It’s been six years since Jonathan Franzen took his uncomfortable star turn for “The Corrections” — an experience that culminated with the novelist being widely vilified for disrespecting Oprah Winfrey, who made his book a selection of her club. I’ve always thought Franzen got something of a bad rap; although he overreacted, both the press and the public conveniently missed the fact that he was raising important points about the consolidation of influence, who the owner of a work of art really is.
In any case, “The Corrections” is one of the most blistering novels I’ve read in the last several years, a pitch-perfect dissection of the middle-class family, with its hypocrisy, compromise and angst. It’s also a remarkable act of literary ventriloquism, as Franzen takes us inside an array of characters and in the process gets us to empathize with even the least sympathetic people in the book.
And yet, ever since “The Corrections,” it’s seemed like Franzen has cut himself adrift in the literary wilderness, dodging the notoriety and attention he courted with that book. In 2002, he published “How to Be Alone,” a collection of occasional writings, and last year, put out “The Discomfort Zone,” a thin volume of memoirs — both nicely written but without the ambition of his previous work.
Franzen’s latest project follows in these footsteps: a translation from the German of Frank Wedekind’s 1906 play “Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy” (Faber and Faber: 88 pp., $13 paper), which closed after one night on the New York stage in 1917. If you haven’t heard of Wedekind, you’re not alone; this was my first exposure both to him and to this play, which deals with the emerging sexuality of four teenagers and has, Franzen notes in his introduction, the “youthful energy, [the] disruptive power, [the] feeling of authenticity” that defines rock ’n’ roll.
It may seem odd to see a 100-year-old play compared with rock music, but in the end, I think, it’s fitting, as is Franzen’s fascination with this play itself. In the wake of the Oprah fiasco, he was called an overgrown adolescent and worse, and while those charges are ridiculous, there’s no question that Franzen has maintained some of the adolescent’s sense of outrage, of moral indignation, and that it is at the center of his finest work.
“The Corrections” was infused with precisely this sort of energy, as were the essays in “The Discomfort Zone.” It makes sense, then, that as he continues his peripatetic wanderings, Franzen might settle for a moment not only in the efforts of another writer but in a work that at its essence shares many of the concerns and aesthetics of his own.
David L. Ulin