Jonathan Franzen Is Battle-
Ready for the End of the World
“I grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class,” Jonathan Franzen wrote in a 2006 autobiographical essay. While so much cultural pioneering of this new century has been centered on expanding the borders and peripheries of what constitutes the national character, the 62-year-old writer who was born in Illinois and grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis—a writer who excels in capturing that vivid, queasy American middle from which he hails—arguably remains the most vital fiction writer of our times. Franzen’s third novel, 2001’s The Corrections, has become the cornerstone of literary wit and style. Since that book catapulted him to fame, Franzen has continued to chart the wry, delirious struggle of American fulfillment in a series of brilliant, broad-canvas novels, while regularly delivering essayistic dispatches on various obsessions (birdwatching, German modernist novelists, ecological Armageddon).
In 2018, he moved from New York City to Santa Cruz, California. Over the years, there have been occasional rumors that Franzen had decided to stop writing novels. Thankfully, he has instead been hard at work on his current masterpiece, the first volume in a trilogy that spans three generations. This fall’s Crossroads delves into the emotional, spiritual, and material lives of the Hildebrandt family in early-’70s suburban Illinois. It is, without a doubt—sentence after glorious, unbridled sentence—an epic of the heart and mind. It brims with so much Franzenean energy and detail that I predict a slew of dissertations by the century’s end on Franzen’s descriptions of weather. And yet turning the pages, you can feel the scorch on your fingertips of each character burning with wants and desires and demons, in their pursuit of those mythic American values of gratification and goodness. Franzen has long been a friend and fan of the novelist, television writer, and playwright Theresa Rebeck. They met through Franzen’s “spouse-equivalent,” the writer Kathryn Chetkovich, and share, according to Franzen, “a feminist sensibility and a love of 19th-century novels.” Plus, when Franzen and Chetkovich were moving out of their Upper East Side apartment, Rebeck’s son, a newcomer to New York, was the lucky beneficiary of their leftover furniture. Here, Franzen and Rebeck discuss the meaning and madness of literature in an all but hopeless world.