ebyDogwood Fine Arts Festival folks, such as Visiting Author Chairman Rich Frantz, were understandably giddy when Dowagiac’s Saturday, May 14, writer popped up on Time magazine’s Aug. 23 cover.

Archived Story

John Eby: Time for a fascinating throwback, Jonathan Franzen

Published 6:53pm Sunday, August 22, 2010

Yes, Jonathan Franzen won the 2001 National Book Award for his third book, “The Corrections,” which I actually saw a woman reading at the beach, but this sort of exposure happens with the frequency of comets.

In fact, Franzen is the first living writer to appear on the cover since Stephen King in 2000 — last I knew, the only other man in America still surviving without a cell phone.
The honor puts Franzen in the accomplished company of previous Dowagiac visitors John Updike (twice) and Norman Mailer, but apparently never the man who started the burgeoning local literary scene, Kurt Vonnegut.

“Great American Novelist,” trumpets the cover.

The article, by Lev Grossman, profiles Franzen on the occasion of his fourth novel, “Freedom,” the story of an American family that is being published this month and won’t be hurt at all that it has been given to President Obama to take on vacation.

Yes, he’s been writing his fourth novel for nine years — the same amount of time Jeffrey Eugenides lavished upon his brilliant follow-up to “The Virgin Suicides,” “Middlesex,” in which he nailed everything about Grosse Pointe — even  fishflies I’d forgotten.

That epic tale of an hermaphrodite named Calliope and history spanning the destruction of Smyrna in 1922 to Detroit’s 1967 race riots was expounded upon Oct. 27, 2005, though the Chicagoan was understandably distracted by his White Sox playing in the World Series.

Franzen rushed out “The Corrections” in a mere seven years, which means we can project release of his fifth book in 11 years.

So I’m looking forward to Franzen, who turned 51 Aug. 17.

He’s 6-foot-2, boyish-looking, with permanently-tousled hair, though it’s “heavily salted” and “there are crow’s feet behind his thick-framed nerd glasses,” according to Grossman, who compares 41 legally threatened sea otters playing in an estuary near the birdwatcher’s Santa Cruz, Calif., home “literally in the shadow of the massive 500-foot stacks of a power plant” to the member of “another perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist.”

As critically-acclaimed as Franzen is, I could hear the Dogwood exhaling because the question, “Who?” immediately became much easier to answer in southwest Michigan, even if at the end of August you’re releasing the follow-up to the “literary phenomenon of the decade” that sold 2.85 million copies.

Maybe people remember him as the audacious author who mixed it up with Oprah in 2001, although some remarks were misrepresented for a better story.

Time makes much about “Freedom” being some sort of throwback to the 19th century, populated with characters who “don’t solve mysteries” or “have magical powers.”

A guy known for writing about families, he has no children.

What makes him “almost a Victorian,” I learn, is that while 21st century wordsmiths zoom in on microcosms. Franzen’s “Freedom” isn’t “about a subculture; it’s about the culture. It’s not a microcosm; it’s a cosm.”

“The Wide Shot,” the headline encapsulates four pages of prose that follow.

No wonder he and depressed David Foster Wallace, who took his life, were fast friends.
A former smoker, Franzen adopted Wallace’s chewing tobacco habit.

“Franzen’s self-consciousness is part of what makes his writing so good,” Grossman concludes. “Franzen is worried enough for all of us.”

And he is one of us, a Midwesterner born outside of Chicago who grew up in a St. Louis suburb.

Any allegations of elitism are “the opposite of true. He’s one of contemporary fiction’s great populists.”

He and his girlfriend, also a writer, divide their time between Santa Cruz summers, where his bird-watching in British parlance is “twitching,” and Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Where he could draw on family experience for the Lamberts, “Freedom’s” characters had to be developed “from scratch. They had to be dreamed into existence. And that was just miserable work.”

By 2008, after seven years finding a voice (Philip Roth writes in first person, but he couldn’t), it belongs to “this discontented suburban mom who had a certain kind of laugh, and a certain kind of sarcasm, and a certain kind of rage.”

That June he wrote six pages about her he didn’t toss. She felt right. So right he batted out the first draft in little more than a year, finishing Dec. 17, 2009, his tale of Walter and Patty Berglund and children Jessica and Joey of St. Paul and their “superficially happy household,” though she’s haunted by a high school date rape and by her lack of a professional career and he becomes embroiled in a quixotic campaign to save a songbird called the cerulean warbler.

Franzen “sketches all this with an almost casual vividness,” Grossman writes, “tender but ruthless” toward his characters. “His writing has an unshowy, almost egoless perfection. It does not call attention to itself or to the guy who wrote it. It calls attention to the thing it’s calling attention to.”

His work style I find particularly fascinating. Not only the discipline to write six or seven days a week starting at 7 a.m., but making himself hoarse because “he performs his dialogue out loud as he writes it,” which “may account for its strikingly naturalistic quality,” like how teens really talk.

He’s the workaholic Jay Leno of literature, taking no vacations.

I’ve covered every visiting author but Margaret Atwood when I happened to be in Minnesota in May 2004, and that’s a new one.

Also, he stripped his rented office of all distractions. He writes on a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop.

Believing serious fiction can’t be written on a computer connected to the Internet, he not only removed the wireless card, he permanently blocked its Ethernet port.

“What you have to do,” he tells Time, is plug in a cable with superglue, “then you saw off the little head.”

While “Freedom” is not the kind of Great American Novel Mailer and Updike wrote because “the American scene is too complex — and too aware of its own complexity, for anything to loom that large over it ever again. But ‘Freedom’ feels big in a different way … It doesn’t back down from the complexity.”

The title itself is the author addressing a word bandied about in song lyrics.

“It seemed to me,” he explained, “that if we were elevating freedom to the defining principle of what we’re about as a culture and a nation, we ought to take a careful look at what freedom in practice brings.”

Energy companies ravaging the environment.

Miserable married people who could be freed by the divorce they avoid.

And the ultimate freedom of all, no moral beliefs.

Grossman says the book possesses an “addictive quality” usually associated with mysteries or thrillers, which “isn’t by accident. Franzen is very conscious that people are freer than ever … to spend their time and attention being entertained by things that aren’t books.”

Reading takes quiet contemplation, which fly in the face of the tweetering twits of technology and their devices which enable those devoid of attention spans.
May can’t get here soon enough.

John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at john.eby@leaderpub.com.

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