When an author is as well-known as Jonathan Franzen, it can be hard to know where to start. Scattered among his impressive body of work are literary award-winners, quirky non-fiction projects and personal memoirs – first impressions are important, so how do you pick the right one to start with? Lucky for you, we’ve put together a helpful guide to assist you in figuring out where to start with Jonathan Franzen – whose books are intelligent and readable, written with equal parts head and heart.
If you’re just starting out with Jonathan Franzen, you’ve probably heard about his most famous novel, The Corrections. Logically, it’s best to start here. The Corrections became a bestseller very quickly and won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2001, was a finalist in the 2002 PEN/Falkner Award and was picked for Oprah’s Book Club in September 2001 – which was later rescinded as Franzen was uncomfortable with the effect the endorsement may have on the likelihood of men reading his work.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
After fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity, and their children have long since fled for the catastrophes of their own lives. As Alfred’s condition worsens and the Lamberts are forced to face their secrets and failures, Enid sets her heart on one last family Christmas.
Bringing the old world of civic virtue and sexual inhibition into violent collision with the era of hands-off parenting, do-it-yourself mental healthcare and globalised greed, ‘The Corrections’ confirms Jonathan Franzen as one of the most brilliant interpreters of the American soul.
The next logical step would be to read Freedom, released in 2010 and after which he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine – the first time an author appeared on the cover since Stephen King in 2000 – and who also named Franzen a’Great American Novelist’. Freedom was also picked for Oprah’s Book Club, which Franzen graciously accepted, appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show in December 2010.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
This is the story of the Berglunds, their son Joey, their daughter Jessica and their friend Richard Katz. It is about how we use and abuse our freedom; about the beginning and ending of love; teenage lust; the unexpectedness of adult life; why we compete with our friends; how we betray those closest to us; and why things almost never work out as they ‘should’. It is a story about the human heart, and what it leads us to do to ourselves and each other.
So, you’re gaining confidence and getting to grips with Franzen’s writing, right? If you’re interested in Jonathan Franzen, you can’t miss some of his non-fiction offerings. This would also be a great time to read his latest novel, Purity.
How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
As a collection, these essays record what Franzen calls ‘a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance – even a celebration – of being a reader and a writer.’ At the same time they show the wry distrust of the claims of technology and psychology, the love-hate relationship with consumerism, and the subversive belief in the tragic shape of the individual life that help make Franzen one of the sharpest, toughest-minded, and most entertaining social critics at work today.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Pip Tyler doesn’t know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she’s saddled with student debt and a reclusive mother, but there are few clues as to who her father is or how she’ll ever have a normal life. Then she meets Andreas Wolf – internet outlaw, charismatic provocateur, a man who deals in secrets and might just be able to help her solve the mystery of her origins.
The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen arrived late, and last, in a family of boys in Webster Groves, Missouri. ‘The Discomfort Zone’ is his intimate memoir of his growth from a ‘small and fundamentally ridiculous person’ through an adolescence both excruciating and strangely happy, into an adult with embarrassing and unexpected passions. It’s also a portrait of a middle class family weathering the turbulence of the 1970s, and a vivid personal history of the decades in which America has taken an angry turn away from its mid-century ideals.
The stories told here draw on elements as varied as the effects of Kafka’s fiction on Franzen’s protracted quest to lose his virginity, the elaborate pranks that he and his friends orchestrated from the roof of his high school, his self-inflicted travails in selling his mother’s house after her death, and the web of connections between his all-consuming marriage, the problem of global warming, and the life lessons to be learned in watching birds.
These chapters of a Midwestern youth and a New York adulthood are warmed by the same combination of comic scrutiny and unqualified affection that characterize Franzen’s fiction, but here the main character is the author himself. Sparkling, daring, arrestingly honest, Franzen narrates the formation of a unique mind and heart in the crucible of an everyday American family.
For the super fans:
Now you’ve read the essays and critically acclaimed novels. It’s time to move on to his early novels and some more obscure projects scattered throughout Franzen’s career.
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen
St. Louis, Missouri, is a quietly dying river city until it hires a new police chief: a charismatic young woman from Bombay, India, named S. Jammu. No sooner has Jammu been installed, though, than the city’s leading citizens become embroiled in an all-pervasive political conspiracy. A classic of contemporary fiction, ‘The Twenty-Seventh City’ shows us an ordinary metropolis turned inside out, and the American Dream unraveling into terror and dark comedy.
The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen
A great American writer’s confrontation with a great European critic – a personal and intellectual awakening.
A hundred years ago, the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus was among the most penetrating and prophetic writers in Europe: a relentless critic of the popular media’s manipulation of reality, the dehumanizing machinery of technology and consumerism, and the jingoistic rhetoric of a fading empire. But even though his followers included Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, he remained something of a lonely prophet, and few people today are familiar with his work. Thankfully, Jonathan Franzen is one of them.
In THE KRAUS PROJECT, Franzen not only presents his definitive new translations of Kraus but annotates them spectacularly, with supplementary notes from the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and the Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann. Kraus was a notoriously cantankerous and difficult author, and in Franzen he has found his match: a novelist unafraid to voice unpopular opinions strongly, a critic capable of untangling Kraus’s often dense arguments.
While Kraus lampoons the iconic German writer Heinrich Heine and celebrates his own literary heroes, Franzen’s annotations soar over today’s cultural landscape and then dive down into a deeply personal recollection of his first year out of college, when he fell in love with Kraus.
Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen
In ‘Farther Away’, which gathers together essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years, the writer returns with renewed vigor to the themes, both human and literary, that have long preoccupied him. Whether recounting his violent encounter with bird poachers in Cyprus, examining his mixed feelings about the suicide of his friend and rival David Foster Wallace, or offering a moving and witty take on the ways that technology has changed how people express their love, these pieces deliver on Franzen’s implicit promise to conceal nothing from the reader. On a trip to China to see first-hand the environmental devastation there, he doesn’t omit to mention his excitement and awe at the pace of China’s economic development; the trip becomes a journey out of his own prejudice and moral condemnation. Taken together, these essays trace the progress of unique and mature mind wrestling with itself, with literature, and with some of the most important issues of our day. Farther Away is remarkable, provocative, and necessary.
We hope this guide helped you get to grips with Jonathan Franzen’s body of work and gives you a place to start. By no means prescriptive, this guide is intended to collect Franzen’s work in one place so you don’t feel overwhelmed, which can often happen when coming to a new author, let alone a critically-acclaimed, award-winning author such as Franzen! Let us know what you’ll be reading first, in the comments below.
Posted on April 9, 2018 by Andrea
This entry was posted in Recommendations and tagged Farther Away, Freedom, How to be Alone, How to Read, Jonathan Franzen, Literary Fiction, Literature, memoir, non fiction, Oprah's Book Club, Purity, The Corrections, The Discomfort Zone, The Kraus Project, The Twenty-Seventh City. Bookmark the permalink.