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Jonathan Franzen Uncorrected

Jonathan FranzenYou will read The Corrections eventually. Perhaps soon and by your own volition, perhaps only after you tire of friends talking endlessly about its characters. Truly stubborn readers who categorically resist popular titles will give in when finally the movie adaptation lands in theaters. "I want to read the book before I see the movie," they will explain.

The Atlantic compared it favorably to Cheever's classic Wapshot Chronicle. Michael Cunningham says it measures up to Don Delillo's White Noise. Others have cited Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace. Highbrow literary company indeed - but ditch the pretensions: Jonathan Franzen's new novel is a readable feast, as its coronation in Oprah's Book Club attests. Barely a month after its publication, The Corrections is a literary sensation, a funny, heartbreaking, breathtaking book about family.

Franzen settled into our living room above the Tenth Avenue streetcar line shortly before his reading to talk about his third novel, what it is and how it came to be.

Dave: You said in another interview that you like to write books that are fun to read. The Corrections deals with serious issues in a lot of interesting ways, but it's often very funny and pretty much all the way through it's hard to put down.

Jonathan Franzen: I'm glad you found it that way.

Dave: Was there any more effort to achieve that kind of pacing than in your previous novels?

Franzen: Did you not find the other books to be page turners?

Dave: I could hardly force myself through them!

Okay, let me start again. There are a lot of reasons why this book has received so much acclaim so quickly, and its readability is certainly one of them.

Franzen: Yet in some ways, I think it's less immediately readable than the other two. The Twenty-Seventh City was an almost straightforward thriller, with action from sentence one. I'm not sure the readability has changed, nor my commitment to it.

It's just a matter of writing the kind of book I enjoy reading. Something better be happening at the beginning, and then on every page after, or I get irritated.

I don't know what to say. Help me.

Dave: Okay, the first book was very much a thriller. A lot of the commentary about this book notes its near lack of plot, which is not something I noticed as I was reading. I was too caught up in the story to realize that there wasn't a whole lot actually happening. Ordinarily, plot supplies much of a novel's forward momentum. Books without plot don't tend to move very fast.

Franzen: Right. I wrote two plotted books, got some of the fundamentals of storytelling down, then...it's sort of like taking the training wheels off, trying to write a book that's fun in the same way without relying on quite such mechanical or external beats.

This book is not plot-driven, but I think it's full of story, and that's a distinction that's come to matter more to me as I failed to write a third plotted book and decided to try to tell stories instead.

Dave: It's really the characters that supply the momentum. In the first extended chapter I found myself thinking, I really hope he lets the other members of the family narrate, too. Not because I wasn't enjoying the Chip sections - in fact, I reconstructed various Chip scenes for friends - but I couldn't ignore the sense that the book was going to get bigger and bigger.

There's a gathering momentum, and it's wholly based in characters, arising from the sense that you're going to learn more about this family. As a reader, I desperately wanted to learn more almost from the beginning.

Franzen: It's as if you bring a person out on stage whose arms are full of personal belongings, then you begin to pile more on. That's Chip, basically: he's got two armloads. You're not telling a story by saying, "Here, hold this frying pan, too, and here's a suitcase, and can you also balance this on your head," but it's compelling in a different way.

You're describing as a success that at which I'd hoped to succeed, so that's very gratifying.

I know technically, with a few exceptions, how I did it. I don't know how the cruise chapter works. That one would not work so well up front. I think you have to read the two preceding sections to suspend any expectation of story development for fifty pages, as you do. But the first two sections, and the fourth and the fifth, are constructed on the model of the short novel: a single situation and the screws tightened maximally on the characters in question.

There's a certain mechanicality even to the way I conceived those stories; even without the plot contrivance, they still didn't start to move until I had a good dramatic situation figured out.

The real pleasure in writing this, for me, was discovering how little you need. I kept trying to write scenes I knew I wanted - my tendency is to get incredibly elaborate and to give you thirty pages of back-story, and tie things together in eighteen different ways, go off on tangents - but I found that that stuff was getting in the way of what I really wanted.

Over and over again, the thing started to explode in these plot directions, and it was a matter of taking that away, leaving the one paragraph of distress that interested me. Eventually I got to the point where I didn't have to go through that ramifying process.

There were models, too. A Personal Matter, the Kenzaburo OĆ« novel. It's one big situation: your wife has just given birth to a monster, and you're a Japanese male. Up until today you've been thinking, Maybe we can leave all this behind in Japan and go to Africa. Now people won't even show you the baby. They'll merely describe it - and they'll do so in almost comically horrible terms. That's it, the whole story: let's just watch what happens to him in the space of a week. I found that an incredibly compelling book even though there is no real development.

The oft-cited Desperate Characters, same thing. A woman is bitten by a possibly-rabid cat. Let's watch what happens.

It's very liberating for me to realize that I don't have to step up to the plate with a plot that involves the U.N. Security Council.

Dave: You worked on this book for a long time, but you wrote the majority of it within one calendar year, so really it was a matter of putting all the parts in place.

Franzen: Right, getting the tone and structure. That was the case with the other books, too.

I used to think it was hard to write, and I still find the process more or less unpleasant, but if I know what I'm doing it rattles along, then the rewrite whips it into shape rather quickly. But getting the tone, that was a hard thing, getting the topic sentence for each of the five chapters.

Dave: And the tone swings wildly depending on the situation. One of the memorable scenes for me early on, Chip with the salmon in his pants - it's hilariously funny, completely absurd, slapstick basically. Then other scenes absolutely broke my heart. Maybe the most compelling scene in the book is the sex scene with Alfred and Enid. It was devastating in so many ways. It was funny and horrible and sad. The reality of it just killed me, but it depended entirely on those two characters, not on any kind of surprising event.

I don't know where I'm going with this. Let me get back to where I started. You're plotting this out, finding the right tone for each section...if the book gets farcical at all, Chip is the one who's bringing it there.

Franzen: Right, but also Gary has the run-in with the hedge clippers, although things are so dark by that point in the chapter that perhaps it doesn't read quite as farcical.

Dave: I think I was reading the Gary chapter when I told someone, "I'm so glad I'm not any of these people." And at the same time, it's not as if I don't recognize myself in some of the mistakes they're making.

If the book lacks a traditional plot, what it offers in its place is a performance of How did they get here? How did Gary wind up in a situation where his wife is completely dominating the relationship?

Franzen: He didn't want a marriage like his parents', that's how.

Dave: And he didn't get one.

Franzen: Well, he very consciously set out not to have one. I don't want to bully my wife the way Dad bullied Mom. But I think that's there on the page. I'm not supplying some hidden answer to the enigma of Gary. And Chip gets to where he is because he thought you could have a life of the mind and feel like a man, but he's having a little trouble with that, given the Dad he had. Trying to make something work that simply isn't going to will get you to a lot of very bad places.

Dave: A few weeks ago The New Yorker published an essay you wrote about your father's battle with Alzheimer's. The essay you wrote a few years ago for Harper's about the question of purposefulness in novel writing gets referenced in almost everything I read about you. Fiction versus nonfiction, is there a push and pull there? Do you find yourself more committed to one than the other, or do you enjoy doing both?

Franzen: I really enjoy doing both, but I didn't write nonfiction until 1994.

One of the eight things that was making it hard for me to get a third book written was my intense polemical response to current events. I get incensed by stupidity, and I get incensed by the simplification of complicated situations. I'd put some of that polemical energy into the first books and found that I'd stored up so much more by the time I finally got around to writing the third that all I wanted to do was polemic, basically. That makes a very dull novel. We've read a few and aren't rushing to read too many more.

When I discovered that it was possible to do an essay or go do some journalism, and that I was actually okay at it - The New Yorker was particularly, wonderfully encouraging along those lines - that's where all the character in The Corrections comes from, in a way: I suddenly had room for it. I didn't have to develop the big stories that would comment on the world, that would do that complicating of what I perceived to be oversimplified views, the polemics I'd been trying to do in the books. That's how I was able to write the book the way it was written. Otherwise it was going to be three thousand pages and was going to attempt to deal with all that other stuff.

They're very different animals. The nonfiction is much easier because the pieces are short. Once I have the outline it's done, I just write it. There's some challenge to getting the outline, of course, but at a certain point I discovered that I did have stuff to say about things and people wanted to hear it. That's actually been great.

Dave: The story feels timely in a number of ways. The failing economy and the end of a period of unprecedented wealth, for instance, adds significant color in the novel's backdrop. Then the upheaval Chip encounters in Lithuania and the instability of that part of the world. And now, particularly in light of recent events, it seems that people are focusing more on their families again. People are clearly disillusioned about what's happening to life outside the family right now and, if no other good has come from that situation, at least it's made people remember the reassurance that family can provide.

Franzen: I feel as if I'm clearly part of a trend among writers who take themselves seriously - and I confess to taking myself as seriously as the next writer. After the much talked about generation of postmoderns a lot of us are looking again at character and, in particular, at family.

I got raked over the coals in L.A. by Michael Silverblatt, who felt that that was somehow a betrayal of the good nihilist principles of all serious fiction. He seemed to feel that it was something verging on a betrayal that I actually came down to saying the following: family is a source of meaning; and, stories have ends. That you can actually say, "This is the end of a story" - and indeed that's how the last full chapter ends.

Those propositions were something verging on anathema to writers of the William Gass stripe, who I know is a hero of Silverblatt's. It seems to me self-evident that if you have a life, things happen in it, and certain things do change; certain things end. People you know die. It also seems to me that in a particularly disillusioned age, with hardly a semblance of hope that our critical apparatus can make even a minor dent in the machinery of the technocracy and the consumer state, we're left with the death of certain kinds of hope or idealism, and also the death of religion as a sufficient provider of meaning (as opposed to an occasional momentary provider of meaning). By default, family rises up. The one thing you can't take away is that you have parents.

It's not surprising to see in my own work, looking back, and in the work of some of my peers, an attention to family. It's nice to write a book that does tend toward significance and meaning, and where else are you sure of finding it? Why that should feel radical to the point of almost having to apologize for it is a curious question.

Dave: I had recommended The Corrections to a friend. A few days later, Oprah announced that it would be her new Book Club pick. My friend soon emailed me to ask if I really thought he should read it.

Franzen: Now I've signed a big label deal and I'm playing stadiums, how good can I be?

Dave: Exactly. But this is someone I very much respect, and I don't think his asking that question can be considered at all unusual. I'm sure thousands of people won't read this book for no other reason than the fact that Oprah recommended it. If you're that popular, the thinking goes, if you speak to the masses, you can't possibly be saying anything too intelligent.

Whereas from where I sit the authors that matter are the ones that can say something intelligent and thought provoking that a reasonably smart person can digest and enjoy. If you need a scholarly background to decode it, it might be great art but to what end? You might as well be writing in Latin.

Franzen: That's one of the perverse, not to say fetishistic responses to the obliteratively ubiquitous presence of buying in our lives: to say, "I don't buy the popular stuff, I buy the small label stuff," as if that makes you any less of a consumer. But I'm somewhat guilty of it myself, and it follows a pattern. Certainly in music, suddenly the band you like because it was not produced goes to a major label and becomes heavily produced. It's hard to think of a major label Mekons recording, for example. It's impossible because they would never do it.

But I'm with you, I don't think the same applies to fiction. The problem in this case is some of Oprah's picks. She's picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight. And she's an easy target.

But as far as being popular, yeah, I think Dave Barry is really funny. And Silence of the Lambs is a really smart book. But of course everybody who's sold out and been co-opted, as I obviously have, says the same thing, and it makes for a pathetic spectacle.

I got a phone message from a stranger the other day, leaving his name, his telephone number, and his email address, saying, "I'd love to have a discussion with you about the fact that in your heart of hearts you know this book isn't as good as your first two." I'm like, "Can't wait to have that conversation!"

It's one of the perversities of the age: I'm embarrassed by its success, but I'm happy it's selling.

Dave: I noticed one of my favorite authors in your Acknowledgements: Donald Antrim.

Franzen: Donald!

Dave: I had a chance to have dinner with him over the summer, which was very cool. We have mutual friends who got us together when I was visiting Brooklyn.

Franzen: I just talked to him last night. What about Donald?

Dave: I just love his books. When people ask for a recommendation, if they're looking for a shorter novel, wanting to try a new author, I often tell them Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. And no one has ever told me they didn't love it. It's hilarious, topical, smart, fun to read...

Franzen: I'm a Hundred Brothers man, myself. That's my favorite of his.

Dave: A great book about family, in its own completely chaotic way. A different kind of family.

Franzen: Different kind of family.

Donald's a very good friend. He writes as good a sentence as any American working now, I think, and he's funny as hell, too.

Dave: What have you read lately? What have you enjoyed?

Franzen: I like Akhil Sharma's novel, An Obedient Father. I liked Tom Drury's third book, Hunts in Dreams. I liked my dear friend David Means's story collection, Assorted Fire Events. I want to go back and read more Henry Green. Because everyone keeps asking me about Mann's Buddenbrooks, I probably have to read that. I haven't.

Dave: I think it was Ann Patchett who cited Henry Green as a favorite recently. Are you reading a lot these days?

Franzen: I tend to read a lot more when I'm working than when I'm not. Probably because I'm somewhat depressed when I'm not working.

Of course I'm somewhat depressed when I'm working, too, but in a different and more productive and happier way. Certainly I'm keeping much more regular hours.

Jonathan Franzen visited Powell's City of Books on October 4, 2001. The interview was his fifth of the day. Upon sitting down in our conference room, he immediately took off his shoes and commenced reshaping a four-inch twist tie into a double-banded ring. Its setting was sublime.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History Used Hardcover $8.50
  2. Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  3. A Personal Matter Used Trade Paper $7.50
  4. Strong Motion Used Trade Paper $4.50
  5. Twenty-Seventh City Used Trade Paper $4.95
  6. The Corrections
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  7. The Corrections
    Used Hardcover $4.95
  8. Twenty-Seventh City Used Trade Paper $4.95
  9. A Personal Matter Used Trade Paper $7.50
  10. Silence of the Lambs
    Used Mass Market $3.95
  11. Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World
    Used Trade Paper $4.95

  12. An Obedient Father Used Hardcover $6.95
  13. Hunts in Dreams Used Trade Paper $8.50
  14. Assorted Fire Events: Stories Used Hardcover $5.95
  15. Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family Used Trade Paper $9.95
  16. Freedom: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $6.50


Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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