Jonathan Franzen

by Donald Antrim


Jonathan Franzen. Photo by Greg Martin. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Jonathan Franzen and I conducted this interview at his dining room table, in his apartment on the Upper East Side, one morning in the early part of summer. Because we have known each other for a number of years, and have gotten better and better, over the years, at talking—at, I guess, knowing one another—we had some idea that we might be able to speak openly and comfortably about certain things that are not necessarily easy to speak about in a public forum, but are nonetheless central to Jonathan’s project. I was eager to hear Jonathan talk about various changes in his life, and about the ways in which his work has more and more become—at least as I read it—a kind of container for, and an expression of, lived experience. Reading Jonathan, I am always startled by how much I admire the writer, by how much pleasure I get in the reading. With The Corrections, I was up all night, until 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning. It seemed to me an absolutely thrilling work, brave and funny and beautiful and, above all, generous. There is something monumental about this novel. It is the product of a deep and prolonged struggle. Its intelligence is everywhere apparent. I could go on in search of words to praise this novel, words that might in some way be truly compatible with, might truly address, Jonathan’s achievement. Reading The Corrections, I feel myself to be in the presence of a work of art. The novel honors, and builds on, the tradition in which it exists.

Donald Antrim It’s been nearly ten years since the publication of your second novel, Strong Motion, and a few more years since The Twenty-Seventh City came out. I’d like to hear you talk about what went on during the years after Strong Motion—how your new novel came to be and what was happening in your personal life and in your family. I also want to hear some of your ideas about writing in general. Before we begin, I want to say that The Corrections seems, to me, profoundly and substantively a departure from your earlier books. In each of your novels, you devise intricate, sophisticated plots. You bring the reader along on a ride. Strong Motion and The Twenty-Seventh City both grow out of daring, somewhat implausible-seeming gambits: massive earthquakes in the suburbs outside Boston, the appointment of a corrupt Asian Indian woman as chief of the St. Louis police. As you think about them now, with The Corrections nearing publication, would you say that your first two novels belong together?

Jonathan Franzen Yes, in that I continue to be interested in the dramatic intersection of personal, domestic stories with larger social stories. In the first two books, there were these large, externalized, heavily plotted dramas, at the focus of which were individual families. The new book goes about managing the drama very differently.

DA You were younger when you wrote those books—considerably younger when you wrote the first.

JF I was about 13, in some ways, when I wrote the first book. Approximately 18 when I wrote the second.

DA Well, if I understand what you’re saying, then—

JF I was a kid. And let me step back here and say that I was a very late kid—growing up, I had parents who were much older than I. To a substantial degree, my social life consisted of interactions with serious grown-ups. And in a funny way that’s what the first book, Twenty-Seventh City, was: a conversation with the literary figures of my parents’ generation. The great ’60s and ’70s postmoderns. I wanted to feel like I belonged with them, much as I’d spent my childhood trying to be friends with my parents and their friends. A darker way of looking at it is that I was trying to impress them. The result, in any case, was that I adopted a lot of that generation of writers’ concerns—the great postwar freak-out, the Strangeloveian inconceivabilities, the sick society in need of radical critique. I was attracted to crazy scenarios.

DA Is this urge to become a younger peer of those writers who were prominent when you and I were growing up—

JF And we’re talking about Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis, Heller, Barth—

DA Certainly. But it sounds to me as if, with The Corrections, you wanted to make those conspiracy plots fall away, and that you wound up with a different kind of emotional landscape. For instance, Chip Lambert, the middle child in your fictional family, gets involved in a variety of dubious and self-destructive scenarios. There’s a love affair with his student, and, toward the end of the novel, a trip to post-Soviet Lithuania, which is fairly disastrous. Chip’s behavior seems like a result of his financial incompetency and his questionable sense of himself as a man in the world, more than a reaction to enormous forces beyond his control.

JF Actually the forces are substantially the same, but in the new book they take the form of interior urges and anxieties, rather than outward plot elements. We may freak out globally, but we suffer locally. Not that I take any particular credit for this shift of emphasis. Jane Smiley has this theory of an alternation of literary generations. Smiley thinks there are two fundamental possible preoccupations for the novelist. One is a kind of venturing forth to discover the wonders of the world, à la Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. That school of outward-looking fiction reaches its culmination in Candide, in which the world turns out to be full of horrors. Voltaire’s lesson is: Go home, cultivate your garden. And so the adventurous world-seeking novel is succeeded by the great 19th-century domestic novel. Which itself then culminates in Kafka: you can stay home, but home is a horror, too. Within American literature you find the venturing-forthness in Twain and Hemingway, the at-homeness in Wharton and O’Connor. The dichotomy is gender-specified to some extent. But I feel like I’m essentially participating in one of those swings, a swing away from the boys-will-be-boys Huck Finn thing, which is how you can view Pynchon, as adventures for boys out in the world. At a certain point, you get tired of all that. You come home.

DA Speaking of boys, or men, in the world, you’ve written for Harper’s about the novelist as an increasingly marginalized figure in American society. Do you have feelings or anxieties that you’ve been aware of in recent years, not so much about writing a particular book, but about living as a writer of fiction?

JF I look at my father, who was in many ways an unhappy person, but who, not long before he got sick, said that the greatest source of satisfaction in his life had been going to work in the company of other workers. He got up every weekday morning for 40-plus years, put on a nice suit and a hat, went to this wonderfully structured environment, and did work that he perceived to be important and constructive. I think any artistic child of a businessman is prone to a sense of the slightness of what he or she is doing. Of the uselessness of art. This uselessness is intrinsic, of course, and that’s part of art’s charm. But it’s useless nonetheless. And when you compound this with the general dimunition in the stature of the novelist since the days of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who were celebrities to a degree that novelists of like caliber nowadays simply can’t be, when you compound this with the sense of being in one’s father’s shadow, well, you risk feeling like a little kid. My first response to this feeling of smallness was to try to know everything, to exude confidence and total command. But when the world refuses to be changed by what you’re writing—when the world takes, essentially, no note of it—it gets harder and harder to persuade yourself that your desire for total control, and your head-on engagement with Big Issues, is meaningful. So I’ve spent a lot of the last decade retooling. There were also changes in my private life that made it clear that the premises I’d begun with were no longer sufficient.

DA Let’s talk about your private life. I suspect that your experiences with family, and what I know about what you’ve gone through during this chunk of time, have a huge bearing on the ways in which family becomes, in this new novel, more central and preoccupying than in earlier work.

JF Well, my father died in 1995. Up until then I’d been trying, sporadically and unsuccessfully, to write a book that was similar to the first two, with an elaborate, externalized, and exceedingly complicated plot. Within a few months of his death, I began writing stuff that came from a very different place.

DA During those years, you actually worked over and discarded a huge amount of material. I have the impression of you tossing out about three or four possible manuscripts.

JF Yes and no. Even before Strong Motion was published, I had an idea for a third book. I tried to write it, I found it wasn’t working, and so I changed it. And I kept changing it, and changing it, and eventually nothing was left of the original, although it was still connected to the original in the way that my body now is connected with my body at the age of 12—all the cells replaced, but very gradually. Finally, about six years in, I said, To hell with all that. Material that was more urgent had announced itself.

DA Other things were happening in life as well. Several years ago, your mother passed away.

JF Yeah, my mother more recently. Frankly, though, the thing that enabled me to get those first two books written was that I had a very stable home life. I’d gotten married pretty much right out of college, to someone I’d gone to school with, also a writer, and we had a very quiet, very steady domestic life that we dedicated to reading and writing. That’s really all there was, except for tiny little doses of family and an honorary friend or two. Ours was essentially a universe of two, set up as a kind of antidote to the overwhelming family universes that each of us had come from. As long as that marriage lasted, I could just shut down questions on certain important personal topics. Is this relevant?

DA You’re doing fine. Keep talking.

JF Well, at a certain point our universe of two started breaking down. My first book was a big success. Her first book she couldn’t sell. By the time I was writing the second novel, there were tensions. And, in ways that are terrible to recall, those tensions just got worse. The early ’90s were taken up with ever-more-desperate attempts to preserve a marriage, and then, finally, after that bargaining stage was over, accepting and mourning the death of this immensely important marriage. And meanwhile my father’s mind was dissolving with Alzheimer’s, and my mother was getting sick. Maybe it’s no surprise that the book I was trying to write in those years would change. What seemed to me important was changing weekly, daily, almost hourly. I think the last time my wife and I were together in public was at my father’s memorial service. Not long after that, something loosened up. There was a space in which I could actually start to write again, a little bit, something that was mine and not ours.

DA Let me ask you something. You’re talking about a growing discontent with work that had been supported by the conditions of your life, followed by a period during which your family, not only your marriage, but your own family—

JF All the people who were most important in my life—

DA Are no longer there. Given that you were having these experiences that you couldn’t control, to what extent were you conscious of exploring what was happening as it happened?

JF I’m uncomfortable with the idea that suffering creates material for art, or that conflict and trouble are what the novelist thrives on. I think it’s more accurate to say that the attempt to be a living, productive artist is often what creates the trouble and the conflict. I had an immense conflict of loyalties, for example, regarding my marriage. I felt explicitly that if I would just stop being a writer, I could make the marriage work. And it wasn’t just my marriage. My mother had my father on her hands. Ever more trouble out there. And I would go back home to the Midwest for four days, and then I wouldn’t go again for six, eight months. I had to preserve my emotional equilibrium in order to do my work. I felt terribly guilty about that, because in a sense, why not take three months and go and really help out? But I couldn’t, I would have gone crazy. We would’ve been irritating each other the whole time. But—and this is my point—the fact of who I am is what would have created the irritation. And who I am is a man who writes novels.

DA You’re describing something pretty difficult, the guilt over not being able to go home, and in the meantime exploiting, if not the more concrete and remembered experiences and events of family life, then something immediate in your relationships to your mother and to your father, just as you are losing them. So, I’m imagining that this could be a fairly frightening time.

JF Oh. Of course.

DA Do you also feel guilty for having written the book?

JF No. I don’t. Not at all. It’s akin to the flip side, as I keep trying to stress. There’s a flip side. That I was writing the book was what was creating much of my trouble.

DA Yes.

JF And the book in turn stands as a record of who I am. I wouldn’t wish it away any more than I would wish my personality away, or my privacy and individuality. It was a taboo-a-week in terms of its creation. I was constantly thinking, You can’t write about that. Each taboo was accompanied by a set of technical problems—how to make the material interesting enough to justify violating the taboo. But no, I don’t feel guilty. The most important experience of my life, really, to date, is the experience of growing up in the Midwest with the particular parents I had. I feel as if they couldn’t fully speak for themselves, and I feel as if their experience—by which I mean their values, their experience of being alive, of being born at the beginning of the century and dying towards the end of it, that whole American experience they had—I feel as if I’m part of that, and it’s part of me. One of my enterprises in the book is to memorialize that experience, to give it real life and form. Even if both of my parents would have personally hated the book, which they may very well have, I still don’t feel guilty about it.

DA Writing this novel was a kind of constant correction against some other novel you could have written but didn’t want or need to, and it’s a correction against something that might’ve been easier, in favor of something that feels dangerous.

JF Right.

DA Prohibited.

JF I did a nonfiction piece five years ago for the New Yorker about the tobacco industry and my own cigarette smoking. At the time, I was still concealing from my mother, whose father had died of lung cancer, that I was myself a cigarette smoker. I was talking one day with my editor at the New Yorker, Henry Finder, and he said: “How about the tobacco industry, do you have any interest in that?” I said: “That is the one thing I absolutely can’t write about.” And he said: “Therefore you must write about it.” And that became a kind of rallying cry for the book. The more I felt, Don’t write that, the more I knew I was on the right track.

DA Of course, writing the thing you can’t write is an opportunity for a certain amount of destabilization and confusion.

JF It’s bound up with shame. The resistance manifested itself as shame. “No, I can’t be that straightforward and, no, I can’t drop that mantel of utter mastery of fact and total control of data, because then I’ll appear as this weak, puny boy, and not as the sort of striding, dadlike man that I wanted to be.” Simply to write a book that wasn’t dressed up in a swashbuckling, Pynchon-sized megaplot was enormously difficult. I spent years trying to somehow make it nonetheless work before I realized this thing’s dead, and no matter how terrifying it is to let go of that kind of plotting, I have to let go.

DA Were the Lamberts in those earlier versions?

JF The Lamberts crept in little by little. I was developing the character of Chip, and, as a matter of process, I was trying to learn to write scenes in which I would conceive of a character and then make the character extremely uncomfortable. With Chip, I had the idea of a would-be East Village hipster—and then here come his grotesquely square Midwestern parents on precisely the day when his life is falling apart. Hence Enid and Alfred Lambert. Eventually I threw away almost everything that was not Lambert-related.

DA The Corrections, like the earlier two novels, is, however different, nonetheless a big, complex book. It carries us along, and to me at least it’s much more involving than the earlier books. I think this has something to do with the plot unfolding to reveal its own origins in choices made by the characters. The Lamberts’s lives are complicated again and again by their own actions, their lives are complicated by their own lives. In The Corrections, the conspiracies become personal. I’m thinking of Alfred’s Parkinsonism, his slow decline, as a kind of conspiracy of the body against itself. Alfred in dementia envisions a conspiracy of sentient turds. At the end of his life he imagines his nurses in a conspiracy against him. His paranoia is an illness of the mind created as a symptom of an illness of the body.

JF These are life-sized conspiracies. Gary, the older son, believes that his wife and children are conspiring to cast him as clinically depressed so as to win certain domestic battles, particularly the battle over whether his family is going to go back to the Midwest for Christmas. Gary becomes deeply paranoid himself, wondering not only whether he may indeed be mentally ill, but also whether his wife and kids are conspiring to make him feel mentally ill. There’s all the stuff that you might get in a typical conspiracy novel, except that here the conspiracy is a family matter. Likewise Gary’s contorted attempts to avoid turning into his father, and his paranoid suspicion that he’s failing. His attempts to improve on his father’s life make him all the more like his father.

DA Were you very aware, while writing The Corrections, of the Lambert children embodying or rejecting distinct aspects of their parents’ strong, domineering personalities?

JF To say that the book is thematically self-conscious is to put it mildly. I come from a kind of old-fashioned Midwest, and I live in a technocorporate, postironic, cool, late-late-late East-coast world. The two worlds hardly ever talk to each other, but they’re completely, constantly talking to one another inside me. And certainly my enterprise in the book, and probably the enterprise of most novelists at some level, is to take different strains in their own character, different modules in their own personality, and create whole characters on the page. I have my parents talking to me in my head and then other parts of myself talking back. I think this is potentially an interesting conversation. Something almost everyone does is vow not to be like his or her parents. At the same time, we mourn certain ways in which we’re not like them. Talking with one’s parents becomes a way of talking about the changes that have been wrought in the last 50 years by the various technological and political developments that we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Again, these are issues that the postmoderns were also writing about, but presented in a way that makes them more personal, relates them more to the family romance and the emotional life of the author.

DA Sometimes we create ourselves as our parents to the extent that we rebel against them.

JF Right, so there’s this drama of trying to correct, of trying to be different. This is what much of life is about.

DA Did you find in writing this novel that the converse could also be true, that the extent to which you accepted your parents in you gave you some freedom to be not them, someone of your own creation?

JF Yes. Here’s an example. There were about 20 years during which I basically couldn’t talk to my mom, and I concealed everything about myself from her. Sometimes I could hardly stand to be in the same room with her. This sense of mortification started at about age 12 and continued into my mid-thirties. Some of it had to do with her refusal to see what kind of person I was, and her specific disapproval of writing as a career. A different person, a different son, might have shrugged it off. And to some extent I did shrug it off. Or, actually, what I did was get married. I found a woman who liked what I liked. But then around the time my father got sick and my marriage was falling apart, something changed with my mom. She became more forgiving of all of her children, certainly of me. In the five years before she died, she underwent a transformation of her own. She discovered that she actually was happier being a less critical and more generous person. And as that happened, suddenly this window opened in me, and I realized, Well, you know, I’m actually a lot like her. I no longer had to deny that there was any connection between us, you know, I don’t know how I ended up with this mom.

DA This oscillation between acceptance and rejection is something the Lambert children struggle with all the time. They struggle heroically to avoid coming home. But of course they do come back again, near the end of the book, for Christmas. Christmas is an obsession with Enid, reenacting the rituals that seem obsolete and sad, like the Advent calendar on the door.

JF It occurs to me, as we speak, that Christmas is Enid’s novel. Christmas is the thing to be achieved. She wants it to have formal perfection. It’s something she works on, she’s obsessed with it, year round. Enid is an artist of Christmas, and she’s tired of her daughter-in-law’s inferior artwork. She’d like one last chance to produce a really good Christmas of her own. By which she means something old-fashioned—much as The Corrections itself is old-fashioned. And yet, because of the changes that have occurred in the family, and also because we live in a changed world, a fully old-fashioned kind of Christmas is no longer feasible. The holiday becomes, instead, a comic and tragic disaster. Well, probably more tragic than comic. I think of art in general, and certainly of a novel, which is an extremely conservative medium among the arts, as being about various familiar forms and rituals. There’s nothing really new to say about the human condition, and so every novel is kind of a ritual reenactment, or retelling, of familiar stories, which proceed along expected but somehow satisfying lines. This ritual aspect is one reason why, for me, in a larger way, art in general and literature in particular have basically replaced the Christianity of my parents’ generation.

DA Another way that the Lambert children all act out this business of escaping from home, or thinking that they’re escaping from home, is through sex.

JF An escape from Alfred’s puritanism.

DA Maybe I could just run through some of the sexual scenarios in the book. There are great, long passages of sex.

JF God, I was unaware of this, but go on.

DA Well, let’s see, there’s Chip’s academic career-ending affair with his student Melissa. There’s Denise’s affair with the man in her father’s office, another defining and destructive act. Later in life, Denise begins an obsessive, obliterative affair with the wife of the man backing her successful restaurant in Philadelphia. That’s not a great idea on the face of it. Denise is pretty much undone by sex, and so is Gary, who I think of as the orderly, sentimental son. He seems bewildered and frustrated over sex, and the lack of sex, and its replacement by angry domestic fighting in his marriage. There is also, at one point, Enid’s attempt to give Alfred a blow job. She’s trying to seduce him into using inside information to make financial investments that could change their lives. Alfred won’t tolerate the suggestion of a shady financial move any more than he’ll tolerate Enid’s blow job, and you could say that Alfred’s fear of a blow job causes Enid to feel, and possibly to be, poor.

JF (chuckling)

DA The evidence, to me, is of sex as a kind of report on the state of affairs between people who wind up alone.

JF Oh, that’s harsh.

DA Is that too harsh?

JF I think that’s harsh. I think the sex is there partly because I feel like it’s something I can write well about and I seldom see written about well, and so I naturally gravitate to it. But my breakthrough, the thing I learned in writing this book if I learned nothing else, was that a good way to write a scene, a good way to write a book, is to define a character by what he or she wants. Sex is useful to the storyteller because the wanting can be so extreme. The wanting is so blunt and ferocious. It’s a great plot device; once you take away conspiring Indians, or serendipitous earthquakes, you need something else to drive the plot.

DA Yes.

JF These are hungry people. There may be a lot of sex in the book, but there’s even more food. I feel as if I gravitated toward food and sex because I myself was hungry in a million ways—sexually hungry, literally hungry, hungry to have a new book done, hungry for attention as any novelist is. But I was also looking for a counterpoint to the relative abstraction of the cultural or political or linguistic preoccupations that drove the previous generation of big novels. Saying “I’m hungry and I want something” is a form of correction, a correction towards more traditional and humane motives for a novel.

DA There are many, many corrections in The Corrections.

JF Market corrections, and prisons. And Chip is obsessed with making corrections to his screenplay that he’s trying and failing to sell.

DA Enid’s attempt to correct her mood with what turns out to be a club drug that she gets from a bogus doctor on a cruise ship. And Alfred thinking about his young daughter Denise and about how he planned to give her some of the gentleness and indulgence that he withheld from Gary and Chip. But then you say, and I’m quoting, “What made correction possible also doomed it.”

JF Yes, a bunch of things going on there. For one thing, I’ve found that it’s possible to go for years or even decades without telling yourself the truth about your life. The most important corrections of the book are the sudden impingements of truth or reality on characters who are expending ever larger sums of energy on self-deception or denial; and what’s being denied, of course, is usually awful news. Death, for example. I also increasingly consciously saw the book as part of a conversation about American progress, the idea of self-invention. We live in an age of self-improvement, in a self-improving country with a long history of self-improvement; and I am reasonably obsessed with Gatsby. As for the particular line, “What made correction possible also doomed it,” in a sense that’s simply the tragic spirit. Every gain is offset by a loss, and most losses bring some sort of a gain. That’s the spirit of the book as a whole. Beyond that, I’d rather not interpret the line. I think it’s interpretable, but I don’t want to be the one to do it.

DA That’s fine, that’s fine.

JF But where does that leave us?

DA Well, that leaves me with another question. You mentioned that you have a self-conscious awareness of your own thematic material.

JF Oh God, yes.

DA Describe what you think the thematic concerns of this novel are, aside from what we’ve already talked about. More to the point, what do you think your large preoccupations look like, now that you’ve written three novels?

JF I’m not sure what my big preoccupations will turn out to be. We were talking earlier about the sense of being a threatened writer with a threatened sense of importance, and therefore a threatened sense of personhood. From my perspective, I feel like I’m part of an embattled, retreating cultural minority that cares about books and about the values that have traditionally been associated with literature—tragic and comic values. But these values are threatened by materialism, materialism in two senses. First the sense of preoccupation with things and with money. Potential readers are busy experiencing other entertainment and earning the money to buy the fancy technological equipment necessary to enjoy it, and so forth. And then, even more to the point, there’s a vulgar intellectual materialism that is encapsulated, for instance, in the currency of the term “clinical depression.” If I say, “At that time in my life I was clinically depressed,” in a way this ends the conversation. It replaces a potentially interesting story with a very simple, material story. “I was clinically depressed. The chemicals in my brain were bad. And I took this material thing into my body, and then the chemicals in my brain were better, and I was better.” Obviously I’m not trying to minimize the seriousness of actual profound depression. But what we gain as science learns how to correlate the organic with the psychological, we lose in terms of the larger conversation. The poetic, the subjective, and particularly the narrative account of what a person is and what a life means—I feel like the novelist’s vision is engaged in a turf war with the scientific, biological, medical account.

DA The conversation around something like clinical depression forecloses a larger conversation about grief or loss.

JF Exactly.

DA Or about changes in life that are frightening or even terrifying.

JF Or about harmful changes in society that we might want to resist.

DA I think the novel, and the business of being a novelist, and thinking not only about one’s own position as a novelist in the world, but also about the lives of characters who populate a novel—this is a way to keep the larger conversation from being foreclosed.

JF I hope so. I certainly see that in your own novels.

DA We’ll talk about that another time. I have one more thing to ask you. Is The Corrections the book you want it to be? Are you proud of it?

JF I wrote much of it very quickly. I wrote 80% of it in the last year. I was on a federal jury when I was finishing it. I came to the point when I had two days left to write the last section of the last chapter and then the epilogue. I wrote each of them in a day, and I finished each day crying and not sure why, whether because the content was reminding me of sad content in my own life or because I was letting go of something that had given my life structure and meaning for nearly a decade. There was, as I was getting the last pages down, just this sense of grief. It nonetheless felt very sweet. When I handed the book in, I had a feeling I’d never had before and fear I will never have again—the feeling that I’d actually done what I set out to do. I’d spent a couple of years thinking, My God, if I can pull this off, it’ll be good. But then I would get so terrified and excited by that prospect that I wouldn’t sleep and wouldn’t work until I fell back into my proper working mode, which is moderately depressed. Once I was moderately depressed again, I could continue to work. But at the very end, when I was done, I did have one moment of pure elation. Of Yeah! Okay!

 

—Donald Antrim is the author of the novels The Verificationist, The Hundred Brothers, and Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Tags:
Novels
Character
Families
Grief
Sex
Writing process
American culture
Fiction
BOMB 77
Fall 2001
The cover of BOMB 77
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