Jonathan Franzen is the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections (2001), Freedom (2010), and Purity (2015), among others. An odd and often perplexing figure, Franzen is also a master craftsman with a broad knowledge base and a distinctive literary style. His novels tend to bind a group of people – often a family – around one core theme, illustrating how that theme plays out in their lives and interactions. He’s awesome.
If you judge exclusively from the headlines that appear periodically on social media, you can be forgiven for concluding that, for one reason or another, Jonathan Franzen is overrated, or a sexist, or otherwise an asshole. You’ve heard about his dust-up with Oprah Winfrey, the time he considered adopting an Iraqi orphan to jog his creativity, and you’ve seen, somewhere, his headshot. Much of that criticism is probably warranted.
But Franzen is also an incredible writer. His three most recent novels – The Corrections, Freedom, and Purity – are masterpieces. They take you down deep into their characters and into the fraught relationships that bind one to another. They’re about life, and family, stability and change, and the reality that, despite the best of our intentions, we are all deeply flawed creatures.
In preparation for this post, I read all three novels back-to-back, knocking out about almost 1700 pages in about two weeks. These are fat books, but the pages keep turning.
Any discussion of Franzen’s work enjoys a wealth of thematic and technical angles from which to approach. Where to start? What’s good to you?
The Iraqi orphans thing is gross, of course, but it’s also surprising to me: I think the primary reason I love Franzen’s novels is his psychological accuracy. He gets deep into the folds of his characters’ hearts, and he does it with care. In The Twenty-Seventh City, he has a teenage girl named Luisa feel this way:
Tonight Luisa was supposedly going to the Bonfire and then staying over at Stacy’s. Actually she was going out to dinner with Duane and spending the night with him. There had been a lot of this supposedly-actually in the last three weeks….Luisa wasn’t as much afraid of getting caught as she was sure that one of these weeks, in her tiredness, she’d forget which side of the window she was on and do something stupid at home, like French-kissing her mother or calling her father “Baby.” She could feel the impatience inside her. Why don’t people who like each other kiss all the time? Why do people have to lie? She was feeling more honest and acting less honest. It was a dangerous mixture, like gasoline and wine, like fever and chills. She still had a cold, sort of a permanent cold, the sense that none of the things that used to matter anymore. She could do whatever she wanted. She could just say: “Give me a cigarette.”
It’s hard for me to imagine how someone can render interiority that well on the page and be so callous in real life. As best I can tell, seeing this clearly involves some degree of empathy; sometimes I think it’s empathy that enables this kind of insight in the first place.
But not always. People are funny; Franzen isn’t the first incredible artist to act the fool. And for that reason, I don’t much care about his stupid quotes in real life – or not any more than I do about any other famous person’s statements, anyway. His books stand on their own, and they’re astonishing. The passage in The Corrections that takes you inside Alfred’s experience of Alzheimer’s – for me, it was telekinetic, full-hearted, riveting.
To that point, I think what Franzen does really well – and in fact probably better than anyone – is that he gives us a relatively simple story about a family and then fills it in with way more backstory than you were expecting. And since the initial, relatively simple interactions between the characters seem familiar and easily intelligible, you are always caught off-guard by the many previous experiences and influences that have prompted this action in the present. Which is exactly the condition that we live in all the time, with everyone.
(Marilynne Robinson does this too, but not on the same scale.)
In The Corrections, as you mention, Alfred is a really difficult old man who irritates both his wife and children, and you the reader share in their annoyance. But then Franzen takes you into Alfred’s mind and gives you a sense of his very addled perception, and you feel guilty for judging him. But then Franzen takes you even further back into Alfred’s past, and you understand that he was difficult long before he had Alzheimer’s. Then you understand how irritated his family is, until Franzen also discloses their complicated personalities and experiences and relational histories.
In the end there are no easy answers for or final judgments on anyone except that they are all human beings with flaws and that putting them together will often heighten or combine or otherwise bend those flaws in interesting ways. Occasionally they nullify each other – but only occasionally.
So yeah, I’m perfectly willing to extend a little idiosyncrasy credit to someone capable of writing this. Franzen introduces his characters to you the way you get to know people in real life – gradually, from present to past, and always with epiphanies that make you feel closer even when they’re repellent.
I’m listening to a podcast conversation between author Sam Harris and psychologist Paul Bloom, and they’re discussing Bloom’s upcoming book, tentatively titled Against Empathy. The most interesting moment so far: Harris argues that we get empathy and compassion wrong when we imagine that we’re supposed to feel what others feel, that we’re meant to be permeable to their emotions. This kind of emotional osmosis, Harris suggests, doesn’t necessarily help anyone. Sometimes, it can even disable us, diminishing our well-being and making it more difficult to respond to others effectively. Drinking deeply of others’ sadness isn’t necessary, Harris thinks; instead, we can learn to see clearly, feel compassion for others as they suffer, and still remain in a state of calm, uplift, and wellbeing.
You can take this too far, I think. The way we define psychopathy, for example, basically involves perceiving what other people are feeling but not giving a shit (and even using your perceptions to manipulate others). Harris isn’t advocating anything like that, of course, but his distinction – between empathy (semi-sharing in others’ experience) and compassion (expressing care without sharing others’ experience as deeply) – seems really valuable.
I wonder about this distinction in the context of Franzen’s books. He took me deep into Alfred’s mind, and my judging instincts faded. But then I learned more about Alfred’s past and the ways he treats his family, and my distaste bubbled back up.
Let me ask: when you read fiction, do you always want to empathize with the characters? Are there ever times when you get decently deep into a character’s mind and then decide that you don’t really want to be there? And do you ever find yourself retreating to a Harris-style posture of compassion – caring for the characters, but not wanting to be on particularly intimate terms with them?
Yeah, definitely. In fact, The Corrections alone is full of examples – I don’t particularly want to spend much time within any of his characters, since their flaws irritate me as much as they irritate each other. But the experience of understanding them on that level is interesting. It’s what makes the books so readable. I’m not sure that amounts to empathy, which is a word that tends to get used imprecisely a lot of the time.
How do you (or how does Harris) distinguish between empathy and compassion? And what degree of feeling is appropriate in reading or relating?
It seems to me that the more relating we can do – the more we can see where others are coming from – the better. Sometimes, it helps me connect with another person if I can feel what they’re going through. But other times – especially if I’m already familiar with the emotional terrain that that person is navigating – it doesn’t necessarily help to put myself in the same frame of mind. (I see this when I talk to people who have OCD and depression; I know those worlds in my bones, so I can hear someone and know where they are without sharing their feelings in real time.)
With fictional characters, it’s more one-way. (They don’t need anything from me!) Still, I think I basically feel the same way: if I can’t relate well to a character, then I sometimes have to feel my way into their world using whatever toeholds I can find. If I can relate to a character, on the other hand, then I can feel it, or I can focus on other aspects of the story, or both.