Jonathan Franzen Withdraws

Jon Baskin in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_1448 Oct. 22 10.09It’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 ofHarper’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) andFreedom (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.

More here.