do Novelists Hate Being Interviewed?” You’re a novelist. Do you hate being interviewed?
Jonathan Franzen: It’s not my favorite thing to do, I would frankly say. Strangely, I haven’t had that many opportunities to do it, but I like TV interviews.
AVC: You like to see yourself on television?
JF: No, I hate seeing myself! I look dreadful, and my eyes are all shifty. I think I make a terrible impression. And yet, worrying about the impression I’m making keeps the adrenalin levels up, and I’m forced to speak in these relatively concise sentences, try to stick to total stories, keep away from abstractions, and the whole thing is usually over pretty quickly. So there’s a lot to like about TV.
AVC: Do novelists even get invited to be on TV anymore?
JF: No, it doesn’t happen very often. I’d be surprised if non-fiction writers hate to be interviewed. We all hate them, because there’s really nothing to say except “Read the book.” Right? At least with non-fiction, you can kind of convey some information, and people can decide for themselves whether they want more of that kind of information. But with a novel, what am I going to do?
AVC: What started you on the path toward writing Freedom? Did it begin with a character, a notion, a scene?
JF: Literally, the starting point was close to the beginning, but not at the beginning. For a long time, I did have the voice of the third-person narrator, the mom in the book, Patty. She wasn’t called Patty, and she went through various transmutations over the years. It took me a long time to get the thing off the ground. That voice was in my head for a long time, before I had anything else. That would be the kernel.
Where does this stuff come from? It comes from sensory deprivation. It comes from turning down all the volume knobs to the one setting—or somewhere between zero and one—on everything, so I can actually hear myself think and I can actually poke around inside myself. We’re all so used to cultural noise being played at full volume. It can come as a surprise, even to myself, how much you can know about what’s going on by listening to almost nothing. It’s important, because if you have it up at full volume, you can’t hear yourself think, and all you want to do is chase after the stuff that’s going on. You’re pulled this way and that way—“Oh my God! Glenn Beck!” You tear your hair, and then it’s “Oh my God! Bristol Palin!” [Laughs.] It’s one reason I’m still on AOL, actually. I am a longtime AOL subscriber. That is still my e-mail address. And AOL’s little box—the welcome screen, they call it, I guess—is so infuriating in its dopiness: “Surprising Leader In The Masters! Find Out Who!” “Ten Things To Think About When Choosing A Hotel!” “What Smart Travelers Know About X!” It’s all in compact form, and it kind of tells me everything I need to know about the larger stupidity. It helps keep me in touch. [Laughs.]
AVC: A lot of writers—if they don’t use typewriters or write longhand—claim to only use computers without an Internet connection, because the distraction is too readily available, and no work gets done.
JF: Absolutely. I have one of those nine-pound Dell laptops you can get for $389 because nobody ended up buying that model, for obvious reasons. I took the wireless card out immediately, and I plugged up the Ethernet hole with superglue. The biggest struggle was getting Hearts and Solitaire off of it. I did work on a DOS machine until about five years ago. It ran WordPerfect 5.0, which is still the best software ever written for a writer, I think. But now, obviously, I work on a Windows machine, and Windows just will not let you de-install a Solitaire program. It puts it back whenever you try to remove it.
AVC: You wrote a short piece a while ago about your office chair that you found on a street in the early ’80s. [“A Squeaky Office Chair,” from How I Write.] Do you still have it?
JF: I absolutely still have that one! I just put some fresh tape on it too. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s difficult to pin down what Freedom isn’t about. It’s about overpopulation, global warming, family, marriage, children, technology, pop music, coal-mining, birds, depression, and sex. Most of all, it seems like it’s about being a good person, or trying to be. It’s about freedom, but it suggests that with too many options, you can get into trouble: Do you just be a good father and husband, or do you try to save the planet, or both, or does any of it even matter? In that way, it’s also about selfishness and selflessness. At one point, Walter simply ponders the question “How to live?” You write, “He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live.” And then there’s just this notion of whether freedom exists at all when we’re all so tied up in family and obligation. Even the United States of America, the freest country in the world, has that word “united,” and we’re all tangled up in it. This monologue has gone on far too long. Sorry.
JF: No, no! My response is to neither confirm nor deny. [Laughs.] It sounds like you’ve isolated some good strands of the book to be thinking about. I will go beyond not denying, and I would confirm that the problem of how to live given what we know about the bad things going on in the world was weighing on me a lot as the book was being composed. And all of the ironies swirling around the word “freedom,” which was turned into a propaganda slogan for the Republican Party in the years when the book was being composed. I would again confirm that I was thinking about those things. [Long pause.]
I kind of made a personal vow going into the publication of this book that I would not talk about the concept of freedom. It’s all over the book, and I don’t want to do the work of interpretation for the reader. Partly because I’m not sure my interpretation necessarily has any special validity, beyond the fact that I know the book very well. I don’t actually think the author should be the last word on what the book means, or what some aspect of the book means. I’m not omniscient. But certainly, we live in a commercial culture that celebrates freedom of choice, that fetishizes freedom of the markets, and these are all… [Pauses, sighs.] These are developments that are not without their emotional and psychic consequences for the individuals in the society living in that system. That was all in my mind as I was working on the book.
AVC: You mentioned Glenn Beck earlier. And there’s a line in your book, “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.” The relationship between freedom and anger—
JF: The one other thing I would say on the subject would be to quote Sheryl Crow: “If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?” It seems to me that there are all these fairly well-off people who are enjoying all of their freedom and are telling other countries that have less of that brand of freedom what’s wrong with them. They don’t seem very happy. They seem pretty pissed-off. What’s that about? I have some notions. And that was in the mix of this book too.
AVC: When Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Solar, was met with some indifference in America, he suggested that we might have become bored with global warming. In Freedom, a book in part about the environment, a character picks up a copy of McEwan’s novel Atonement and “struggled to interest himself in its descriptions of rooms and plantings…” Are McEwan’s comments and your swipe at Atonement purely coincidence?
JF: I hadn’t read that particular quotation of Ian McEwan’s. But he did say that there were no more major novelists in the United States, except for Philip Roth, now that [John] Updike had died and [Norman] Mailer had died. That certainly did not go down well with those of us who are still producing the work. But no, that was actually purely objective. I believe the character in question has trouble interesting himself in its descriptions of plantings and architecture. [Laughs.] And I’ve known people who have had that very problem with that book.
AVC: Freedom makes several pop-cultural references. Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, The White Stripes, and Wilco get passing mentions. Walter and Richard even go to a Bright Eyes show. It doesn’t seem that you’re concerned with the notion of timelessness, or a novel having to transcend the possibly more fleeting culture that surrounds it.
JF: I’m not too concerned what happens to my books after I’m dead. And I am very concerned by what’s going on with the culture of reading and writing now. So I would not wrap myself in a toga and speak of timelessness regarding my work. It’s my experience that reading Dostoevsky, say, or reading Balzac—the books are full of these contemporary references, and there are feuds going on, and names are dropped, and you know that they’re significant. If you have a good edition, it’ll have six pages of notes at the back explaining what the reference is, because some good scholar has actually looked all of the stuff up. But I don’t really feel like it detracts from my reading of that, and in a perverse way, it actually makes it feel… [Pauses.]
I want to say something can’t become timeless unless it had first inhabited its own time. Undoubtedly, we only get 70 percent of Shakespeare, because the other 30 percent is references that are just completely lost. There are all of these in-jokes, these insider references and contemporary references. We’re so removed from that culture, we don’t even know they’re there. But he was having so much fun writing those plays, and part of the fun was putting all this other stuff in—all of the wordplay, taking a jab at this actor and that theater. He was having so much fun that it just became inseparable from the general fun of those plays, and reading them, and going to performances of them. And he maybe needs those little references to make it fun for him. Not to compare myself to Shakespeare. [Laughs.] But any writer nowadays, I think… I don’t think the book is about those references. It’s not a collection of in-jokes. It’s not some snarky contemporary satire. It’s no dis-fest. It’s about other things, and those things are there for the enjoyment of people who might get them. My books get translated into other languages. I don’t know about the Estonians, but I can be pretty sure that the people reading it in Mandarin Chinese are not going to get most of this stuff, but they’ll have this sense it was written in a real time, in a real place, by somebody having fun.
AVC: At one point in the novel, Walter becomes a kind of Internet sensation when a speech of his goes viral online. He eventually starts a blog and expresses some concern about “the loony rage of his readership.” There will be a comments section down below this interview, and it’ll certainly include some “loony rage”—
JF: Great! [Laughs.]
AVC: How much do you think about the concept of readership? It’s changed so much, even since your last novel. It appears to be more about interactivity and instantaneous response, and about everyone having an equal voice. Do you think that can be good for literature? Is it changing how people read so much that it’s antiquating the experience of being alone with a novel? Or for your purposes, is it just irrelevant?
JF: Well, let me think where to begin. It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. I think novelists nowadays have a responsibility—whether or not my contemporaries are actually living up to it—to make books really, really compelling. To make you want to turn off your phone and walk away from your Internet connection and go spend some time in another place. That’s why it takes me so long to write these books. I’m trying to fashion something that will actually pull you away, so I’m certainly conscious of the tension between the solitary world of reading and writing, and the noisy crowded world of electronic communications.
I continue to believe it’s a phony palliative, most of the noise. You have the sense of “Oh yeah, I’m writing in my angry response to your post, and now I’m flaming back the person who flamed me back for my angry response.” All of that stuff, you have the sense, “Yeah, I’m really engaged in something. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.” And yet, I don’t think—maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts. I think there’s a kind of—I don’t want to say shallow, because then I start sounding like an elitist. It’s kind of like a person who keeps smoking more and more cigarettes. You keep giving yourself more and more jolts of stimulus, because deep inside, you’re incredibly lonely and isolated. The engine of technological consumerism is very good at exploiting the short-term need for that little jolt, and is very, very bad at addressing the real solitude and isolation, which I think is increasing. That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else.
AVC: Has technology changed that? Hasn’t that always been the essential mission of the novelist?
JF: I think it was always implicit, and in the best fiction, it was always there. I think when people were responding to Crime And Punishment, when they were responding to Jane Eyre, they really felt un-alone. But there were so many other kinds of writing, and so many other kinds of reading going on, and the novel served so many other functions back then, that the really elemental function of literature was not as obvious. And you didn’t have to attend to it so much. I should also mention poetry. Poetry, which was widely read and memorized, especially in earlier centuries, served that same function. So it’s really only with the advent of the various screens, beginning with television—I don’t think movies were really in so much conflict with the novel—but basically, video technology, then computer technology, then super-high-speed communications technology… Certain kinds of things that the novel used to do, which was, “Oh, I’m living out here in West Nowhere, Nebraska and I’m curious how the upper class in New York City lives, I guess I’ll read a novel about it.” We don’t have to do that now. You just turn on the TV. Turn on Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous. You can get that information anywhere. Novels don’t have to do that anymore. And increasingly, I think the mission for the writer is to tell stories in a compelling way about the stuff that cannot be talked about, that cannot be gotten at with these shallow media.
AVC: What do you think of e-readers? How do you think they will affect literature in the long term?
JF: I don’t personally like the e-readers they’ve come up with so far. I don’t fetishize books, but I do like that they’re solid and unchanging. Most of the experience of reading The Great Gatsby is just the story itself, and you can get that in any form, including an audio version or something. But there’s something about having that book, that physical object, that I turn each page of and have on the shelf, that matters to me. And probably more important, those pages were white, and then they had Fitzgerald put on them. The problem I had with the Kindle when I tried it was, you know, first I had Ann Coulter, then I had Flannery O’Connor. [Laughs.] It’s the same little sheet. It makes everything seem unsubstantial. In my own twisted mind, it makes the words seem more arbitrary, less intrinsically valuable, less substantive if it can just be any words. We could just wipe the slate clean and get Laura Bush’s memoir, and then we could wipe it clean again and get Samuel Beckett. It’s part of that postmodern leveling, and I think people who really care about books feel in their hearts that there is actually a difference between Laura Bush’s memoir and Samuel Beckett. It’s not an elitist argument, it’s that somebody was trying to say something here, and in the other instance, a product has been put out there. So to that extent, I’m resistant to it, but that said, I’m happy with whatever form someone wants to read a book of mine.
AVC: Both The Corrections and Freedom have been called “family chronicles.” You have an interest in that kind of literature, having recently written a New York Times essay admiring Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children as one of the greatest family novels not enough people have read. What about writing and reading about families has so occupied and intrigued you?
JF: [Long pause.] Family’s the one thing you can’t change, right? You can cover yourself with tattoos. You can get a grapefruit-sized ring going through your earlobe. You can change your name. You can move to a different continent. But you cannot change who your parents were, and who your siblings are, and who your children are. So even in an intensely mediated world, in a world that offers at least the illusion of radical self-invention and radical freedom of choice, I as a novelist am drawn to the things you can’t get away from. Because much of the promise of radical self-invention, of defining yourself through this marvelous freedom of choice, it’s just a lie. It’s a lie that we all buy into, because it helps the economy run. Family is one of the clubs I reach for to beat up on that particular lie. I am very close to my brothers, and although I had nothing but problems with my parents in a certain respect, they were fantastic parents. And much of what I learned about the way human beings relate to each other goes back to those almost mythical scenes of my childhood. It’s hard to get away from. Maybe I’ll do it. Maybe the next novel, I’ll succeed in just having some radically detached individuals reacting in some interesting foreign place. But so far, I haven’t been able to do it.
AVC: In Freedom, describing the feeling of being depressed, Patty writes in her autobiographical section, “The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it’s never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals.” In the eulogy you wrote for your friend David Foster Wallace, that notion of existing “minute-by-minute” comes up again. Was any of this book informed by observing his struggle with depression? Was any of it finished in time for him to read?
JF: [Pauses.] I actually didn’t need Dave to have some experience with the ins and outs of non-major hospitalized depression, but nonetheless, I know a thing or two about it. I did not need to consult with Dave about it. Dave—it’s a funny thing. The book was just getting going. I finally wrote the first pages for the book the days he was making his real first serious suicide attempt in the summer of 2008. He was not in the position to be reading anything that summer. But the book got written, to some extent, in emotional response to his death, certainly. But the depression stuff? There’s some of that in The Corrections, too. This is the first serious thing of mine Dave hasn’t read. And it feels really weird not to be able to call him up on the phone.