Jonathan Franzen Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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,...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.