Tag: Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen – Sydney Opera House, September 13, 2011

(Working title: Franzen of the Opera)

A loose report of various things that may have been said at the talk.

It must be a huge burden to have people call you “America’s greatest living novelist” or “one of America’s greatest novelists” or “one of the greatest novelists”. I say this entirely without irony because, after being given that title, what left is there for you to say? Anything will be an inevitable disappointment, and none of it will be your fault. This is only true if the title was bestowed upon you; if you gave it to yourself, you deserve whatever you have coming to you.

 

In having written some pretty good books, Jonathan Franzen accidentally painted himself into a corner. His American novels became metonymous for the American novel. This gave Australians free licence to ask Franzen to deconstruct his country for our entertainment and edification. He was able to do this to an extent, but the evening was best when Franzen was being specific: why he writes what he writes, and how it all comes to be. Discussing the act of writing and what informs it is far more interesting than a simple oration on the general state of the nation in which it was produced.

Freedom

 

It’s easy to say something like “when you come down to it, all American literary fiction is the same”. It’s incredibly trite and flagrantly untrue, but there is something in the work of authors like Jonathan Franzen and playwrights like Tony Kirshner that strikes me as indelibly American. I don’t believe that only Franzen could have written Freedom, but I am certain that only an American is capable of writing a novel not necessarily of this calibre but of this thematic texture.

If there’s one thing that Freedom has, it’s texture. Reading it is a frequent struggle against its characters and the society that they find themselves in, a hyper-real America that can have only been imagined by one on the ground suffering under its excesses and political metamorphoses.

The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001, and I’ve long harboured a belief that Franzen was probably upset that he had just missed out on infusing his novel with the post-September 11 shell shock that infected many authors in the intervening years. With Freedom he gets his own back, capitalising not only on September 11, but also the ensuing incursion into Afghanistan, the global financial crisis and even the rise of Obama. By waiting so long between novels, he’s had a lot to draw on – and six years can disappear in the space of a page.

Freedom is a good book. A divisive one, maybe, but still one worth the time to read.