Jonathan Franzen may still be best known as the guy who expressed mixed feelings about Oprah's book club when she chose his novel The Corrections back in 2001. But forget that flap. Franzen is one of the most insightful American writers working now.
His topic is dysfunction in American society, both families and the country as a whole. His prose tends to be lacerating without being exactly mean. He's the wise eye who can't help sharing what he sees, even when keeping mum would probably win him more friends.
His new book is The Discomfort Zone, a memoir in six essays. While it's taken some heat from critics, the book is whip-smart. Franzen answered a few questions via phone from New York City in advance of his appearance at the Wisconsin Historical Society (Tuesday, Nov. 28, 7 p.m.).
You said in an NPR interview with Terry Gross that you wrote a memoir because you'd lost your sense of self ' that to write fiction again you needed to answer the question "who am I, who is this person who would be trying to write the next novel?" So did you find out who that person is?
That's a really good question. It makes me regret having said that to Terry Gross in a way that was audible to the public. Um....
Does it feel different writing fiction now?
It's been hard to write fiction, and lately it's gotten less hard. It's started to make sense again. Weirdly I think that some of that has to do with the mixed public reaction to the book. It got some really strong reviews, and then in my hometown it got these vicious reviews, and the latter were very energizing. More than writing the book, watching the book be willfully misunderstood by people I never liked to begin with reminded me of who I am.
Do you ever wish you could go back to the anonymity you had while writing 1992's Strong Motion?
I do sometimes wish that, but not anything near 50% of the time. The last line in Hemingway's memoir A Moveable Feast is "when we were very poor and very happy." It's easy to be nostalgic about one's earlier misery, and for good reason, because a lot of good writing comes out of personal chaos and distress. But as sensible friends remind me, you don't have to wait long for misery to find you out again.
Several of the essays in The Discomfort Zone are set in the 1970s, and that decade comes through very clearly. You take it seriously, whereas the '70s are usually lampooned in pop culture.
What's striking to me, looking back, is how trusting we were. I think you had to be sincere at some level or you couldn't have stepped into the absurd clothes that people were wearing, and you couldn't have bought even for a minute Helen Reddy singing "I Am Woman." To that extent, it is so lampoonable.
I was very conscious of the '70s being defined largely as the decade that followed the '60s, which was my brothers' decade. It seemed like a belated, baroque, almost mannerist succeeding decade.
Environmental themes run through your work, from the earthquakes in Strong Motion to concern with global warming in the essay on bird-watching that closes The Discomfort Zone. Yet you don't seem at ease describing yourself as an environmentalist.
True. What's your question?
Maybe you could talk about the extent to which you're committed to saving the environment? Worrying about the environment?
Well, I worry about it all the time. The bird chapter is about the difficulty of being sincere about the mess we are in ' in a culture that is in part defined by reaction against '60s and '70s sincerity. If you start talking about the fate of the earth, you lose everybody but the true believers. So it's an ongoing rhetorical problem: How do you spread the consciousness a little bit, without alienating people with your doom-crying?
We live in Manhattan, so [we do] much of what there is to do, like not owning a car, living in a small energy-efficient apartment. I made a decision a long time ago that I was not going to take cold, short showers. And if I went to hell for dooming the planet by taking ordinary-length warm showers, then so be it.
Have you been surprised by the reaction to this memoir?
Initially I was; on reflection, less so.
You kind of have to read it in the right spirit, and if you don't have the right spirit, it's eminently open to attack. It's been a brutish six years in this country, and I think everyone is operating with a reduced moral compass, flying off the handle at small provocations, quick to see pure evil where in fact there might be irony or ambiguity.