I have gone back to reread The Corrections before taking on Freedom. Reading Jonathan Franzen is a bit like taking a crash course on just about everything. As Oprah said in her famous dispute with the author, "he threw in everything but the kitchen sink." Maybe he did or maybe he didn't, but there is certainly no less is more at play with Franzen's novels. Of course I say that and maybe he cut the book down from several thousand pages so there you go Mr. Hemingway.
But reading Franzen is rigorous. He dares you to let your mine wander. The way he dares your level of erudition if not just outright knowledge on the world at large. The fiction writer as fountain of information certainly is at play here. I do think he dares those New York Times reviewers and editors and New Yorker readers with voluminous knowledge on a myriad of subjects. Fiction writers should have a grasp on pieces of everything ,but Franzen seems to have a grasp on just about everything and it is all there in his prose.
And it is this type of rocket fueled fiction that garners the paychecks and pushes one to the top of the literary mountain. No one can dare to out Franzen Franzen except maybe David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest. The two writers were friends and it would seem to make sense because the same hyper intelligence is at play to some degree in both men. Again the dare comes in...dare to take it all on and come up with a synthesis that puts your fiction into a coherent narrative.
So what am I saying? I admire Franzen's essays and I admire his novels, but I find a curious skating on ice quality to the volumes of information given in block pages with little break. Again the bye given to Franzen would suffocate most editors of other authors fiction. That they deem we should know about (the Corrections) Chips dealings in Soviet Russia or Denise's strange machinations with a restaurateur's wife and the intricacies of being a chef... well it is a testament to the writer. He has obviously dared the critics, the editors, and a hell of a lot of readers to call him on the volumes of back story in his novels and nobody has called his bluff. In fact with Franzen, one could make the case the back story is the story.
I suppose it comes down to your definition of fiction If you want the big New York Times book review summation of American life book, then maybe Franzen is for you. But if you want that personal moment defined, the living and breathing of every day life, the little tar bubbles on the roof, or the wet galoshes of your childhood in the closet, or maybe the man in the pink suit watchng over nothing outside the bedroom window...then maybe Franzen is not your man. Guess I'll read Freedom and find out.