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, Renee Seitchek, with whom he develops a relationship. She theorizes that the local chemical industry, in which her new beau’s mother is deeply vested through the inheritance, has been using a deep well for dumping toxic wastes, which is the incipient cause of the earthquakes. Renee is shot upon leaving an abortion clinic, and Louis nurses her back to health. Wrongs are later righted when a large quake causes enough damage to reveal the corporation’s culpability in environmental crime.
Franzen became notorious in September of 2001 when he expressed ambivalence over having his third novel, The Corrections, included in a book club list promoted by media maven and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. The novel earned the National Book Award that year. Franzen’s propensity to include a range of social issues is even more noticeable in The Corrections, the story of the Lambert family in decline and fragmentation. At about mid-book the reader learns that the main plot is the simple attempt of the mother, Enid, to bring all the family together for a last Christmas before the father dissipates in dotage. She is trying to correct a flaw, just as each of the three children is dealing with his or her own corrections.
The book first introduces Chip, former professor of literature and culture who had been dismissed for stalking a woman student. Barely surviving in New York City, he submits a screenplay that he quickly realizes needs serious corrections. When the project flops, his girlfriend’s ex-lover enmeshes Chip in an Internet promotion scam in gangster-ruled Lithuania. Meanwhile, his sister, Denise, a trend-setting chef, spends a good deal of her life learning her happiness is not in union with a man but in a lesbian relationship—a lifestyle correction. The eldest child, Gary, is caught in a marriage that he cannot correct, while he struggles against clinical depression. Instead, as a financial manager, he attempts to correct a missed opportunity that his father signed away decades earlier. The father, Alfred, is a cold-fish patriarch, an engineer who married by design and duty, in his later years a victim of age, incontinence, and his own stubborn refusal to share emotional attachment with anyone. Nonetheless, the children manage to show up for Christmas, albeit in ironic contradiction of the kind of cheery warmth and goodwill that the season symbolizes. Alfred sinks into dementia and is exiled to a nursing home, where Enid constantly corrects him as a form of revenge for his stinginess. After Alfred’s death, Enid’s vapid determination to begin anew, at age seventy-five, caps a novel predicated on frustration, dark comedy, and social critique.
Franzen is a skilled author who will not allow readers to become too comfortable with his protagonists. Moreover, he plays the role of an author who attempts serious comment in an age that he believes is uninterested in intellectual vigor. His nonfiction articles are mostly concerned with the ethos of being a writer. A reader might laugh out loud while passing through the bizarre and recognizable lives Franzen portrays, but the laughter is tempered by the sheer perversity of the world the author writes about.
Born in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs, Illinois, Jonathan Franzen was the third and youngest son of Irene Franzen, a homemaker, and Earl T. Franzen, a civil engineer. Franzen grew up near St. Louis, Missouri, in the middle-class suburb of Webster Groves. Initially, Franzen carefully guarded his privacy, but he later described his midwestern boyhood in The Discomfort Zone, a memoir about growing up in the 1970’s; he portrays himself as a sort of Charlie Brown from the Peanuts cartoons. Likewise, some of the essays collected in How to Be Alone (especially the award-winning “My Father’s Brain”) address and universalize problems confronted by Franzen and his family.
After graduation from Swarthmore College in 1981 and study at the Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany, as a Fulbright scholar, Franzen worked in a seismology lab at Harvard University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Later, he moved to New York City, where he lived on the upper East Side with his longtime companion, writer Kathryn Chetkovich. In addition to writing novels, he is primarily a freelance writer. His essay, “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels” (April, 1996), examines the relationship between novelists and mass culture; a revised version, “Why Bother?” appears in How to Be Alone.
The impish sense of humor revealed in his nonfiction is also evident in his novels, readings, and appearances on public television. Perhaps the best example of this sense of humor, however, is his starring role in a 2006 episode of the animated television series The Simpsons.