Thursday, August 26, 2010

The stuff of life

August 26, 2010

Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant new novel studies the planet, happiness and marriage

It was John DeForest, a writer of the civil-war period, who defined the Great American Novel in an 1868 essay for the Nation as “painting the American soul within the framework of a novel”. DeForest was arguing over the relative merits of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, two writers who definitely fit the bill. Others have laid claim to the title (or had claim laid to it by their hopeful publishers), including J.D. Salinger, Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe and John Updike.

Indeed, there has never been a shortage of candidates for this peculiarly American compulsion, and disagreements over who should wear the laurels are as long as the continent is wide. This year, though, the award may enjoy almost universal acclaim. The novel that America will be talking about in the coming weeks will be Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

A mop-haired Midwesterner who looks far younger than 51, Mr Franzen rose to fame a decade ago. This was when his third novel, The Corrections, a multigenerational family saga about American yuppies and their square parents, was first selected as a candidate for Oprah Winfrey’s book club and then very publicly dismissed by the television star. (Ms Winfrey did not care for Mr Franzen’s complaint that her book club appealed only to women readers.) The brouhaha did his book no harm. Though largely plotless, uneven in structure and weighed down with sarcastic observation, The Corrections went on to spend 29 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and win the 2001 National Book Award.

Mr Franzen’s work will not appeal to those seeking sharp-edged experimentalism in their fiction. But for readers who believe the novel to be an old-fashioned thing that, at its best, should bring alive fully imagined characters in a powerful narrative with a social context, his new book will be a huge draw. The author has spent the past ten years doing what he does well and making it better. Freedom has all its predecessor’s power and none of its faults.


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