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Fair Or Not, 'Freedom' Has Earned Its Accolades
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's rare for a writer to make the cover of Time magazine, so it was big news
in the literary world when Jonathan Franzen was on a Time cover last month
before the publication of his new book, "Freedom," his first novel since his
2001 bestseller "The Corrections."
Then came a front-page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review that
described "Freedom" as a masterpiece of American fiction. And people started
taking sides before the book was even published about whether Franzen and his
novel were worthy of the praise and attention.
Now, you can read it for yourself. It was published last week. In a few
minutes, Jonathan Franzen will read from and talk about his new novel,
"Freedom." But first, our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review, along
with some thoughts about the critical storm this novel has already stirred up.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Jonathan Franzen is in trouble again. You'll recall that back
in 2001, Franzen made the misstep of expressing authorly ambivalence about the
fact that his novel, "The Corrections," might be mistaken for a women's-only
read since it had been chosen for Oprah's on-air book club.
Soon enough, Oprah booted "The Corrections" off her syllabus, and Franzen got
the reputation in some circles of being a snoot.
Now, all the hullabaloo over Franzen's long-awaited new novel, "Freedom," is
generating something of a feminist backlash. Why all this adulatory attention,
critics ask, for Franzen's latest domestic drama about marriage and family? So
many terrific contemporary female novelists cover the same terrain, yet their
work receives a fraction of the high-brow fanfare that greets Franzen.
It's like how men still get praise for doing housework and taking care of their
own kids: Any male involvement in the domestic realm still merits applause.
All true, and yet, even though Franzen gets more praise for doing what many
fine women writers do backwards and in heels, in the case of the blandly titled
"Freedom," it's well-deserved.
I heretically think "Freedomâ is even more powerful than "The Corrections,"
sections of which I found contrived. âFreedomâ is looser and more revelatory
and more ambitious.
It's the novel, by a man, along with novels by women like Allegra Goodman,
Lionel Shriver and the incandescent Sue Miller that I'd elect to put in a time
capsule to give a sense of the texture of middle-class American life to future
The husband and wife at the center of scrutiny in "Freedom" are Walter and
Patty Berglund, who meet in college in the '70s. We know that Walter is in for
a rough time when we're told at the outset that his most salient quality,
besides his love of Patty, was his niceness.
Patty, in the opening paragraphs of the novel, is the reigning stay-at-home mom
of her gentrified neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, a crafting and cooking
queen. But a crack in Patty's chipper, progressive, Democratic demeanor soon
surfaces when we learn she slashed the tires of a noisy Republican lout who
lives next door.
Soon, all hell breaks loose as the Berglund's adored teenage son Joey literally
defects over the fence to live with the neighbor's vacant and sexually
voracious daughter. Even worse, Joey will go on to work for shady civilian
contractors, supplying defective truck parts to the American forces in Iraq.
And then there's Walter's best friend from college, Richard Katz, an aging bad
boy and lead singer of an indie band called The Traumatics. Richard turns up
erratically in the Berglunds' life and simply by his very existence, reminds
Patty that although she married Walter, she was only, at best, somewhat more
than sort of into him.
The unspooling of the Berglunds' marriage as they become more and more their
destined selves is chronicled through a variety of perspectives, including a
brutal but often hilarious therapeutic memoir that Patty writes, entitled
"Mistakes Were Made."
One of the great pleasures of reading Franzen's work is savoring how he turns
personalities this way and that so that, for instance, from one angle, Patty is
a victim. From another, she is a shrewish and controlling depressive. And all
interpretations are somewhat true.
Even Richard, who could so easily have devolved into a rock 'n' roll
stereotype, is dense and surprising. Because he's a cynic, Richard is also the
source of some of the sharpest takes on his friends and the world they live in.
Midway through the novel, Richard achieves mid-level fame. Here are his
thoughts about a young girl who won't stop bothering him: She was like a
walking advertisement of the late-model parenting she'd received. You have
permission to ask for things. Your offerings, if you're bold enough to make
them, will be welcomed by the world.
Richard wondered if he'd been this tiring himself at 18 or whether, as it now
seemed to him, his anger at the world, his perception of the world as a hostile
adversary worthy of his anger had made him more interesting than these young
paragons of self-esteem.
There's not one throwaway scene in "Freedom," and yet, for all that effort,
nothing feels overwritten or false. Like "The Corrections," "Freedom"
celebrates and extends the possibilities of the good, old realist novel at a
time when realism is out of fashion, even in autobiography.
Franzen makes us skeptical post-moderns believe again, if only for a space,
that literature really can and should hold a mirror up to the world.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed Jonathan Franzen's new novel "Freedom."
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Franzen On The Book, The Backlash, His Background
TERRY GROSS, host:
Yesterday morning, I spoke with Franzen about the novel and the response to it.
Jonathan Franzen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been just amazing to watch
the story in pre-publication play out - Time magazine, the backlash against
your success, before anyone except critics even had a chance to read the book.
It's like you're a lightening rod. What's going on?
Mr. JONATHAN FRANZEN (Author, "Freedom"): Well, one thing that's been going on
is I think my publishers were tearing their hair out because the books were not
in the store and we were getting all the publicity. But that episode is now
What's going on, people seem to be liking the book. I think, you know, at the
level of assigning magazine stories and things like that, it's driven by people
actually enjoying the book and perhaps, in some cases against their will.
GROSS: What do you mean? They don't want to like you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: Well...
GROSS: I don't want to like this.
Mr. FRANZEN: You know, it's â "The Corrections" did well, and you sort of tee
yourself up on the batting tee to get whacked down. And that's â you know, who
doesn't enjoy doing that as a critic or as an assigning editor? It's fun. It's
So the fact that they haven't felt like doing that is really, really nice and
has, I think, driven a lot of the pre-publicity.
GROSS: Were you afraid of that, with this follow-up to "The Corrections"?
Mr. FRANZEN: I thought I'd written a book that I might, worst case, have to
hand sell, that...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: You know, I have a tour coming up and appearing at maybe 20
venues. And I figured if I could get 200 people at each to listen to a half-
hour reading, they might want to read the book, and then it would spread by
word of mouth.
That was my â that was how I imagined it selling as recently as about six
months ago. Because â and going into it, you know, there was all the talk
about, oh, the rise of the e-book and a general sense on the street that, like,
two years ago, everyone decided we really don't have to read novels anymore
unless they're by Stieg Larsson.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: And I didn't know what to expect. So it's actually really fun to
see that people still are looking for a book that says something about how
they're feeling now.
GROSS: Before we get to the book and a reading from the book, let me just ask
you what it's like to be on the cover of Time and what you thought of the
photograph. And I'll say, the photograph was so austere. It looked like
Jonathan Franzen, founding father, or Jonathan Franzen, hip CEO of bank or
something. You know, there was this, like, austerity, the kind of picture like
you'd see on the wall of an institution, of the founding father of an
Mr. FRANZEN: Knowing that the picture was taken in my garage...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: No kidding? Really?
Mr. FRANZEN: With sort of a turpentine-y smell from some old chairs that I was
refinishing put it in perspective.
My dad was a big reader of Time magazine. And I was saying last night, when I
met the editor at Time who made sure that the cover happened, that there was
almost nothing I could have done, there's no prize in the world I could have
won. I think, you know, meeting the president, even, would not have impressed
him as much as being on the cover. And as that sank in, it became meaningful to
GROSS: Just one more thing about this. There's a certain amount of resentment
of your success, I think, by some writers. And it's as if, like, you decided to
put yourself on the cover of Time, and who do you think you are? You know, I
mean, like, you don't decide to put yourself on the cover of Time. Somebody
decides to put you on there.
Mr. FRANZEN: That's true enough. I haven't been following any of that closely.
But the little bit thatâs trickled back to me hasn't sounded particularly ad
hominem. It seems like there's a different critique. It's a feminist critique,
and it's about the quality of attention that writing by women gets compared to
the quality of attention by male writers. And I actually have a lot of those
feelings myself and have had over the years.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen. We'll talk more about his new novel
"Freedom" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen, and his new novel, which just came out and
is already a really big seller is called "Freedom." And I want you to read from
the very beginning of the book. It's actually going to start with the
paragraph. Do you want to just set it up before you begin the reading?
Mr. FRANZEN: It requires only the setup of knowing that in the first paragraph,
we are told that we are in St. Paul, Minnesota. And this is basically a couple
of paragraphs about young gentrifiers in the early '80s in St. Paul.
Mr. FRANZEN: (Reading) Walter and Patty Berglund were the young pioneers of
Ramsey Hill, the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the
old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier.
They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for 10 years
renovating it. Early on, some very determined person torched their garage and
twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt.
Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to drink Schlitz
and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in
sweat clothes and said: Hey, you guys, you know what?
Patty frightened nobody, but she'd been a standout athlete in high school and
college and possessed a jock sort of fearlessness. From her first day in the
neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young,
pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon
old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string
bags that hung from her stroller.
Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of
baby-encumbered errands. Ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver
Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint. And then
"Goodnight Moon," then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just
starting to happen to the rest of the street.
In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling
self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life
skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn,
like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job and how to
protect a bike from a highly motivated thief and when to bother rousting a
drunk from your lawn furniture and how to encourage feral cats to defecate in
somebody else's children's sandbox and how to determine whether a public school
sucked too much to bother trying to fix it.
There were also more contemporary questions like, what about those cloth
diapers - worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk
delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts okay politically? Was bulgur
really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person
of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze
of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a
kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into
overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button?
Was it better to offer panhandlers food or nothing? Was it possible to raise
unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could
coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be
done in the morning?
Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a
roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with
the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch
that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to
anything: what was that?
GROSS: That's Jonathan Franzen, reading from his new novel, "Freedom." So
Jonathan, in this novel, you're in part looking at parenting, and you're
looking at it from the perspective of several - of a couple of different
generations, you know. And you're looking at, in the case of Walter and Patty
Berglund, who you just read about, you're looking at how they were parented and
what kind of parents they have â they will become.
And I guess I'm interested in why you wanted to write about this kind of arc of
Mr. FRANZEN: The phrase that pops into my mind is becoming one's own parent,
which has several meanings. You â as - I recently passed the age that my father
was when I first knew him as a person. Right around the time he was 50, I start
having memories of him.
So I find myself, without him around and without parents of my own, feeling
like him. And also, since my parents died when I was relatively young, the kind
of adult presence in my life that they had provided I've had to learn to
And very specifically, I wanted in this book to write about my parents'
marriage and their parental experiences as I observed them with myself and my
brothers. But I didn't want to set it in the '50s, '60s, '70s. I wanted to set
it in times contemporaneous with my own.
So in that way, too, I turned my parents into people my age; into people I
might be or I might know. And that was the real engine. It was something that
came from inside.
I mean, I know lots of people with kids, and I've watched my friend, David
Meansâ kids grow up from, you know, weighing nine ounces to now heading off to
college this week. But the primary impulse came from within.
GROSS: There's a part early on when Patty sobs to Walter about her parents: I
hate my family. And Walter valiantly replies: We'll make our own family. And
they do. They have two children. And it's like you're capturing here, in a way,
the fact that some people decide to have children to do it right because they
think their parents did it wrong. And then they realize how hard it is to raise
children and not make really big mistakes.
Mr. FRANZEN: You know, I've been around listening to young parents or would-be
parents certainly since I finished college in the early '80s, and it's a
refrain you hear: We're going to do it right this time.
You know, Patty's mom never went to her basketball and softball games. Patty's
going to be the mom who goes to every single game of her own daughter. You
know, her parents ignore her at certain crucial points in fairly brutal ways,
and she's going to make herself doubly involved in her own kids' life. And
indeed, goes off as a pioneer to the new frontier in the early '80s, which is
the decayed center of old Midwestern cities and tries to create a better sort
of fairy tale existence, apart from the corruption and the disappointments that
she'd grown up with on the East Coast.
GROSS: So she's going to be this active presence in her children's life, a kind
of presence that her parents weren't in her life. But for her son, that doesn't
really work out.
When we read a chapter from her son, Joey's point of view, we realize that he
resents that she's tried to make him her, quote, âboy palâ and confide in him
things that are uncomfortable for him to hear, like the fact that she was date-
raped at the age of 17.
And he thinks that she sees his interest in things like Tupac's albums and his
favorite TV shows as things that are in competition with her because she wants
him to be entertained and fascinated by her. This is his point of view.
And the son thinks that his mother has tried to make him her designated
understander. Have you seen that phenomenon?
Mr. FRANZEN: I've lived that phenomenon. I mean, there's a certain â in one
respect, it was not at all like my own mom, who had practically Victorian
notions of propriety, and it was not until the last few years of her life that
she really began telling me the kind of stuff that I think younger parents,
wisely or unwisely, are confiding to their kids at much earlier ages.
But yeah, it's â you know, you see it with the three or four times a day cell-
phoning to grown children that parents my age now do. There's a â there's a
quality of we are best pals, which is such a contrast to the sharp, heavily
enforced distinction between grownups and children that I'd grown up with.
So I was both channeling something that had happened to me and some of the ways
in which I felt oppressed by my mom's needs. But also, trying to register it in
a contemporary way based on things I'm seeing around me.
GROSS: My guest, Jonathan Franzen, will be back in the second half of the show.
His new book, "Freedom," is his first novel since his 2001 bestseller, "The
Corrections." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jonathan Franzen. His new
novel "Freedom" is his first novel since his 2001 bestseller "The Corrections."
Like "The Corrections," "Freedom" (technical difficulties) members of a family,
telling the story of the family through the different points of view of its
When we left off, we were talking about the husband and wife at the center of
the book, Patty and Walter Berglund. They hated the way they were raised, and
that spurs them on to create their own family.
Another thing about the parents, Patty and Walter Berglund in this book, who
want to do things differently than their parents did, they don't really know
how to be authority figures to their children, especially their son. And Patty
complains that her son Joey questions the basis of his parent's authority. And
she says: We make him turn the lights out, but his position is that he
shouldn't have to go to sleep until we turn our own lights out because he's
exactly the same as us.
And then you describe how Walter, the husband, argues with his son over the
difference between adults and children and whether a family is a democracy or a
benevolent dictatorship. That's probably an argument you would not have had
with your parents. They probably would've been the authority, period.
Mr. FRANZEN: No, I would've been spanked and sent to bed.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: And, as we're talking, I'm realizing the extent to which the book
is a lament for the loss of a distinction between children and grownups. So,
having grown up with this intensely meaningful relationship with my parents and
having perceived them so much as different from myself when I was child, I'm
particularly sensitive to the loss of that critical distinction in the culture
we have now.
And going further, I just finished reading Michael Lewis' terrific book "The
Big Short," and there's this great line at the end where one of the traders -
who actually made a lot of money on the financial crash of two years ago -
says: We kept expecting the grownups to step in at some point and put an end to
the fraudulence. And at a certain point, we realized there are no grownups. It
goes all the way to the top.
And I was hoping, with this book, to allow some people to become adults. And
the key moment of becoming an adult, the difference, one of the defining
differences between an adult and a kid is that adults relinquish a certain kind
of freedom. You can't lie around on your bed all afternoon, and you can't be
possibly any number of things. You have to only be one thing, or a couple of
GROSS: Do you feel like an adult?
Mr. FRANZEN: Strangely, in the last couple of years, yes. I have come to feel
like an adult. I don't really even know when it happened. It's only very
GROSS: Well, how old are you? You're...
Mr. FRANZEN: I'm 51. But I still felt like a teenager in many ways as recently
as a couple of years ago, and sudden...
GROSS: What changed?
Mr. FRANZEN: I wrote this book. I think it's occurring to me now, is probably
the biggest thing that changed. There was - the death of my friend David
Wallace might have been a part of that, as well.
GROSS: This is the writer, and he...
Mr. FRANZEN: The writer David Foster Wallace...
GROSS: ...committed suicide.
Mr. FRANZEN: Yeah, a couple of years ago. Just - it wasn't enough to lose my
parents. I still was the angry, rebellious teenager who occasionally stepped
into the, you know, stern parental role and wrote somewhat forbidding essays
about let's not be kids anymore. Let's try to write more adult fiction. But in
the main, as I walked down the street, continued to feel at some level like I
was maybe not 16, but 23, and that feeling has suddenly disappeared. And I'm
noticing it now, because the last month has been kind of crazy with the pre-
publicity and publicity for the book. And as I sit here this morning talking to
you, I'm noticing I feel more like a single person, not the person divided
between a teenager and an old man. I feel, actually, about 51, and it's
GROSS: So what role did the suicide of your friend, the writer David Foster
Wallace, have in forcing you or allowing you to cross the line into feeling
like an adult?
Mr. FRANZEN: Death looks different when you see it in a parent or somebody of
your parent's age than when you see it in a contemporary or a dear friend who's
even a couple years younger. It was a limited closeness, but it was a very
intense closeness we had as writer buddies, and it was played out mostly in
biweekly telephone calls. And I had the sense that I could pick up the phone,
call him, and anything I was feeling, however strange that had to do with the
writing life, or negotiating some position for one's self in the culture, all I
had to do was start a sentence and he would finish the sentence and say, yup.
And I would do the same for him.
And to suddenly have that end and know it was never coming back and feel that
as an irreparable loss, the world was no longer opening up ahead of me. I was
the surviving person, suddenly. I was the person carrying on. And, you know,
coinciding approximately with turning 50 and feeling how fortunate I was to
still be alive and how fortunate I was to still have the capacity to write, I
think that had a lot to do with that sudden turn toward feeling my own age.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you, here. My guest is Jonathan Franzen, and he has a
new novel called "Freedom," and it was just published. And it's his first novel
since his 2001 bestseller "The Corrections."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Franzen. He's the author
of the 2001 bestseller "The Corrections," and his new novel is called
"Freedom," and it's already been called a masterpiece.
So, reading your book, I get the impression that you think of depression as,
like, one of the defining epidemics of our time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Two of the main characters have it, or at least two of the main
characters have it. Patty, who's the main wife/mother, actually writes an
autobiography at the suggestion of her therapist, and a couple of chapters in
the book - in your book - are chapters of this autobiography that she's
written. And I want to ask you to do a reading here about depression. And this
is from the point of view of Richard, one of the main characters in your book,
who is an indie rock songwriter, singer, guitarist. So...
Mr. FRANZEN: Yes, who has recently had the traumatic experience of moderate
success, and it's particularly galling to him, having been on the margins for
so long - not galling, disorienting and, in a weird way, depressing to find
himself on NPR, which is a distinction between him and me. I'm very happy to be
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: Anyway, so this is - I'm just talking about his disorientation
following a certain amount of success.
(Reading) Katz had read extensively in popular sociobiology, and his
understanding of the depressive personality type and its seemingly perverse
persistence in the human gene pool was that depression was a successful
adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship, pessimism, feelings of worthlessness
and lack of entitlement, inability to derive satisfaction from pleasure, a
tormenting awareness of the world's general crappiness.
For Katz's Jewish paternal forebears, who'd been driven from shtetl to shtetl
by implacable anti-Semites, as for the old Angles and Saxons on his mother's
side, who'd labored to grow rye and barley in the poor soils and short summers
of northern Europe, feeling bad all the time and expecting the worst had been
natural ways of equilibriating themselves with the lousiness of their
circumstances. Few things gratified depressives, after all, more than really
bad news. This, obviously, wasn't an optimal way to live, but it had its
evolutionary advantages. Depressives in grim situations handed down their
genes, however despairingly, while the self-improvers converted to Christianity
or moved away to sunnier locales. Grim situations were Katz's niche the way
murky water was a carp's.
GROSS: Why did you want to write about depression in your novel?
Mr. FRANZEN: People who have a depressive cast of mind are usually the funniest
people you meet, and there's nothing like putting a couple of Eeyores into the
text to make it at least a little bit funny. What else? Why did I want
depressives in here? It's, you know, most interesting people become somewhat
depressed at some point in their life, and I'm not writing books for people
whose lives are perfectly great. People whose lives are perfectly great
probably don't need to read books like the kind I write.
Only if you have some regular connection with some kind of darkness or
difficulty or conflict does serious fiction begin to matter. And so it's simply
realistic to let people, as the stories of their lives build toward dramatic
peaks, to enter these dark woods from time to time. And it's really as simple
as that. And then because I think it tends to be funny up to a point, up to the
point where you need to be hospitalized.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Oh, yeah. That's a riot.
Mr. FRANZEN: And, yeah. I know. And that's and that's no joke. And it's
important to make that distinction, that there is, you know, a major depression
that really shuts you down - anything that brings you in the neighborhood of
suicide, anything that suggests hospitalization. That's really a different
animal altogether. But the much larger body of people who experience some
depression in this country are doing it in ways that are - are feeling it in
ways that are very much intertwined with the narrative of their lives.
GROSS: Sometimes I feel like the philosophy I was brought up with is summed up
by the Mel Brooks song "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst." And I'm wondering
if you were brought up with that philosophy.
Mr. FRANZEN: I don't even know if I was brought up with it. I certainly
witnessed it in my father, and just suddenly, it began to be genetically
expressed in me. I think about the time I finished college, which was the early
Reagan years when there was a dark nuclear shadow over everything, and I -
yeah. I didn't have to be taught. It didn't have to be modeled for me. It was
really almost hardwired.
GROSS: So Patty, in your book, sees a therapist, and at the therapist's
suggestion, writes an autobiography. Was that advice you ever got? I mean,
you'd be writing one way or another. You don't need a therapist to tell you to
Mr. FRANZEN: I wanted to write long before I was in need of therapy. But having
said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you
might do in a paid professional's office of trying to walk back from your
stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance
from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to
the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist - or at least for
this one - has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or
private experiences, finding - having - feeling that it's absolutely necessary
to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.
And I keep trying - I kept trying, through much of the last decade, to access
these subjects, these dreamlike relations with important people from my past in
direct ways, and - or I would try to get character who is sort of like me and
had gone through a marriage like I had or who had had parents like I had or had
witnessed a marriage like my parents had, and the characters kept collapsing
into me. And then I would be overcome with shame, and also a wish not to bear
my every aspect of my private life, and I would shut down.
So there was a lot of self-psychoanalysis, certainly, that goes into the work.
And, along the way, becoming depressed - although, it certainly feels lousy -
comes to be a key and important symptom. It's a flag. And it's almost as if
when I start to crash, I know I'm getting somewhere because it's being pushed
to a crisis. My whole brain is just like on the brink of shutting down because
it's so unhappy with the direction I'm taking things. And that's - it's not...
GROSS: Well, it's interesting that that pushes you to another place, as opposed
to leading you a paralysis of depression.
Mr. FRANZEN: Right. Well, like I say, I - my father had that Mel Brooks slogan
as the refrain of his life. But there was another parent on the scene and, you
know, my mother just had boundless energy and she had a much harder life than
my father did in many ways. She had bad health all her life but she was - and
she would get down but she would just muster from somewhere this Apollonian
ability to go on.
And so I, thankfully, could always step back right at the brink and it never
turned into, you know, major clinical episodes.
GROSS: So it sounds like for you writing a novel is hard work, not only because
youâre creating characters and coming up with the right words and organizing a
plot and all of that but because youâre thinking really hard about
contradictions in your own life and trying to work them through in some
transformative way in the novel.
Mr. FRANZEN: Certainly. Yeah, that's the brief. If I'm just writing about
something moderately interesting in using interesting well-turned sentences, it
just has no life. It's got to come out of something that's some issue that's
still hot in me, something that is distressing me and there are plenty of
things to be distressed about. And for a long time I was able to get a lot of
energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist
distress, even aesthetic distress, sort of a war on certain strains in literary
fiction that I was opposed to, and that kind of anger has become less
interesting to me because it seems like a younger man's game a little bit.
And also, the writer is still too well defended. You are armored in your anger.
And particularly, in the new book, I tried to let go of that or I found myself
letting go of it and went to the deeper more upsetting things, which were much
harder to get on to the page, but whose presence I could feel. I could feel
like some, you know, pool of magma beneath the crust, that there is heat down
there. If I could only find a way to tap into it, it will make the pages hot in
the way they have to be.
GROSS: You said before that you wanted to be able to say the unsayable in your
novel, and I'm wondering if you could give an example of something that youâve
written that you thought of as being unsayable.
Mr. FRANZEN: The great thing about novels and the reason we still need them, I
think we'll always need them, is youâre converting unsayable things into
narratives that have their own dreamlike reality. And instead of having factual
statements about what is - here's the factual statement I will never make about
myself, I can't make about myself, I'm too ashamed or afraid to make about
myself. If that can be translated into characters who feel like they have some
independent life, and if they're embodying through their story that
informational material about myself, then I feel as if it's been not quite said
but it's been enacted.
And if you want an example, I would say what happens to Patty and Walter's son
Joey in the course of the book, in spite of how adamantly he's asserting that
he's on the same level as his parents, at a certain point, the story, the world
puts him in a position where he doesnât know what to do. And suddenly, there
comes welling up all of these feelings about both of his parents, maybe
particularly his mother, that he's just not prepared to handle. And even though
the content that comes welling up in him is not quite not my content, that
experience of being the very well-defended young man, who's nonetheless sitting
on this impossible stuff, desperately trying to keep it under control, that
enacted something that came as close to saying the unsayable as I could in that
GROSS: Jonathan Franzen, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so
Mr. FRANZEN: Thank you, Terry. It's always a pleasure.
GROSS: Jonathan Franzen's new novel is called "Freedom." You can read an
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, our rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Katy Perry's new album. This is
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Katy Perry: A 'Teenage Dream,' An Artistic Musician
TERRY GROSS, host:
Katy Perry released a single in May that became what many people agree was the
pop hit of the summer, a song called "California Gurls," which is different
from the Beach Boys' song.
"California Gurls" is on Perry's new album, "Teenage Dream." Last week,
"Teenage Dream" was number one on Billboard's 200 top-selling albums.
Our rock critic Ken Tucker says "Teenage Dream" is just one part of what he
calls the Katy Perry art project. Here's his review.
(Soundbite of song, "Hummingbird Beat")
Ms. KATY PERRY (Musician): (Singing) You make me feel like I'm losing my
virginity, the first time, every time when you touching me. I make you bloom
like the flower that you never seen. Under the sun we are one buzzing energy...
KEN TUCKER: If I say that for Katy Perry, choosing the right color for a wig or
the shape of a high heel for a photo shoot is very nearly as important as what
beat to use in a song, I donât intend this as an insult. It's Perry's self-
consciousness â her awareness of herself as a complete package â that makes her
interesting. That, combined with the air of playfulness that makes sure she
doesn't come off as either overtly cynical or shrewdly manipulative in the
Madonna manner. Well, all that and the fact that many of her songs sound
awfully good: lush, lustily sung, creamy canvasses against which her image and
her voice can pose.
(Soundbite of song, "Teenage Dream")
Ms. PERRY: (Singing) You think I'm pretty without any makeup on. You think I'm
funny when I tell the punch line wrong. I know you get me, so I'll let my walls
come down, down. Before you met me I was a wreck, but things were kind of
heavy. You brought me to life. Now every February you'll be my valentine,
Let's go all the way tonight. No regrets, just love. We can dance until we die.
You and I we'll be young forever. You make me feel like I'm living a teenage
dream. The way you turn me on, I can't sleep. Let's runaway and don't ever look
back. Don't ever look back. My heart...
TUCKER: Perry wants to be a lot of people's teenage dream. She's cited
influences that literal teenagers may not recognize these days: Elizabeth
Taylor, Jane Russell. But teenagers at heart, who know the history of the good-
girl-art tradition Perry's media appearances are referencing, can't help but be
I don't think Perry's take on "California Gurls" exceeds The Beach Boys', but
neither does Perry. For her, the phrase "California Gurls" is less about
summoning up a state of mind than it is some combination of anthem and a
celebration of celebrity. Specifically, it's about what it's like to hang out
with Snoop Dogg, who makes a vocal cameo, and by implication, what it's like to
introduce your new boyfriend-fiance, British actor/comedian Russell Brand, to
the California lifestyle.
(Soundbite of song, "California Gurls")
SNOOP DOGG (Musician): (Rapping) Greetings loved ones. Let's take a journey.
Ms. PERRY: (Singing) I know a place where the grass is really greener. Warm,
wet and wild, there must be something in the water. Sipping gin and juice,
laying underneath the palm trees, undone. The boys break their necks trying to
creep a little sneak peek, at us.
You could travel the world but nothing comes close to the Golden Coast. Once
you party with us, you'll be falling in love. Oooooh oh oooooh.
California girls we're unforgettable. Daisy dukes, bikinis on top. Sun-kissed
skin so hot, we'll melt your popsicle. Oooooh oh oooooh. California girls,
TUCKER: The Katy Perry art project includes having artist Will Cotton execute a
portrait of Perry swaddled in cotton-candy clouds. It includes turning her
relationship with Russell Brand into ongoing performance art at public
appearances. And it includes the creation of clever pop songs such as the cute
decadence of a song like "Last Friday Night," in which Katy can say that she
woke smelling like a mini-bar and still seems bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Plus, it's nice to hear the syllables of a couplet such as: I think I need a
ginger ale. That was such an epic fail, click into place.
(Soundbite of song, "Stranger in my House")
Ms. PERRY: (Singing) There's a stranger in my bed. There's a pounding in my
head. Glitter all over the room. Pink flamingos in the pool. I smell like a
mini-bar. DJ's passed out in the yard. Barbies on the barbeque. There's a
hickie or a bruise.
Pictures of last night, ended up online. I'm screwed. Oh well. It's a black top
blur. But I'm pretty sure it ruled. Damn.
Last Friday night, yeah we danced on tabletops. And we took too many shots.
Think we kissed but I forgot, last Friday night. Yeah we maxed our credit
TUCKER: Perry's album has its serious moments, extravagantly emotional ballads
in which the 25-year-old gets in touch with her inner 15-year-old. From these,
some of us avert our ears. Most of the time, however, "Teenage Dream" is an
album that suggests you can will yourself into happiness, into romance, into
offering a pop-art alternative to competition that not only includes Lady Gaga
but Eminem and Arcade Fire.
Aware of music as an art project, Perry is clearing some territory for herself.
She's staking her claim by pouting at the camera, stamping a high heel into the
soft center of the music industry, and singing in a clear, strong voice about
how exhilarating it is be clear and strong about what you want.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Katy
Perry's new album "Teenage Dream." She'll perform on the season opener of
"Saturday Night Live" September 25th.
You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm
(Soundbite of song, "The One That Got Away")
Ms. PERRY: (Singing) Summer after high school when we first met. We made-out in
your Mustang to Radiohead. And on my 18th birthday we bought matching tattoos.
Used to steal your parent's liquor and climb to the roof. Talk about our future
like we had a clue. Never planned that one day I'd be losing you. In another
life I would be your girl...
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