Jonathan Franzen constructed a writing career after attaining the B.A. from Swarthmore College in 1981. Born in a suburb of Chicago, Franzen claims a midwestern middle-class ethos as his base. His father, Earl T. Franzen, was a civil engineer, and his mother, Irene (née Super), was a homemaker. After a year on a Fulbright Fellowship at the Free University of Berlin, Franzen married Valerie Cornell, a fiction writer, on October 2, 1982. From 1983 to 1987, Franzen worked as a research assistant in earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. He wrote his first novel during the 1980’s, earning a fellowship as a Massachusetts Artist in 1986 and the Whiting Writers’ Award in 1988 for The Twenty-seventh City.
The Twenty-seventh City presents the subtle attack of a Marxist terrorist cell against the dowdy and middling city of St. Louis. S. Jammu, the new police commissioner, is an East Indian in league with a handful of recent émigrés seeking to undermine the placid mediocrity of the city’s rich and powerful. The saboteurs engage in several tawdry and nefarious plots, including a bombing downtown. They are blocked by Martin Probst, a contractor famous for constructing the Gateway Arch, a man who is more public-spirited than greedy. Jammu’s counterpart, Singh, seduces and then kidnaps Probst’s wife in an elaborate plan to demolish Probst’s resilience. All through the novel the sense of midwestern values is assaulted and made ironic, though the Indian menace has its share of bumbling and arbitrary success.
In his second novel, Franzen shifts the setting to the environs north of Boston, where unexpected earthquakes lend the book its title, Strong Motion. Here the protagonist, Louis Holland, is ousted from his job in radio when an antiabortion group buys out the radio station’s owner. Coincidentally, Louis’s loony aunt has just died in an earthquake, leaving his mother in possession of a house sporting a giant New Age pyramid atop its structure. Louis, quick to alienate his mother and his callously selfish sister, chances upon a seismologist,...
(The entire section is 861 words.)