|tags:||Memoir & Essay|
WHEN JONATHAN FRANZEN PUBLISHED his first essay collection, How to Be Alone, in 2002, he was not yet the nation's foremost novelist. He hadn't appeared on the cover of Time, hadn't been invited to the White House, hadn't been interviewed by the Paris Review, wasn't a wellspring of debate about what the 21st-century novel ought to be. The Corrections had appeared the previous year, making Franzen a very bright literary star, but he was part of a constellation that had begun to coalesce before 9/11. When The Corrections was published, David Foster Wallace was still alive, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay had been on shelves for a year, and Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex wouldn't arrive for twelve months.
The intervening decade has poignantly dimmed that constellation. Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007), while favorably reviewed, hardly had the culture-marshaling feel of Kavalier & Clay. (A new novel, Telegraph Avenue, is scheduled for September). Eugenides followed Middlesex last year with The Marriage Plot, a book that prompted interesting essays about the rise of theory in English departments — essays that proved more interesting than the novel, which rested upon a two-legged love triangle. And Wallace, of course, took his own life in 2008, amidst his struggles to match the titanic accomplishment of Infinite Jest.
Subtle alterations in the nation's literary tectonics; the continued erosion of its attention span; a single, devastating suicide: these circumstances prepared the ground in such a way that when Franzen published Freedom in 2010, the inevitable consequence was his designation as the most important American author of his generation, alone able to command critical and scholarly attention, find a mass readership, and inhabit a role as a public intellectual. Chabon, Eugenides, and Wallace all claimed at least one of these three laurels at some point in their careers, but Freedom marked Franzen as the only American author who could maintain a hold on all three.
It also bespoke a new, almost imperceptible direction in his fiction, a sobriety present but not fully realized in The Corrections. Freedom drew on many of the same elements as the earlier novel: the comic tale of a family torn between the Midwest and the East Coast, the structure of interlocking novellas, the generous helping of social commentary. But it jettisoned the vestiges of Pynchonesque conspiracy from Franzen's earlier work that lingered in The Corrections: its language was less self-consciously brilliant, and it took significant steps into the realm of tragedy. Like The Corrections, Franzen spends most of Freedom in an arch-satiric mood, submitting his characters to brutal scrutiny before shifting to a register of lyrical, redemptive comedy in the last hundred pages. In The Corrections, however, that redemption comes more unequivocally than in Freedom — its characters' growth is more distinctly secured, their future happiness more readily imagined. Though Freedom...read more