The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
by Jonathan Franzen.
by Jonathan Franzen

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In the days of my youth, when I first took cognizance,
not books really, but rather what is called
literature, I
desperately wanted to know what set the great novels apart
from the merely good.   I paid the closest attention to
professors, editors, theorists and other arbiters of taste,
trying to figure out what made them attack certain works,
praise others, and raise a cherished few to the status of
modern masterpieces.  

I read the critics who wrote about
novels, and in time graduated to
the critics who wrote about critics.
When an imposing figure came to
town, I was in the audience to
soak up the insights offered by
Susan Sontag, George Steiner,
Frank Kermode, Umberto Eco,
Tzvetan Todorov and other lumi-
naries in close touch with the
guiding spirit of the times.  I
compared notes with my peers,
and read the book reviews in the
paper.   When time permitted, I even did what anthropologists might
call field work, and developed views by reading
novels themselves
a practice then increasingly falling out of favor in college English

After long consideration and intense observation, I determined that
there were four ways—and
only four ways—that a contemporary
novel could earn adulation from the literary establishment at that
particular juncture in history.

First, the novel could make its mark for its experimental excesses,
and, in this case, the more difficult and insufferable the reader found
the work, the more likely that it was a masterpiece.  Second, the
novelist could earn acclaim for a work, or even an entire oeuvre, by
leading a lifestyle that was sufficiently bohemian, drug and alcohol
ravaged or otherwise transgressive—think of Norman Mailer
stabbing his wife, Ken Kesey ingesting massive quantities of LSD,
etc.  Third, a novelist could hit it out of the park by addressing a
pressing social issue, employing fiction as a tool of advocacy for
some righteous cause—a good book was a book that did good.   
Finally, if all else failed, a writer could take the path of
, Lolita and Updike’s collected works by mixing in
dizzying doses of sex, preferably excluding the standard missionary
position between husband and wife, and ideally leading to a book
burning, obscenity charges from a D.A. in a southern state or, at a
minimum, outraged parents demanding a novel’s removal from a
school library.

Those were the four recipes.  
No others existed, as far as I could
see.  And if following them was still no guarantee of literary acclaim,
certainly ignoring all four of them was a sure predictor of perdition.  
You took your pick, and made your best play.  Then waited for the
reviews to come in.

But note what is missing here—and this gets us to the topic of
Jonathan Franzen and his latest novel
Freedom.   Back in those not-
so-distant days, solid plotting, rich character development,
psychological insights, clever dialogue, robust prose and acute
structural control of the narrative earned you a one way ticket to
Palookaville.  Maybe these virtues helped you if you wrote genre
fiction or tried to make a quick buck churning out a so-called
supermarket novel, but they earned you
nada in the more rarefied
world of literary fiction.  As I think back on the professors and
critics that I dealt with almost daily, over a period of years, I can’t
recall a single instance in which any of them praised a contemporary
work for its plotting.   I can’t remember any paeans to pacing, or to
the nuts-and-bolts of integrating story lines, or to the crisp repartee
of well-constructed characters.   However, I do recall attacks from
the podium on these retrograde elements, now unveiled as some sort
of bourgeois deception or hegemonic form of distorted class

Given this personal history, I must inevitably marvel at Jonathan
Franzen—yes, we've come around to Franzen—who has
staked his
entire claim
on plotting, character development, psychological
insight, and structural control of the narrative.  And I marvel not
only that he is so good at these things, but even more that he has
parlayed them into a position of prominence in American fiction.  
When he recently appeared on the cover of
Time magazine, Franzen
had the distinction of being the first novelist in more than a decade
to be so honored.  And he did it without subscribing to any of the
four recipes that would have been required just a few years ago.  
Truly this is a strange state of affairs.

And this unprecedented turn of events also explains the inevitable
backlash against Franzen—a backlash that might otherwise surprise
an intelligent general reader unaware of the complexities and
paradoxes of literary politics.  Anyone reading
Freedom without
some experience in how highbrow reputations are made might think
that there could hardly be anything controversial about a book of
this sort.  After all, what could get people worked up about plain ol’
good writing?  

Well plenty, apparently.  
The New York Times reviewer Michiko
Kakutani was so incensed over Franzen’s last book, an inoffensive
collection of occasional pieces, that she couldn't help critiquing the
author, rather than book, which was merely the “odious self-portrait
of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive,
selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed.”  Other critics took
Franzen to task as emblematic of the decline in more challenging
schemes of fiction (that’s the first of the four recipes, in case you
weren't paying attention).  But even Kakutani is backing down
nowadays with her conciliatory review of
Freedom, and anyone who
thinks that is just a question of the superior quality of the new book
is missing the real tectonic shift underway.  In a very real sense, the
opposition is backing down.  Franzen has done something much
harder than writing a fine novel, he has validated a certain type of
aesthetic vision, one that was almost entirely excluded from the
pantheon just a generation ago.

No, he hasn't done it alone.  Indeed, the single biggest theme in
literary fiction these days is the return of storytelling—and that
comes out loud and clear in works of so many writers of Franzen’s
generation.   I could list a dozen or so names here, but I will abstain.  
It’s best just to focus on Franzen, since he has raised the ante the
highest, and taken the hardest blows from those who wax nostalgic
for the days of the four recipes.  To a certain degree, he has become
the poster boy for the changing of the guard that has been playing
out in literary fiction over the last decade.  

What do we actually find inside this book?   Franzen starts
with a dysfunctional family.  Certainly Tolstoy would be proud of
how unhappy families now serve as the center of so many serious
novels, but Franzen, more than anyone, has staked out this territory
as his special domain, as he amply demonstrated in his previous
novel, the tour de force
The Corrections from 2001.   Here again, in
Freedom, he is the connoisseur of the many ways family dynamics
can turn into a sardonic variant on those survival reality shows.  
Only when it comes to family, no one ever gets voted off the island.

The Berglunds, on the surface, are an idyllic family unit.  Husband
Walter has enjoyed a successful career with 3M in Minneapolis, and
now is following his bliss in his new calling as an environmental
advocate, “greener than Greenpeace.”   Wife Patty strives to be the
perfect mom, and supportive neighbor, a former college athlete who
has happily sublimated career goals in order to become the best of
homemakers.  Son Joey is self-reliant, a charmer who feels that his
luck will carry him through life’s tribulations unscathed and well
remunerated.  Jessica is the responsible, idealistic daughter destined
to pursue a career in publishing.

What could go wrong with such a solid team?  Over the course of this
novel, almost everything.  And as in
The Corrections, Franzen lets
each family member, and many of their friends, strut on the stage in
a major role.   Even the minor characters here are given the kind of
intensely visualized realization that is reserved for the leading
protagonist in other novels.  In addition to the Berglunds, we are
treated with smartly conceived narratives surrounding Eliza the
stalker, Richard the disgruntled rock musician, Lalitha the “other”
woman, Jessica the spoiled rich girl, etc.   Occasionally Franzen will
insert a character who tilts too much toward parody, but that is the
exception here.  In most instances, he creates rich,
multidimensional figures, where good qualities and flaws are often
jumbled up in an entirely plausible manner.   

Even when he skewers one of his players—and everyone gets
skewered at some point in this novel—Franzen never entirely loses
compassion for the character’s foibles, never falls into the
temptation to accentuate the comedy or tragedy by turning the
person into a stick figure.  This may be the area in which Franzen has
shown the most marked improvement since
The Corrections, one of
my favorite novels of the new millennium, but not as moving on a
purely human level as
Freedom.   From the start of his career,
Franzen could inspire us to laugh at his characters; now he allows us
to love them too—and don’t underestimate the difficulty in
achieving both of these in the same story.    

A certain virtuosity of authorial control is everywhere evident here.  
Even the sub-plots in
Freedom have their own deftly structured sub-
plots.  Franzen is relentless in moving his characters through their
paces, but the book never feels rushed.  Toward the end of the
novel, when he embarks on a new sub-plot relating to the conflicting
agendas over the division of an estate among contentious heirs—an
interlude that involved the introduction of new characters and
settings when the reader is almost at the finish line of the novel—I
feared that our author was pushing too far, that he needed to rein in
his imagination in order to resolve all the open issues.  But I proved
to be wrong here.  Franzen somehow managed to add new layers to
his novel even in the final stretch, yet still proved capable of pulling
everything together for one of the most memorable and heart-
wrenching conclusions in recent American fiction.

This book is filled to the brim.  But there are many things you will
not find in
Freedom.  The prose packs a punch, but is never
ostentatious.   Every hundred pages or so, you might encounter a
paragraph that is over-written, but for the most part Franzen
understands pacing and proportion as well as any novelist of the
current day.  The work disdains overt experimentalism, and despite
the inclusion of a plot-impacting text-within-a-text, no postmodern
theatrics are allowed to interfere with the narrative flow.  And there
are plenty of political agendas here, some of which mirror views of
the real-life Jonathan Franzen, but none is allowed to go
unexamined, unchallenged or trample on the nuanced human
elements that reside at the core of this moving book.   Above all,
Freedom is just good writing, plain and simple.  And if that stirs
controversy and debate, then it’s a debate well worth having.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Good Sqad

W. G. Sebald:

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:

A.S. Byatt:

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity

Jonathan Franzen:

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

David Foster Wallace:

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

American Fiction Notes
LA Review of Books
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Literary Saloon
The Millions
The Misread City
Page Views

Disclosure note: Writers on this site and its
sister sites may receive promotional copies of
works under review.