Jonathan Franzen Takes The Long Road To 'Freedom'

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It's taken Jonathan Franzen nine years to write a follow-up to The Corrections. Greg Martin hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Martin
Jonathan Franzen

It's taken Jonathan Franzen nine years to write a follow-up to The Corrections.

Greg Martin

Jonathan Franzen's last novel, The Corrections, was published on Sept. 1, 2001.

A few weeks after that, American life was no longer the thing he'd captured so vividly in his book.

It's taken Franzen nine years to write a follow-up. Freedom is set against the backdrop of the Bush era. The book has been hailed as a masterpiece of modern, post-Sept. 11 fiction.

"I need significant chunks of time to pass before I seem to be able to get a novel going," Franzen tells NPR's Guy Raz. "In some respects it was good fortune for me that I wasn't trying to wrestle with 9/11 as it was being so over-wrestled with in the media."

Freedom was written mostly in 2009, Franzen says, after the election of Barack Obama. By then, he says, "we could see the decade in some pretty clear perspective."

The Couple At The Story's Center

Freedom begins with the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, a couple living in St Paul, Minn.

Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen
Hardcover, 576 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $28

Read An Excerpt

"Walter is a portrait in the displacement of unspeakable rage about what's going on in his family through speakable rage about what's going on in his country," Franzen says.

As he took stock of the way we live in the first decade of the new millennium, Franzen was struck by how angry everybody is.

"And over-the-top angry," he says. "Walter becomes this over-the-top angry person — that's part of the arc of his character in the book."

His wife, Patty, is not without her problems. Much of the early part of the book is written by Patty in the third-person — a journaling exercise recommended by her therapist. Franzen says the device was a key to unlock early sympathy for Patty, who struggles for redemption in later pages.

"Like a lot of somewhat depressive people sitting on a lot of dark stuff, Patty doesn't behave very well," he says.  "It seemed important to get her right up front so that one might have some sympathy for why she was so angry and why she was so lost."   

Writing In A Woman's Voice

Franzen says his own exercise of writing in a woman's voice was itself a bit of an exorcism. From the time he was a child, he says, he over-identified with women — his mother, and later his wife — to the point where it became difficult to write about himself as a man in a direct way.

Writing from a female perspective, therefore, "came to be second nature and not in a good way," he says. Patty's third-person narration was a way to get the book out of his own hands. "I wanted to leave some room for the narrator to identify with the three main male characters."

Those would be Walter, his friend Richard Katz, and Walter's son, Joey. All play their own roles in the tempestuous Berglund family dynamic.

When it comes to family dynamics, Franzen says that, though he has no children of his own, his childhood offered all the instruction in the world.

"My parents were in their own way so unsatisfied, so angry about so many things, that it was impossible for a sensitive kid not to internalize their view of the world," he says. "It resulted in my being this strangely middle-aged 14- and 15-year-old."

'A Very Dark, Quiet Place'

Writing about something outside your own experience, Franzen says, is also simply what a novelist does.

"You sit in a very dark, quiet place — either literally or figuratively — and imagine what it might be like not to be you, but to be somebody else."

Franzen's writing place is both dark and quiet. He describes a studio apartment on East 83rd Street in New York City that has little else but a bare desk. He does his writing on an old laptop he's permanently neutered from Internet access.

"You take any ethernet plug, stick it in the little socket, superglue it in, then take a coping saw and cut off the wire part," he says.  "Then the wireless card is easy to take out."

Digging Out Of Tragedy

While writing Freedom, Franzen had to deal with much more than just online distractions.

On Sept. 12, 2008, one of his closest friends, writer David Foster Wallace, committed suicide.

At the time Franzen was just starting Freedom. After Wallace's death, he set the book aside for nearly half a year.

"But once that was all over," he says, "the book became a way of at once responding to and avoiding responding to the loss of him. I was able to tap into the anger you feel when someone you're very close to commits suicide and use that as a motivator — while also avoiding the grief."

Only recently, Franzen says, has he come into closer contact with the dimensions of the loss of his friend. "That was blessedly absent. I was just mad during the writing of the book."

Though Franzen's own depression has brought him "to the brink," he says he's never gone over the edge into the sort of massive, clinical condition that afflicted Wallace.

"For me, that's part of work," he says. "The bad feelings that are stirred up when you really, really, really want to write something and you really can't — and you also feel the stuff that has to be written is the stuff that's unwritable — the most private, upsetting parts of yourself — the extreme position you're then in as a writer seems bound to be accompanied by occasional significant darkness."

Characters In The Dark

Franzen acknowledges that darkness — and the darkness in his characters — has produced protests from some in his reading audience.

"I had the experience with The Corrections," he says.  "A certain percentage of people who read that book and think the characters are despicable."

"Nothing like them" is the refrain, he says, "And they sort of underline it: 'Nothing like me. These people are horrible, they're loathsome.' I don't know what to say to that."

Franzen doesn't see his own characters as loathsome or outrageous. "They're not selling their children's books to buy crack," he says. "They're simply going through a rough patch."

Franzen admits his fiction may not have the universality with which some critics have credited it. "I think there are plenty of people who are different from any of the characters I might write about," he says. "But at the same time, I do have the suspicion when someone vehemently says, 'No, this is a terrible, terrible person' — I've read my Freud.  When someone is protesting that vehemently, it makes me wonder, 'Hmm. Why this intense reaction?'"

That reaction, he says, nonetheless satisfies a part of him. "To me it means I'm getting at something. I'm doing something that is real enough to be upsetting."

Measuring The Legacy Of Freedom

Does Jonathan Franzen think Freedom is his best novel?

"I wanted to produce something that really connected with how it feels to be alive now," he says. But when he finished the book, he was struck by the microscopic narration of emotional difficulties and a story underlined by "pools of red-hot material" from his own life.

"I felt uneasy and potentially ashamed by the book," he says. "Needless to say, the last month or six weeks have been — basically the feeling I keep having over and over again is one of tremendous gratitude."

It's not guilt, Franzen says. Simply the weighty feeling of "brick-like loads" of gratitude.

"How to ever give back in the way I feel I'm receiving?" he asks. "I guess I will be paying for it next time I try to write a book, though."

Excerpt: 'Freedom'

Freedom
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen
Hardcover, 576 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $28

The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally-he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now-but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation's capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times ("arrogant," "high-handed," "ethically compromised") with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill-the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. Early on, some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in sweatclothes and said, "Hey, you guys, you know what?" Patty frightened nobody, but she'd been a standout athlete in high school and college and possessed a jock sort of fearlessness. From her first day in the neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else's children's sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?

For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else. She said she expected to be "beheaded" someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she'd replaced. Her children were "probably" dying of trichinosis from pork she'd undercooked. She wondered if her "addiction" to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her "never" reading books anymore. She confided that she'd been "forbidden" to fertilize Walter's flowers after what had happened "last time." There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn't sit well-who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers. But most people found her humility sincere or at least amusing, and it was in any case hard to resist a woman whom your own children liked so much and who remembered not only their birthdays but yours, too, and came to your back door with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning.

It was known that Patty had grown up back East, in a suburb of New York City, and had received one of the first women's full scholarships to play basketball at Minnesota, where, in her sophomore year, according to a plaque on the wall of Walter's home office, she'd made second-team all-American. One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots. Whole seasons passed without her setting foot outside St. Paul, and it wasn't clear that anybody from the East, not even her parents, had ever come out to visit. If you inquired point-blank about the parents, she would answer that the two of them did a lot of good things for a lot of people, her dad had a law practice in White Plains, her mom was a politician, yeah, a New York State assemblywoman. Then she would nod emphatically and say, "Yeah, so, that's what they do," as if the topic had been exhausted.

A game could be made of trying to get Patty to agree that somebody's behavior was "bad." When she was told that Seth and Merrie Paulsen were throwing a big Halloween party for their twins and had deliberately invited every child on the block except Connie Monaghan, Patty would only say that this was very "weird." The next time she saw the Paulsens in the street, they explained that they had tried all summer to get Connie Monaghan's mother, Carol, to stop flicking cigarette butts from her bedroom window down into their twins' little wading pool. "That is really weird," Patty agreed, shaking her head, "but, you know, it's not Connie's fault." The Paulsens, however, refused to be satisfied with "weird." They wanted sociopathic, they wanted passive-aggressive, they wanted bad. They needed Patty to select one of these epithets and join them in applying it to Carol Monaghan, but Patty was incapable of going past "weird," and the Paulsens in turn refused to add Connie to their invite list. Patty was angry enough about this injustice to take her own kids, plus Connie and a school friend, out to a pumpkin farm and a hayride on the afternoon of the party, but the worst she would say aloud about the Paulsens was that their meanness to a seven-year-old girl was very weird.

Excerpted from Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright 2010 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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