Jonathan Franzen: Greatness, one sentence at a time

Fans of this matchless chronicler of American family life have endured a nine-year hiatus since he stunned the literary world with 'The Corrections'. But all the signs are that it will be worth the wait

There are few surviving authors available to write a Great American Novel for the 21st century.

In the past half-decade alone, the literary world has mourned Mailer, Updike, Vonnegut, Bellow and Salinger. David Foster Wallace, the most ambitious novelist of the younger generation, took his own life in 2008. Yet while modern publishing sometimes seems to prize whimsy over scope – and nobody much expects a Great American Novel to materialise – Jonathan Franzen has gone and written two.

The first of them, The Corrections, was published a week before 9/11, and widely praised as the finest fiction of the new millennium, though what it captured so astutely were the last days of the previous one. "Suddenly he was being interviewed, photographed, written and talked about by, it seemed, everyone," wrote Franzen's girlfriend Kathryn Chetkovich of his post-Corrections success, in a 2003 essay for Granta entitled "Envy". "Clearly his book was on its way to becoming not a book but the book, and every day seemed to bring new evidence that he was on his way to becoming that rare thing, a writer whom people (not just other writers) have heard of."

Franzen, too, is familiar with envy. Wallace was one of his closest friends, a novelist whose experimental zeal earned him the adoration that Franzen craved in the 1990s. "I could never comfortably feel, 'Oh, I have this thing sewn up'," Franzen recently admitted. "Because there was always Dave, goddamn it, being incredibly brilliant."

Blocked in part by the standards he had set himself with The Corrections, Franzen has failed to produce a new novel until now – nine years on. Perversely, it was Wallace's suicide in 2008 that finally gave Franzen the impetus to complete his long-gestating new book. "It was like, man, if you're going to do that? Be the heroic, dies-young genius?... I'm going to have to get off my ass and actually write something."

That "something" is the 562-page family saga Freedom, which arrives in US bookshops next week, in the UK's at the end of September. President Obama was given a gold-dust advance copy of Freedom to take on holiday, while the author appears on the most recent cover of Time magazine – the first fiction writer to do so since Stephen King 10 years ago, and a feat that puts him in the rare company of Salinger and Updike.

Franzen's extensive non-fiction demonstrates just how indebted his fiction is to his own life. Born in Saul Bellow's Chicago in August 1959, he was brought up in the more modest Midwest surroundings of St Louis, Missouri. The settings for much of The Corrections and Freedom are surrogates for his home town: St Jude (a fictional location) and St Paul (an actual one), respectively.

His debut novel, 1988's The Twenty-Seventh City, was a story of St Louis's long drawn-out demotion: from its place as the Union's "fourth city" in the 19th century to its unimposing contemporary rank. The book was well enough received by critics to mark Franzen out as a voice worth listening to, but not sufficient for stardom. His second, Strong Motion (1992), had a similar reception, but its portrait of a dysfunctional family set the template for his subsequent masterpieces (as The New York Times, no less, describes them).

It took Franzen another seven years to complete The Corrections, his third book. It's clear from the evidence of his autobiographical essays (collected in 2002 as How to Be Alone) and his memoir The Discomfort Zone (2006) that his own parents bore a striking resemblance to Albert and Edith Lambert, the cheerless elderly couple at the novel's heart. Franzen's father's death from Alzheimer's in 1995 is echoed in Alfred's Parkinson's-induced decline into dementia, while the difficult mother described in The Discomfort Zone is Edith's cousin, if not her twin sister.

Franzen left St Louis and his parents first for Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. After completing his first two novels in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he finally fetched up in New York, where he began contributing to Harper's. It was his 1996 piece for the magazine – "Perchance to Dream", lamenting the state of modern literature – that first earned Franzen his unfortunate (and probably ill-deserved) reputation as an elitist. Franzen is famed for a writing process that involves actively disconnecting himself from modernity: he has permanently disabled the internet capabilities of his ancient laptop, and one of his cardinal rules of fiction writing is as follows: "It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction."

That reputation for loftiness was compounded when, upon the release of The Corrections, Franzen was invited to appear in the highly influential Book Club section of Oprah Winfrey's television show. Having been interviewed by Winfrey, Franzen was undone by some stray quotes from other interviews, in which he expressed reservations about his Oprah appearance. His fears that her endorsement would dissuade men from buying the book, his description of some of her previous picks as "schmaltzy" and of her endorsement as a "logo of corporate ownership" all contrived to persuade Winfrey she'd made the wrong choice. She publicly, and rather pointedly, announced that Franzen would no longer be a part of her programme.

Conversely, the controversy only helped to make The Corrections a must-read. It has since won numerous awards and, even less likely for a literary novel, sold 2.85 million copies worldwide. Franzen had already married and divorced one fellow aspiring writer, Valerie Cornell, when he met Chetkovich while working to complete The Corrections. "I did envy his talent," Chetkovich admitted in her Granta essay, "the way he could go off in the morning and come home at night with five smart pages, the way he could expertly tease out a metaphor, nail a character in a sentence, and tackle geopolitics or brain chemistry without breaking a sweat. I envied the fact that in airports and restaurants, strangers – readers! – would come up to him and rave about his book."

Like The Corrections, Franzen's new novel is a portrait of a socially and financially comfortable family, which enjoys all the freedoms of Western democracy, but whose members are besieged by dissatisfaction. Unlike the Lamberts, whose debt to his own family Franzen acknowledges, the Berglunds of Freedom were, he told Time, "dreamed into existence ... totally from scratch".

The protagonists may be pure creation, but Franzen does give free rein to at least one personal obsession: birdwatching. He became a keen twitcher in the 2000s, and Walter, the Berglund patriarch, leads an optimistic conservation effort on behalf of the obscure cerulean warbler.

Walter and his family's story is set predominantly during the George W Bush years, and the novel explores the limits of the "freedom" he and other presidents hold so dear. But its analysis of the era isn't remote: Franzen's characters are heartbreaking, his sentences breathtaking, and Freedom has the narrative grip of a cheap thriller.

Not everyone is convinced that Franzen is worthy of his blanket media coverage, however: the writers Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner have both complained that The New York Times and its peers devote too many column inches to "white male literary darlings" of which he is the arch example. At this year's Edinburgh Book Festival, authors David Shields and Eli Horowitz criticised Franzen for his backward-looking, 19th-century writing style. Both agreed that in a multimedia world, the "antediluvian" novel needs to be invigorated by experimentation.

But his rivals' argument disregards what many television viewers, for example, adore – dramas that resemble classic fiction in their length, breadth and depth: The Wire, The Sopranos. Franzen's 19th-century-style novels have a far better chance than his detractors' of surviving into the 22nd.

A life in brief

Born: 17 August 1959, Western Springs, Illinois.

Family: He was raised in a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. His father died of Alzheimer's in 1996 and his mother from cancer three years later. He married Valerie Cornell in 1982, but their marriage ended. He lives in New York and California with the short-story writer Kathryn Chetkovich.

Education: After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1981 he studied at the Freie Universität Berlin as a Fulbright scholar and later worked in a seismology lab at Harvard.

Career: His third novel, The Corrections (2001), earned him a National Book Award and a finalist nomination for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker.

He says: "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."

They say: "Franzen is the nearest we have to a contemporary Tolstoy: flesh-and-blood characters who go through deep changes while remaining true to – or should that be trying to discover? – their essential selves." Novelist Geoff Dyer

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