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IT IS 11AM PACIFIC TIME and Jonathan Franzen has just turned on the light. “Special occasion,” he says drily of our video call. A sliver of sunshine dares to creep under the venetian blind at the window. “I’m vampiric for the first six hours of the day. I do not like bright light,” he says. “Also, if I had the blinds open there would be birds and they would distract.” Franzen likes birds, a lot.
Five years ago he gave up his studio office on New York’s 125th Street for this monastically bare room in Santa Cruz university. He has spent part of each year here since he met his partner, writer Kathy Chetkovich, “the Californian” of his essays, in 1998. But after “a massive tug of war”, they moved here permanently so she could be closer to her elderly mother. “It was a war I was happy to lose, because I’d been in New York for 25 years and I’d had enough,” he says. “That season of my life was over.” He tried one autumn in New York without Chetkovich before realising it wasn’t going to work, “so I just threw in the towel, and now I’m a Californian”.
This September marks the 20th anniversary of The Corrections. The timing of his dizzying critique of American life and capitalist excess in the late 90s, published just a few days before the attacks on the twin towers, was “an uncanny coincidence”. The novel may have made his name, but it also made him “the second most-hated person in America for a few weeks”, he recalls now, after the Oprah Winfrey debacle. (He was snooty about The Corrections being selected for her book club, from which he was promptly disinvited.) He remembers a New York Times opinion page containing two articles: “One about evil Osama bin Laden and a piece on how terrible I was.” There followed two more novels, Freedom, which led to him appearing on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “Great American Novelist” in 2010, Purity in 2015 and several essay collections.
The six years since Purity was published have not been lacking in material ripe for Franzen’s brand of moral intelligence and zany satire. But in fact recent events have had the opposite effect. “The election of Donald Trump was like: ‘OK, now I give in,’” he says, citing Philip Roth’s 1961 essay Writing American Fiction, which argued that reality had surpassed satire, a view he had always resisted. “This had gotten so extreme, so crazy – that guy is president of the United States!” he exclaims. “It was finally time to give up any ambition whatsoever to satirically comment on the present age.” So he took refuge in the past. “Going to my office seven days a week and spending six hours in an era that wasn’t this one made it a lot easier to survive the last two years of Trump.”
The result is Crossroads, his sixth novel, the story of a family in meltdown in a suburban midwestern town (so far so Franzen) in the winter of 1971, set against a backdrop of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement and John Denver songs. It is the first volume in a projected trilogy, following the lives of the Hildebrandt family up to the present day, to be published under the modest overarching title A Key to All Mythologies. He had originally conceived of it as one novel, but given that he manages six months in his customary 600 pages, that proved ambitious. “Clearly, I have a length,” he jokes. “The perfect length, if I might say so.” Franzen doesn’t do short. He gives long, thoughtful, “granular” (his word) replies, with lengthy silences, often closing his eyes in the effort of making himself clear.
Told from the perspectives of five family members, with a toxic marriage at its centre, it is in many ways a mirror image of The Corrections (there’s even the same dramatic run-up to Christmas). And yet Franzen insists on calling it his first family novel, to even his publisher’s confusion. What were those other doorstoppers, making intimately real the unhappy lives of the Lamberts or the Berglunds, if not family novels? He has written very few that contain scenes in which all the family are together, he points out, until now. “It felt like: ‘OK, you keep calling me a family novelist, I think I’m just a novelist,’’’ he says. “I thought: ‘Goddamn it, now, even if it is a little joke only between me and myself, I’m going to write a family novel.’” As he says, invoking Austen, Tolstoy and Faulkner, “families are big for the novel”.
And so we meet the Hildebrandts: paterfamilias Reverend Russ, nurturing a petty grudge against one of his clerical colleagues and an unholy passion for one of his parishioners; his wife Marion, “rendered featureless by the dense warm cloud of momminess”, with a secret tragic backstory; and their four children, each facing some sort of crisis (the draft, drugs, love), except nine-year-old Judson, whose viewpoint we never get to share. Judson (AKA Jonathan) is the character with whom Franzen most identifies, as the youngest sibling growing up in the midwest, “in the tumult of the early 70s while difficult things went down with my parents and brothers”.
My parents’ faith was kindness. Now I’m in my 60s, I’m coming round to where they always were
“The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention” is one of his 10 rules for novelists, published in 2018 (“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction” is another). And surprisingly, given that it covers the period of his adolescence, “arguably the most important decade in my life”, Crossroads is his “most purely invented book”. He feels his earlier novels have already used up all his “hot material” – his childhood, his parents, his first marriage.
But anyone who has read his essay Then Joy Breaks Through, which appears in his memoir The Discomfort Zone, will spot echoes of his time at a church camp called Fellowship. This hippyish youth group, where the girls wore “halter tops and cutoffs” and “we sang along while advisors played songs by Cat Stevens”, is surely the model for the club in Crossroads that gives the novel its name. It was an “intense experience”, he says now, which he feels helped turn him into a more liberal, feminist teenager. His parents weren’t particularly religious. “They went to church but they didn’t believe in the things they were supposed to believe in. They went because it was the right thing to do,” he says. “My parents’ faith was kindness.” The word kindness comes up often in our conversation. “Now that I’m in my 60s, I’m kind of coming around to where they always were.”
Angry is the adjective most associated with Franzen, who has a history of getting into scraps. If, by his own admission, he spent the 20 years before The Corrections “walking round pretty enraged”, he seems to have spent the next 20 years making lots of other people pretty cross, too: from Winfrey to Michiko Kakutani, the former chief books writer at the New York Times. Franzen has been called elitist, sexist, racist, misogynistic, a technophobe, a climate-denier – and that’s the more polite stuff. Even apparently uncontentious essays, such as a tribute to Edith Wharton, have managed to offend. (“She wasn’t pretty,” he wrote by way of explaining her treatment of her beautiful female characters. “Perhaps it would have been better for me to leave that to a female critic to say,” he says contritely now.) Meanwhile, a piece on the threats to avian life in the US, arguing that it’s a cop-out to blame climate change alone, caused an outcry.
Some of the Franzen opprobrium comes down to his inherent white male privilege, an issue that has become more acute in the years since Purity was published. He has been taken to task for his portrayal of women and gender generally. “There’s only so much male rage I’m interested in immersing myself in,” Curtis Sittenfeld wrote, reviewing Purity for the Guardian. It is hard not to think that he is setting himself up with parts of Crossroads, not least the character of Reverend Hildebrandt, a minister hell-bent on committing adultery, who might have stepped out of an Updike novel. Franzen is at pains to show him as “not simply this ridiculous old goat pursuing a flirt” (he’s also a pacifist and civil rights campaigner), but readers might not agree.
I mention novelist Marilynne Robinson, celebrated for chronicling faith in American history: “Her writing is very much about the head, not so much any other part of the body,” he musters diplomatically. This is one criticism that cannot be levelled at Franzen, who has never been shy about body parts. (“My goodness, Reverend Hildebrandt. You’re rather large,” is one of the novel’s more unforgettable lines. “Sorry about that!” the author deadpans.) One way or another, there is a lot of gazing going on. How do you write about desire from a male perspective in 2021? His answer: set it in 1971 and make it amusing. “If you can make the character a comic character, if you can make the obstacles funny, that defuses some of the ickiness.” His hope that “if you try to be kind to people you are unlikely to run afoul of those who would judge you from a political perspective” might not cut it with his critics. But, to be fair, the reverend gets righteously punished for his transgressions.
Naturally, the hostility is noisiest online (just Google “Jonathan Franzen hate”). “I don’t read the stuff, I merely hear about it,” he says. “I just try to write it like I see it, and that gets me in trouble.” He has, as he puts it, “a complicating mind”, one that is clearly at odds in an era of likes and tweets. But for a writer at pains not to be misunderstood, he is frequently misunderstood. Taken out of context, his comments, usually part of a knotty argument that resists being reduced to a hashtag, can be relied on to whip up a Franzen frenzy on social media.
Not that you will catch Franzen on Twitter, or at least not the real one. On his computer, he has a photo of himself holding up his driving licence and a sign saying “I’m not on Twitter”, which he sends to Twitter periodically to ask them to take down accounts in his name. “It’s not a kind medium,” he says. “In fact, it is antithetical to kindness. When you hold up the concept of kindness in front of the Twitter-heads, it is like you are threatening the wicked witch with pouring water on her. Or kryptonite.”
Paradoxically, despite all the self-exposure and “sharing”, internet culture “functions as a way of concealing shame,” he believes. “The shame is still there in all of us, we just do our best to create these artificial selves to conceal it.” Franzen’s writing is steeped in shame; he is unafraid of getting into the dark messy stuff (remember Joey rummaging in the hotel toilet for his lost wedding ring in Freedom?). It is a writer’s responsibility to go to the places people don’t want to go in their real life, he says. “That is kind of my stock in trade, particularly in the essays.”
His refusal to simplify arguments or avoid awkward truths, even if it means upsetting his own tribe, has been most apparent in his writing on the climate emergency. “We’re taking carbon that used to be sequestered and putting it in the atmosphere, and unless we stop we’re fucked,” he writes, nailing the situation in fewer than 140 characters in his most recent collection The End of the End of the Earth. He wrote a long piece in the New Yorker under the title What If We Stopped Pretending? in 2019, criticised as doom-mongering at the time. Although he is no fan of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“I think they have a history of politically massaging various supposedly scientific results”), “it was gratifying to hear such an august body say: ‘We are not going to solve this problem, all we can do is make it somewhat less bad.’ So that’s a step forward.”
Happy is a strong word. Happy is mostly something you feel you were in retrospect, I think
He sees the US as caught in a “battle between two opposing visions” for reducing carbon emissions, with huge industrial development in renewable energy, dependent on building more power lines, on one side, and a more localised approach, encouraging people to do things like installing solar panels on their roofs, on the other. “Shockingly,” he says, “many environmental groups support the former, even though it basically means turning much of the open space in this country into an industrial energy factory.” And because it means more jobs, he fears “Biden will go towards the ecologically catastrophic programme rather than the obvious rational – derisory snort – nature-friendly programme”.
When he moves his head, there is a glimpse of a picture on the wall behind him. He turns his computer to reveal another one, both abstract landscapes by an artist friend. “They are luscious paintings but they are also kind of disturbing,” he says. “It is pretty, but the pink sky is actually an industrial sky and if you look closely, it’s a shore scene and there appear to be hundreds of shipping containers along the waterside.”
He and Chetkovich arrived in California “just in time for massive droughts and epic wildfires”, he says grimly. The devastating fires last year came within three miles of their home in Santa Cruz, and there are already huge wildfires burning this year, historically very early, “so everyone is nervous as we enter traditionally the worst of the fire season”.
But most of the time, Santa Cruz is a pretty great place to live. “There was always something a little suspect about my love of cities,” he muses, as if writing the first line of an essay. His elder brother Tom, whom he reveres, was “a big cities guy”, and as a suburban Missourian, moving first to Chicago and then New York, the young Jon was similarly enthralled. But it is a romance he has outgrown. Everything changed when he discovered birds. “The love of birds is so profound, so total, so persistent, so deep that now I know what it is to really love something,” he says. And I think he means it. One of the first things he did after being fully vaccinated was book a flight to New York, as much to see his eastern birds – “prettier than western ones” – as to visit friends.
It sounds as if he is, well, happy out there?
“Happy is a strong word,” he says after a Franzenian pause. “Happy is mostly something you feel you were in retrospect, I think.” But he will concede that some of his happiest hours have been spent on a Santa Cruz tennis court. “It will fairly often happen that if you play late in the afternoon the fog will come back in, it’s this perfect temperature, you are barely sweating, the light is this soft even grey, it smells of the sea, birds are flying around. I mean cool birds, right on a tennis court – sharp-shinned hawk, California thrasher. It’s kind of magical, actually.”
But it’s not all tennis and thrashers. He’s still “a work-dog”, putting in eight hours every day including Sundays. He spends the first two to four hours rewriting the page he wrote the day before. With The Corrections he would delete the day’s work from his home computer to stop himself going in and endlessly “fussing” with the writing. Instead of the linguistic “showing off” of his earlier novels, he now aims for a transparency of prose, “just trying to make sure that every sentence is cliche-free and has a thought in it. I can see the sentences that don’t have a thought in them in Crossroads,” he says, screwing up his eyes as if the offending lines are floating vacuously in front of him.
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During lockdown Chetkovich took up knitting. “She’s not a particularly good knitter,” he says. “She would just work away, work away, row after row, and then discover an error and have to take it all back, up to the point where she made the error. That seems close to what I do.” He is 70 pages into the second volume, and “in the hell” of throwing out most of his ideas. If he “lives long enough and writes well enough to finish it”, he says, the Hildebrandts will keep him at his desk for another decade.
In the more immediate future, this afternoon he plans to leave his office and go down the hill, where “spread out before me will be this great blue bay with too many eucalyptus trees, but lots of redwoods in the hills.” Hopefully our conversation won’t land him in trouble, I say, and he smiles. “I fear it may be a lost cause.”
• Jonathan Franzen will talk about Crossroads at a Guardian Live online event on Monday 22 November at 8pm. Book tickets here. Crossroads is published by HarperCollins on 5 October at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.