jonathan franzen interviewed by william kowalski at 5 pm, and reading with matthew kneale and arturo perez-reverte at 8 pm, Friday (October 26). Lakeside Terrace (York Quay Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West). $18. 416-973-4000.
novelists are rarely treated likerock or movie stars, but Jonathan Franzen seems to be getting used to the attention.The New York author's new novel, The Corrections, is the hottest work of fiction in North America right now, lodged atop best-seller charts and with a movie adaptation already plotted. Franzen himself is at the centre of the fuss, popping up on Nightline as a "spokesman for a generation" and the subject of battles for exclusive interviews.
The novel itself is surrounded by a bizarre discourse. When friends hear you're reading The Corrections, the question isn't whether the book's any good, but if it's actually as good as the hype makes it out to be.
As it turns out, it is very good. It's the epic story of a dysfunctional family, American quick-fix remedies and a mother's desire for one last Christmas at home.
Each member of the Lambert family has problems coping with reality, from instant-millionaire son Gary, who's bullied by his wife and young children, and failure Chip, who moves to Lithuania to help defraud investors, to father Alfred who's suffering from Parkinson's disease and has hallucinations about menacing talking turds.
It's a sweeping, staggeringly ambitious, often incredibly funny book. It's also fairly close to what Franzen himself promised he'd write in a widely read Harper's essay on the death of the novel and the writer in the age of TV and PlayStation 2.
Franzen declared that he could write a big, serious book that also fit into contemporary culture, a new kind of Great American Novel, and The Corrections is his response to that challenge.
"I had a vision of what this book would be," Franzen offers from Manhattan. "I wanted to put on other people's nightstands the book I wanted on my nightstand, a social novel that engaged with what was happening in the world but was also fun to read. I think I was successful."
Just finishing the book was success enough for Franzen. The Corrections was written over seven years at a pace that could easily be called torturous. Thousands of pages of writing were trashed, several months were spent stuck on tiny sections of the book and, after six years of intensive work, Franzen still had only about 150 pages of manuscript completed.
The stories of a hermit-like Franzen huddled in a dark closet, his marriage dissolved and his friendships eroded, writing furiously for 12 hours a day aren't exactly true, but they're close.
""Torture' is a strong word to describe the writing of The Corrections, but that's not bad," Franzen laughs. "There was a lot of pain, but often it was balanced by moments of great elation.
"Two years ago, I had a list of 20 basic questions about the story that still weren't answered after five years of work. One by one, those fell, and the last of them I was answering in October of 2000. Once that was done, it was over. I wrote most of The Corrections in 2000, and my editor knew how much I wanted to be done with the book, but he was incapable of giving me a credible deadline because I'd missed so many already.
"The funny thing was, I liked the life that I had when I was writing the book. I wrote the last page in tears, and after I turned the book in I was so depressed that I did nothing for six months. So aside from the time that passed, the pain I went through was voluntary and, perversely, always enjoyable."
the corrections by Jonathan Franzen (HarperCollins), 568 pages, $39.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN