The Zealot

The Zealot

Jonathan Franzen’s Midwestern broods, like horsemen of the apocalypse, ride through his books heralding various endings: of eras, of bygone mores, of novels themselves.

Jonathan Franzen gives a speech at the Budapest International Book Festival on April 23, 2015. (Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 592 pp.

Before I read any of his novels, I knew Jonathan Franzen’s face, from the cover of Time. In the magazine’s story, which coincided with the release of his fourth work of fiction, Freedom, Franzen dramatized the ascetic intensity of his ideal writing environment: he had not only removed his laptop’s wireless card, so that the computer could no longer latch onto a WiFi network; he’d superglued an ethernet cable into one of its ports and then snipped the wire, to ensure that this hunk of plastic, metal, glass, and silicon would never be able to connect to the web again. It was a conspicuous and silly PR stunt, but it compelled me enough to start his new book. Who was this Luddite?

I read both Freedom and The Corrections on an iPod Touch, surely a form of reading Franzen would’ve hated, but it was the only place I was going to get his books for free during my senior year of high school. I illegally downloaded the e-book files and scrolled through their hundreds of pages on a 3.5-inch LCD screen. What emerged was a cautious appreciation for Franzen’s unfashionable disposition, his yeoman’s sense of craft, and his dedication to the ridiculous project of writing a great American novel. Later, I came to realize that his eternal faith in literature’s supremacy over other cultural forms had value all its own.

I bring up this personal history because the bizarre circumstances of my first time reading Franzen color everything that followed. Before I knew him as the (mostly) acclaimed, liberal, grumpy face of mainstream literary fiction, I thought of Franzen as but another star in a constellation that I had yet to be versed in (a college education, social media, nonethnic white people). He was an important writer for me as I crawled my way to an understanding of the world of literary magazines and book reviews, some of which implied that Freedom was better than (or as good as) books like Middlemarch, Humboldt’s Gift, and American Pastoral. One phrase in particular—from a rhapsodic series of “responses” published in a Brooklyn-based little magazine—is still jammed in my head: the novel in Franzen’s hands was a “feeling-machine.”

It was an accurate descriptor. I marveled at the nuts and bolts of Franzen’s books, which I could admire even from a handheld screen. His plots felt meticulously crafted, his sentences and structures well-oiled and efficient. Like John Updike before him, Franzen maintains careful control of narrative space (and an abiding, blue sense of humor), constantly sowing seeds to reap later. Consider, for instance, how a memorable scene from The Corrections—in which Chip, a disgraced professor, steals a piece of salmon from a high-end grocery ...