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Jonathan Franzen, world's greatest writer, I guess

So who is he? Where does he live? What does he look like? Is he a tiny mythical creature, as some have suggested?

September 15, 2010|By John Kenney

"Jonathan Franzen's new novel, 'Freedom,' like his previous book, 'The Corrections,' is a masterpiece of American fiction.... Like all great novels, 'Freedom' does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author's profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew."

— The New York Times Book Review

Once in a generation, or perhaps once every two generations, or twice in one generation, or even something longer than a generation time-wise (be it once or twice), a writer comes along and fundamentally changes not merely fiction or literature or the way words are linked together, but society and cognitive behavior and our understanding of time and sporting events, television and life on Earth and even the way animals mate and how humans use a debit or rewards card. That man is Jonathan Franzen.

Like a modern-day J.D. Salinger, Franzen rarely appears in public — no more than one print interview, one TV interview, one in-store appearance, one major national magazine cover and one online video post a day.

So who is he? Where does he live? What does he look like? Is he a tiny mythical creature, as some have suggested?

What is known is that he wrote a book called "The Corrections," many, many, many years ago, which was about something that needed to be fixed. Now there's a new book, "Freedom."

His influence and reach, his mastery of almost everything, is far-reaching. And yes, I know I used the word "reach" twice. I did it on purpose. It's something Jonathan Franzen wouldn't do but that he would find funny. I think.

So many questions about this remarkable figure.

Why did Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton call him last week to help mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? Was it because, as both warring factions say, "He gets us"? Why is Franzen the only man in the West Kim Jong Il will accept as a Facebook friend? Is it true that the cause of the BP accident in the Gulf of Mexico was distracted workers who'd illegally obtained galley proofs of "Freedom"? Why have most major universities canceled their graduate writing programs because, as a panel recently declared, "There's nothing more to write about after Franzen"?

Things you may not know about Jonathan Franzen:

There is no language he does not speak or read. Of the roughly 6,000 languages spoken on the planet, he can write in half of them.

He was, during his 20s, a professional hang-glider.

He coined the phrase, "But those aren't my pants."

It is said that a woman can become pregnant simply by making eye contact with him.

Roger Federer refuses to play him in tennis.

We need more coverage in the mainstream media to cover this boy genius who isn't a boy anymore. Rather, he is a boy-man. Or perhaps man-boy. Or man-child. Or child of men, though not literally, as his biological parents were male and female.

And what about Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway and Mitch Albom, the three greatest writers of the 20th century? Aren't they more important than Jonathan Franzen?

You make me laugh with your absurd question, because the fact that you even ask it says you don't get it, and also, they're dead (except for Albom). Because if Hemingway were here now and had a conversation with Jonathan Franzen, it would go exactly like this:

HEMINGWAY: The wine is cold and good.

FRANZEN: It's OK. I don't love it. I wish we'd gone someplace else.

HEMINGWAY: Want to box or wrestle or kiss?

FRANZEN: No.

HEMINWAY: Where did you get your glasses?

FRANZEN: Barneys.

HEMINGWAY: What's the difference between a thriller and a mystery? What is a plot? Why doesn't anyone ever write people sitting on the toilet?

FRANZEN: Your fly is down. Hey look, it's Virginia Woolf.

WOOLF: Hi.

FRANZEN: Hi.

HEMINGWAY: Hi.

FRANZEN: What's with all the rocks?

WOOLF: Oh, nothing.

HEMINGWAY: "Mrs. Dalloway" is the third best novel I've ever read after "The Corrections" and "Freedom," even though I'm dead and didn't read "The Corrections" or "Freedom."

WOOLF: Thanks. But I don't consider myself fluent in the English language compared with Jonathan. You look different from the book jacket photo in "The Corrections."

FRANZEN: Whatever.

WOOLF: Who the hell does Michael Cunningham think he is, anyway? Get your own idea.

HEMINGWAY/FRANZEN: Totally.

WOOLF: Is that Jesus and Gandhi?

HEMINGWAY: Yes. Let's get two more seats and more wine.

GANDHI (to Franzen): You're amazing.

JESUS (to Franzen): He's right. And I know.

All laugh. Awkward silence ensues.

Let me close by saying this, perhaps my most important point about Jonathan Franzen: How does a man like Jonathan Franzen (a foolish beginning to a sentence because there are no men like Jonathan Franzen, but now I am unable to get out of this sentence and it's already in print and that's embarrassing so I will end with ellipses … ).

John Kenney is a writer in New York.

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