It’s been almost two decades since Jonathan Franzen confessed in print to his “despair about the American novel.” In “Perchance to Dream,” the long, almost perversely ambitious essay that appeared in the April 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Franzen explored a variety of issues: the fate of fiction in an age of distraction; the anthropology of readers and writers; the depressive tendencies of Jonathan Franzen. But the question of how Franzen might overcome his despair rested on something else, which was whether he could resolve the conflict he felt between his inclination to write aesthetically and politically challenging fiction in the mold of Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo, and his desire to “lose” himself in the intimate lives of his characters, in the manner of Jane Smiley or John Irving.
At the time, Franzen was the author of two “culturally engaged” novels that the culture had, in his opinion, politely declined to engage. The enormous popular and critical success of Franzen’s two mid-career novels The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010), which lifted their author out of relative obscurity and onto the cover of Time, has often been attributed to his having managed to write the kind of “big social novel” that had seemed on the brink of extinction. By his own admission, Franzen has fussed less over his prose style since publishing The Corrections, a decision whose consequences are evident in the long stretches of graceless writing in Freedom and his new novel, Purity. But a shortage of aesthetic gratification is a small price to pay if you believe, as do the writer’s fans, that Franzen has succeeded in combining the entertaining domestic realism of the great Victorian novelists with an accessible political commentary that captures some portion of the “agony,” as the critic Mark Greif said in regard to Freedom, of being a liberal in our time.
Franzen’s novels do communicate something agonizing about being a liberal today. But what? One clue might be found in the introduction to his essay collection How to Be Alone (2002), where Franzen contends that the Harper’s essay, far from announcing his intention to write a “big social novel,” was actually about him “abandoning” his sense of social responsibility as a novelist and “learning to write fiction for the fun and entertainment of it.” The essay, as Franzen himself admits, occasionally defies its author’s characterization of it, but his revisionist reading is nevertheless instructive when attempting to characterize what Franzen has written since. In the end, the critical swoon over The Corrections, a very good novel about an unhappy Midwestern family, and Freedom, a very bad novel about an unhappy Midwestern family, and especially the presumption that these are, in any meaningful sense, political novels, may say less about the books themselves than it does about our prevailing cultural assumptions regarding the nature of political participation.
There are contemporary novelists—for example, Norman Rush and Elena Ferrante—who would not believe it possible to write a realistic or even “entertaining” work of fiction without engaging what Franzen, in “Perchance to Dream,” called the “bigger social picture.” It is not always clear that Franzen believes it is possible either, and his recent novels are hardly devoid of political and social commentary. But they leave little doubt as to where he stands on the relative importance of the political and the personal. Franzen’s characters, just like many of his readers, are earnest and sometimes preoccupied with their public lives, but they are consumed by their private ones. Even and perhaps especially when they become impassioned about liberal causes, politics remains oddly hypothetical to them, alternately a Garden of Eden or a haunted house, and in either case a place that they are destined, like their author, to abandon.