CreditCreditIan Allen for The New York Times
Jonathan Franzen now lives in a humble, perfectly nice two-story house in Santa Cruz, Calif., on a street that looks exactly like a lot of other streets in America and that, save for a few cosmetic choices, looks exactly like every other house on the block. Santa Cruz, he says, is a “little pocket of the ’70s that persisted.” Inside his house, there is art of birds — paintings and drawings and figurines. Outside, in the back, there are actual birds, and a small patio, with a four-person wrought-iron dining set, and beyond that, a shock: a vast, deep ravine, which you would never guess existed behind the homes on such a same-looking street, but there it is. There is so much depth and flora to it, so much nature, so many birds — whose species Franzen names as they whiz by our faces — that you almost don’t notice the ocean beyond.
He had been reluctant to move here. He played a game of chicken with the woman he calls his “spouse equivalent” (“I hate the word ‘partner’ so much”), the writer Kathryn Chetkovich, telling her that he would never live here and that she should instead move to New York, where he was living in the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side. He still keeps an apartment there. He doesn’t miss Yorkville, which he calls the “last middle-class neighborhood in Manhattan,” though he’s pretty sure the new Second Avenue subway will change all that. Things were changing so fast as it was. The stores he loved kept closing. His favorite produce market, owned by a nice Greek couple, had been supplanted by a bank, and the Food Emporium he reluctantly shopped at became a Gristedes that resembled a Soviet-era rations market. But where are you going to live? The Upper West Side? Best of luck. Each east-west block is nearly a quarter of a mile. “You need to bring a pup tent if you’re walking between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. It’s like, ‘Bring supplies!’ ”
It’s a different world here in Santa Cruz, an easier place to seclude yourself, to find some anonymity. You can interact on your own terms. Franzen and Chetkovich play mixed doubles with their friends and host game nights. They work out with a trainer named Jason twice a week, who was in a truly open adoption in the 1980s, a time when that was almost unheard-of in this country, which Franzen finds very interesting. Jason administers a workout that is “terrible,” though Franzen, who is 58, has grown to love it: push presses, 400-meter flat-out rowing. He likes to fool around on the guitar that sits in a cradle in the living room, “a better guitar than my advanced beginner status deserves,” trying to learn Chuck Berry and Neil Young songs from YouTube demos.
Even if you are not a natural lover of nature or of California, Santa Cruz just feels of another era. Or maybe it’s being with Franzen — how he leaves his phone in the other room, how he speaks in long sentences. I don’t know anyone who speaks in long sentences anymore.
Two weeks before, he finished the final script for Showtime’s adaptation of his fifth novel, “Purity.” He’d had an ambivalent relationship with TV all his life — his opinion on it formed while watching “Married ... With Children,” because of, he’s embarrassed to admit, a crush on Christina Applegate.
But he’d come around. He realized, reluctantly, that TV was where people were now, that big cultural moments more often involve screens than books, which, he guesses, is how evolution works. “I went to school on Dostoyevsky, and Dostoyevsky went to school on three-act plays and five-act plays,” he said. “It helps that I have a strong populist streak in my character, and so I’m not afraid of suspense. These are ancient storytelling pleasures, and why not avail yourself of them, particularly in an age when the novel is in retreat and people are looking for reasons not to have to read a book?”
He wrote an adaptation of his third novel, “The Corrections,” for HBO in 2012, though it didn’t receive a season order beyond the pilot. There were problems with it; he will tell you that himself. But that was before he really understood how great TV worked. That was before he watched “Breaking Bad,” then watched it again, and saw what it meant to keep someone glued to a story onscreen, how doing that is different from how you have to do it in a novel.
Franzen sat on the couch beneath a painting of the cover of a novel by the Icelandic Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness that he is “known to love” called “Independent People,” wondering how to spend the day. Maybe a trip to his office? Maybe we could go downtown and walk around the bookstore that he loves?
The phone rang.
He stood up and found his BlackBerry in the kitchen. “Ah, I see,” he said into it after listening for a minute. “Well, I guess that’s it then.”
He returned to the couch. He doesn’t so much sit on his couch as drip off it, like a Dalí painting, so that the top of his head rests against the highest point of the back of the couch, and the top of his long legs are not at the couch’s 90-degree sitting corner but at the end of the seat-cliff, where one’s knees normally would hinge. He folded his hands across his stomach.
It had been Todd Field on the phone. Field, who wrote a good 30 percent of 20 hours’ worth of “Purity” scripts and who was going to run and direct the show, had called to give Franzen the news that preproduction had been halted. Franzen stared straight ahead, trying to refocus on an agenda for the day. Maybe birding? Nah, everyone goes birding with him.
The phone rang again, and again he stood up to take the call. It was Daniel Craig, who had been tentatively cast to star in the show. He was being summoned to do another James Bond movie and couldn’t wait for “Purity.” But, he told Franzen, the entire experience had been extraordinary. He was very sad this wasn’t going to work out. They’d tried, hadn’t they?
Franzen sat down and blinked a few times.
He should have known. He should have known that the bigger the production — the more people you involve, the more hands the thing goes through — the more likely that it will never see the light of day resembling the thing you set out to make in the first place. That’s the real problem with adaptation, even once you decide you’re all in. It just involves too many people. When he writes a book, he makes sure it’s intact from his original vision of it. He sends it to his editor, and he either makes the changes that are suggested or he doesn’t. The thing that we then see on shelves is exactly the thing he set out to make. That might be the only way to do this. Yes, writing a novel — you alone in a room with your own thoughts — might be the only way to get a maximal kind of satisfaction from your creative efforts. All the other ways can break your heart.
Franzen sat on his kitchen counter, drinking an espresso he had made, his feet up on the island. The sun came through the slat blinds on the windows, so that they cast what looked like prison bars across his body. Above him hung a piece of artwork made of wires twisted to look like a surveillance camera that he and Chetkovich bought in Utica, N.Y., at the art studio of a friend of a friend. Surveillance is a theme of “Purity,” but a kitchen-mounted camera is an actual plot point of “The Corrections.”
He wasn’t angry that the show appeared to be canceled, he said. He had been paid for the work. He did the work. He did a good job. (Later, on the phone with me, Scott Rudin, who optioned “Purity” and set it up at Showtime, used the word “excellent” to describe the scripts.) And Franzen did it with no attachment to the outcome. “I’m a ’70s guy,” he said. “I’m a process guy.”
It’s for the best. Really. Really. Now he could fully turn toward the projects that had been whispering in his ear during all these months of writers’ rooms and outlining and script writing. He wanted to write a story for National Geographic about seabirds. Their population is down two-thirds since 1950. “Seabirds are in great trouble,” he said. “Seabirds are amazing, and they are in great trouble.”
He had more to say about seabirds. He had more to say about every topic we discussed. But here’s the thing: When he speaks, he enunciates down to the soul of every single letter. He takes this lingual habit and out of his mouth he erects complete cities — rigorously formed ones, with firehouses and railroad stations and schools and coffee joints and community centers. He makes no points that are complete at the usual magazine-article quotable size. He makes no points that can be distilled to a few words and still be understood in their breadth. The breadth is the point.
Oh, he said, there was also the new novel he wanted to write, which was coming along in the initial thinking-about-it phase. He had three character names picked out. “Everything is subject to negotiation, but once you get a name,” he grinned with his lower lip over his upper teeth, his head quivering in delight. He didn’t finish the sentence.
There was also the book of essays that Susan Golomb, his agent, wanted to sell — a collection of the nonfiction he had recently published. It would take considerable time to edit them, and even do some rewriting. He’d been surprised at how some of those essays were received in the world — that his Edith Wharton essay in The New Yorker that mentioned her self-consciousness about her looks could be misconstrued as sexist when she herself was so obsessed with appearances (“His depiction of Edith Wharton was so mean-spirited and off-key that I tossed and turned,” Victoria Patterson wrote in The Los Angeles Review of Books), or that his New Yorker essay on threats to birds more immediate than global change — like the proliferation of glassy buildings that blindside birds in flight — had resulted in the vitriol it did. (“It’s not clear what the Audubon Society did to piss off Jonathan Franzen,” the editor of the Audubon magazine wrote in response to the essay, which itself was a response to the Audubon Society.) Had they even read the work? Had they fact-checked? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. He had to look at those essays again. A writer doesn’t write to be misunderstood.
And yet how does one respond? Those incidents, which have come to number many, had begun to precede him more loudly than his proudest contributions to the world: his novels, which number five. This is a problem, because as much as he (to some controversy) is the symbol (to some controversy) of the White Male Great American Literary Novelist for the 21st Century (to much controversy), he is also someone who has to sell books. And lately, Golomb, a maternal figure whom he privately calls the “tawny lioness of publishing,” had been wringing her hands over the fact that people don’t seem to understand him or his good intentions — that she can’t figure out when exactly they all turned on him. It was the kind of thing that Franzen would like to ignore, but in addition to being a process guy, he is also a team guy. He likes to fulfill his obligations. He likes to go on book tours. He likes to do right by his publisher.
And, well, sales of his novels have decreased since “The Corrections” was published in 2001. That book, about a Midwestern family enduring personal crises, has sold 1.6 million copies to date. “Freedom,” which was called a “masterpiece” in the first paragraph of its New York Times review, has sold 1.15 million since it was published in 2010. And 2015’s “Purity,” his novel about a young woman’s search for her father and the story of that father and the people he knew, has sold only 255,476. The Los Angeles Times called it “consuming and extraordinarily moving.”
What had he done that was so wrong? Here he was, in his essays and interviews, making informed, nuanced arguments about the way we live now — about anything from Twitter (which he is against) to the way political correctness has been weaponized to shut down discourse (which he is against) to obligatory self-promotion (which he is against) to the incessant ending of a phone call by saying, “I love you” (which he is against, but because “I love you” is for private) — and though critics loved him and he had a devoted readership, others were using the very mechanisms and platforms that he warned against (like the internet in general and social media in specific) to ridicule him. Hate-pieces, mean hashtags, reductive eye-rolling at his various stances, a nit-picking of every quote. Accusations that he is willing to pontificate but not to listen. Accusations that he’s too fragile to face his accusers! Him! Too fragile!
This is why you shouldn’t explain yourself. There’s no profit in it. With each disembodied quote, with each one-way transmission, he is reduced to a Luddite and a curmudgeon and a hater and a snob and worse. Franzen! A snob! Franzen, who could give you elaborate, detailed reviews of “The Killing” (“I mean, I don’t cry very often at the end of a series, and that was just a heartbreaking and wonderful moving show”) and “Orphan Black” (“It was always jaw dropping to watch Tatiana Maslany. She’s amazing. She’s just amazing.”) and “Big Little Lies” (“Which became predictable after Episode 3, though I really loved the scenes between Nicole Kidman and her therapist”) and “Friday Night Lights” (“It actually had a lot of truth in it.”). Jonathan Franzen is watching network television, and still he is called a snob!
So “Purity” was done for now. Maybe that wasn’t so bad. Maybe this had been destined the entire time. Maybe it’s better. Yes, it’s better. For a moment he’d forgotten what was at stake here, which was the superiority of books to any other form. “You have to remember what a partisan of the novel I am,” he said. “And that it had long been one of my ambitions to have my novels defeat all attempts to put them on the screen.”
Novels are complex. Novels are absorbing. Novels have an interiority that TV can’t touch. Novels are comfortable with the basic human fact that people don’t really change. And, what’s more, with a novel comes an expenditure of effort. Gratuitous haters don’t want to read a whole book. “Most of the people who have complaints with me aren’t reading me,” he said. A novel, particularly a Jonathan Franzen novel, is too long to read just so you could find ways to hate it. That was right. That was the way to look at this. “A big part of me would be very proud never having anything of mine adapted, because if you want the real experience, there’s only one way to get it. You’re going to actually have to be a reader.”
Outside, in front of his home, sits a Toyota Camry hybrid. “Camry is a good car,” he said. Camry is his first-ever new car. He’d been wary of getting a hybrid because as a young man, he learned to tinker with cars, and a hybrid scared him for the lack of understandable machinery beneath the hood; it’s just a black box, really. But cars have changed so much in recent decades that any new one is unrecognizable to him under the hood anyway.
We boarded the car to go to the New Leaf Community Market (“I hate Whole Foods”) and get the smoked-turkey sandwich he likes there. He made a right off his block onto a curvy road that went down a hill. At the end of the hill, he pulled over to the left a little and put his signal on so that he could make a left turn onto the next street.
There are a lot of misconceptions about him. He gets that. When you won’t come out and correct the record about yourself, misconceptions will happen. “The one that comes to mind is that I’m an angry person. There’s a kernel of truth to it, in that I once was a very angry person. I still get very frustrated by simple-minded thinking. I can go off on a tear when I’m in the presence of something that seems stupid, things that haven’t been thought through, herd thinking. These things make me angry, but in my day-to-day life, I just am not angry.”
He pulled into the middle of the road so that the oncoming car could proceed past him, but that car stopped, too, making its own left. “Why would he not have his signal on? This is what a signal is for.” He sounded a guttural noise. “People are just so inconsiderate.”
It is worth considering what the misperceptions about him might be if the whole “contretemps with Oprah,” as he calls it, hadn’t happened. After all, when “The Corrections” came out in 2001, the internet, and accessibility to it, were still fairly new, as was the notion of Jonathan Franzen as an astounding novelist.
He’d written two novels before that — “The Twenty-Seventh City” in 1988 and “Strong Motion” in 1992. It would be hard to call those books cultural touchstones; they were girded in the tensile strength paneling of Franzen’s moral instruction, and they did O.K. critically but not great, and certainly they didn’t sell too many copies. Around then, his editor at The New Yorker suggested to him that he might have some aptitude for essay writing. Suddenly he realized that the arguments and social criticism he wanted to assert, complete with their nuance and exceptions, could live and breathe on their own. He didn’t have to Trojan-horse them into his novels’ characters or plot points anymore.
And when he did that, something unexpected happened: Unleashed from the impetus to educate, his fiction became not just better but exceptional. He wrote “The Corrections,” and Oprah Winfrey chose it for her Book Club. The rest would be considered history, if it didn’t keep coming up so often. During a series of interviews, Franzen expressed ambivalence about Oprah’s endorsement — that it might alienate male readers, who he very much was hoping would read his book; that the “logo of corporate ownership” made him uneasy; that he had found a few of her choices in the past “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional.” Oprah disinvited him from her show in response, and Franzen was rebuked on all sides for his ingratitude and his luck and his privilege. He quickly became as famous for dissing Oprah as he was for writing a great book. The world will forgive you for a lot if you write a great book, but it will not forgive you for dissing Oprah. “I read some of what was being said online, and I was very, very angry, because I felt that my words were being taken out of context,” he said.
He went to work on his next novel, “Freedom.” But he realized that part of what was making it such a chore to write was that he was weaponizing the story. This was his habit, writing as revenge. He once wrote a six-page single-spaced letter to Terrence Rafferty after Rafferty took down “The Twenty-Seventh City” in The New Yorker (and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the magazine also declined to capitalize the S in Seventh). “I’ve spent much of my life growing out of the Gary Lambert” — the oldest brother in “The Corrections,” notable for his stewing — “ ‘the more he thought about it the angrier he got,’ lying awake at 3 in the morning in a prosecutorial frame of mind, crafting the perfect four-sentence rebuttal that will demolish not only the negative thing that was said about me but hopefully deeply wound the person who said it. That’s not a good head to be in.”
When he started writing, a writer could just put his work out into the world without having to explain it. Promoting his books never bothered Franzen. He loves an audience, and he loves talking about his work. But he didn’t have to have a website or Skype into book clubs. He certainly didn’t have to tweet. But now being a writer, particularly one who wanted to be in the public favor, meant that you had to do those things. You had to participate. You had to hang out on social media. He hates social media — dreads it, saw it coming the whole time.
He had already been on the fence about digital interaction since even before he wrote about Nicholas Negroponte’s “Being Digital” in 1995 for The New Yorker. “He was so excited about the prospect of a future in which you wouldn’t get the dull, old New York Times,” Franzen told me. “You’d get via the web a new service called The Daily Me. It would consist only of things that were personally interesting to you and that suited your own view of the world. That’s exactly what we got. What’s crazy is he thought this was this wonderful, almost utopian possibility in the future.” Franzen found it absurd that anyone would celebrate the notion of not being faced with opposing points of view.
“I’ve never been a big fan of society structured predominantly along lines of consumerism, but I had made my peace with it,” he said. “But then when it began to be that every individual person also had to be a product that they were selling and liking became paramount, that seemed like a very worrisome thing at a personal level as a human being. If you’re in a state of perpetual fear of losing market share for you as a person, it’s just the wrong mind-set to move through the world with.” Meaning that if your goal is to get liked and retweeted, then you are perhaps molding yourself into the kind of person you believe will get those things, whether or not that person resembles the actual you. The writer’s job is to say things that are uncomfortable and hard to reduce. Why would a writer mold himself into a product?
And why couldn’t people hear him about the social effects this would have? “The internet is all about destroying the elite, destroying the gatekeepers,” he said. “The people know best. You take that to its conclusion, and you get Donald Trump. What do those Washington insiders know? What does the elite know? What do papers like The New York Times know? Listen, the people know what’s right.” He threw up his hands.
So he decided to withdraw from it all. After publicity for “The Corrections” ended, he decided he would no longer read about himself — not reviews, not think pieces, not stories, and then, as they came, not status updates and not tweets. He didn’t want to hear reaction to his work. He didn’t want to see the myriad ways he was being misunderstood. He didn’t want to know what the hashtags were.
“It was so upsetting that I just realized I have to not read this. I stopped reading reviews because I noticed all I remember is the negatives. Whatever fleeting pleasure you have in someone applying a laudatory adjective to your book is totally washed away by the unpleasantness of remembering the negative things for the rest of your life verbatim. That’s how we writers are, you know.”
It might be all right for a novelist to be a recluse. Thomas Pynchon was just awarded a $100,000 prize that no one was sure he would show up to receive (he didn’t) — but something about Franzen’s approach riled. Was it that he was writing nonfiction, too? That he didn’t appear to have ever participated in the parts of life that he bemoaned? Was it the sense that he was criticizing but couldn’t be criticized back? He didn’t want to know. He still doesn’t want to know.
About a year ago, Franzen rolled a stop sign and had to take six hours’ worth of online traffic school in order to avoid points on his license. Part of it included a questionnaire called “Do You Have Road Rage?” “And I thought, I don’t have road rage. I get pissed off a little bit. I answered, I don’t know, yes to seven of the questions, and so I saw, oh, clearly I have road rage.”
He was directed to some online reading about avoiding road rage, and he found a simple solution: Leave earlier. If you leave early and are never subject to the delays of other drivers or an unexpected red light that won’t change, you can arrive relaxed without ever having had an emotion about the whole thing. He knows it takes eight minutes to get to town from his house, but it could take six, and it could also take 10. If he left 12 minutes to get to town, he could use the time to sit and listen to KPIG, “the best radio station in the country,” which plays mostly roots stuff, country and blues, but sometimes you’ll even hear an Elvis Costello song. And best, they air “amazing, hilarious” fake commercials during the breaks that make him do something that is as close to a giggle as he gets: a product called “Trump-Away,” for people who are addicted to the president’s tweets. Or, “ ‘Do you have a problem of sleepwalking and raiding the refrigerator while on Ambien? Try our new product, Hambien.’ ” Or the antidepressant Damnitol. “ ‘For lighter days, try the milder Darnitol.’ ” Ah, don’t get him started.
That’s how you handle anger. You avoid the triggers. You know your terrain. That six-page, single-spaced letter to Rafferty? Those midnight four-line sniper rebuttals? Those days are over. “That was a younger me in full prosecutorial mode. At a certain point, you just give up on trying to correct every false thing that’s said about you and devote yourself to the thing you can control, which is your own writing.”
In the end, we went birding, just like everyone else. There had been a leucistic Anna’s hummingbird spotted at the U.C. Santa Cruz’s arboretum nearby. Franzen had seen it, but I had not (or would not have known if I had, and also was not looking), and so we drove up the road. It was a Wednesday afternoon, an hour before closing, and the place was crowded with birders buzzing about whether or not they’d seen the Anna’s, and there were cameras set up on tripods just trying to capture it. One photographer had, and everyone gathered around to see the digital image of it. “It’s the craziest thing you ever saw,” the photographer said. I looked. It was a white bird.
Franzen gave me a pair of binoculars. He told me to look for a resting bird with my naked eye, to find a recognizable landmark in its tree, then to raise the binoculars to my face, keeping my eyes trained on the tree landmark. I did. The bird I saw was a bushtit, the tiniest songbird in North America. I had nothing to say about it, which made me feel desperate and fraudulent, so I commented on its nose. “Beak,” he corrected me. “Right, beak,” I said.
Staring at the bushtit, in the quiet and the green, I said to him: “I wish I could do this. I wish I could learn about birds and then go look for them.” He took his binoculars from his face and looked down at me, pleased by this, and said with some delight, “Well, that’s good to hear.” He told me that if I was serious, he happened to know that the Audubon chapter near where I live is pretty solid and would probably take me out on a local trip to get me started.
But that wasn’t what I meant. What I meant was that I wanted to be able to do this — to live in a quiet, green time warp, to have a trainer twice a week (or even to know what I was doing next week), to look up and around as opposed to just straight and down. Franzen thinks that there’s no way for a writer to do good work — to write something that can be called “consuming and extraordinarily moving” — without putting a fence around yourself so that you can control the input you encounter. So that you could have a thought that isn’t subject to pushback all the time from anyone who has ever met you or heard of you or expressed interest in hearing from you. Without allowing yourself to think for a minute.
It’s not just writers. It’s everyone. The writer is just an extreme case of something everyone struggles with. “On the one hand, to function well, you have to believe in yourself and your abilities and summon enormous confidence from somewhere. On the other hand, to write well, or just to be a good person, you need to be able to doubt yourself — to entertain the possibility that you’re wrong about everything, that you don’t know everything, and to have sympathy with people whose lives and beliefs and perspectives are very different from yours.” The internet was supposed to do this for people, but it didn’t. “This balancing act” — the confidence that you know everything plus the ability to believe that you don’t — “only works, or works best, if you reserve a private space for it.”
Sure. O.K. But to avoid digital interaction these days is to not participate in life. If you are going to position yourself as a public intellectual, if you’re going to write novels about our modern condition, don’t you have to participate in it? Can you write clearly about something that you don’t yourself swim in? Don’t you have to endure it and hate it most of the time like the rest of us?
But his answer was no. No. No, you absolutely don’t. You can miss a meme, and nothing really changes. You can be called fragile, and you will live. “I’m pretty much the opposite of fragile. I don’t need internet engagement to make me vulnerable. Real writing makes me — makes anyone doing it — vulnerable.”
People can think something about you that isn’t true, and it isn’t necessarily your job to correct them. And if you do correct them, the corrections will eat up your entire life, and then where is your life? What did you do? You don’t have to answer criticism of yourself. You don’t even have to listen to it. You don’t have to fit your thoughts into sound bites just because of character limitations.
Has anyone considered that the interaction is the fragility? Has anyone considered that letting other people define how you fill your day and what they fill your head with — a passive, postmodern stream of other people’s thoughts — is the fragility?
Right at that minute, I wanted what he had so badly that I would have drunk his blood right there in the arboretum to get it.
Here is another thing about birds: They don’t care about people. They don’t interact with them, and yet they are totally accurate seismographs for people’s behavior. They reflect us without coming anywhere near us.
In March, a year after we first met, as the world grappled with the ravages and betrayals of social media and a friend and I began keeping track of people who constantly updated Twitter with news from their Twitter sabbaticals, Franzen published a story about birds in National Geographic to kick off the magazine’s Year of the Bird. “CBS This Morning” went to Santa Cruz to look at birds with him for the occasion. He told the reporter how to spot the birds using the binoculars, to keep the eyes on the bird and bring the binoculars to her face so she could quickly refocus. She yelped with joy at the sight of two sleeping owls, and Franzen’s face became the smiley, delightful thing it occasionally does when someone seems to understand. He told her that the first time he was taken bird-watching, he had a similar reaction. “The scales had fallen from my eyes,” he said. “It was like being introduced to sex.” An hour later, The Cut ran a short piece titled “We Regret to Inform You That Jonathan Franzen Has Compared Birdwatching to Sex.”
But Franzen never saw it. He was in Santa Cruz, his own Brigadoon. He was preparing the nonfiction book of essays, which will be called “The End of the End of the Earth,” coming to bookstores in November. He was talking to Showtime again about doing “Purity” as a shorter capsule series.
And he was finally writing his sixth novel, which he wouldn’t tell me a thing about, except that it will be his last: He doesn’t know if anyone really has more than six fully realized novels in them. Chetkovich is quick to remind him that he said “Freedom” would be his last book while he was writing it, and “Purity,” too. “So, I may be wrong,” he said. “But somehow this new one really does feel like my last.”
He was back to the ’70s. He was back to his process. The process will never let you down, even when everything else does. The process is a thing you can control: how you show up, the promises you’ve made. Yes, at the end of the day, it’s all just like a novel, which is to say that the characters haven’t changed all that much, but maybe the reader can now understand them enough to have some empathy for them — to maybe even identify with them a little.
Franzen’s life will continue: Jason the trainer, the smoked-turkey sandwich at New Leaf for lunch, doubles with Chetkovich and their friends when the weather is good for it, which it always is, the tranquillity of his office. At the end of the day, he’ll shut his PC and he’ll lock the door to his office and he’ll get back into good old Camry and he’ll go home to rewatch some “Silicon Valley.” Inside the car, his beloved KPIG will be playing a song he likes. Maybe he’ll even sing along with it: “A real friend tried to tell me, man, with all respect for you, the time to put away these things is long since overdue.” Maybe he will go home and try to learn the chords. It’s a song by Rodney Crowell, and it’s called “I Don’t Care Anymore.”