Individualism spells disaster for Jonathan Franzen's unhappy Americans
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$28.00 List Price
Jonathan Franzen is, by his own account, a divided soul. "It turns out," he once wrote, "that I subscribe to two wildly different models of how fiction relates to its audience." One was the Status model: high art, genius, Flaubert; the other was the Contract model: accessibility, pleasure, the community of readers. Of the two things for which Franzen is most famous (other, of course, than The Corrections, his 2001 National Book Award–winning best seller), both were public controversies that erupted from this very self-division. The first was his 1996 Harper's essay that renounced the novel of cultural critique in favor of "writ[ing] fiction for the fun and entertainment of it," yet contrived to do so in a way that left him looking like exactly the kind of ideologue he didn't want to be mistaken for. The second may be dubbed l'affaire Oprah—Franzen's disinvitation by that redoubtable figure on a charge of aggravated elitism, in the course of which he came across as both a snob to the masses and a philistine to the literati. He couldn't seem to figure out where he wanted to the stand, and so, renouncing both the highbrow and the low, pleasing no one by trying to please everyone, he managed, in the most sincere and well-intentioned way, to strand himself inside a one-man DMZ that perfectly embodied his ambivalence.
Of this conflict and a series of cognate ones—emotional, political, even geographic—Franzen has fashioned his new book. Freedom centers on a love triangle. Walter is "the nicest guy in Minnesota," a lawyer and environmental activist who grew up the son of a martyred