August 15, 2010
Last week an event took place that hasn't occurred since 2000: a living author appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The recipient of this accolade was novelist Jonathan Franzen, best known – until now – for his multi-generational epic about a midwestern family, The Corrections, which came out in the week of 9/11 and was one of the most talked about (and bestselling) novels of the last decade.
It has taken Franzen nine years to complete his follow-up, Freedom, which is about to be published in the US. (It doesn't hit UK bookshops until late September.) Understandably, Franzen hasn't significantly departed from the template that served him so well last time. The novel is another multi-generational epic that microscopically examines the tensions within an outwardly successful but inwardly unhappy midwestern family. There are striking plot similarities: both books feature get-rich-quick schemes and copious extra-marital affairs. It has been suggested, in fact, that the main difference between the two is that, while the family in The Corrections had three children, the family at the centre of Freedom – the Berglunds – have just two.
Time's decision to make Franzen its cover star is intriguing, for reasons both obvious and less straightforward. Ever since The Corrections appeared, Franzen, who is 50, has been regarded as one of America's most important novelists, a leading member of the generation down from the "old guard" of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and John Updike that dominated US fiction from the 1950s until at least 2000. The appearance of a new novel by him, especially after such a long absence, is a major literary event, which it is appropriate for Time to honour.