So much 'Freedom,' not a lot of happiness

Author Jonathan Frazen attends the TIME 100 Gala, TIME'S 100 Most Influential People In The World at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 26, 2011 in New York City.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The New York Times bestseller list isn't actually official until the Sunday book review section comes out, but if you poke around on the Times website today, you can get a sneak peak. Jonathan Franzen's new book "Freedom" is making what will undoubtedly be a prolonged stay on that list. Number one this week. Today on our series, "The Art of Money," what artists, novelists and others see when the look at the economy.

A conversation with Jonathan Franzen. Good to have you with us.

Jonathan Franzen:Pleasure to be on the show.

RYSSDAL: I don't often question an author's choice of title, much less a guy whose written books like you've written books, but I was wondering if you ever thought of putting a question mark on the end of "Freedom." Because it seems to me that none of your protagonists in this book are especially free.

FRANZEN: You know, I think all of my books come with honorary question marks after their title. I was hoping it would be assumed it was there. If you are going to actually take the things that are coming at you in the news seriously and you don't have a sense of irony, then you're going to get ulcers or you're going to kill yourself. To me it's what the books I like are steeped in; it's a certain skepticism about the received meanings of words, the received wisdom about all sorts of things.

RYSSDAL: One of those skepticisms in this book is a questioning -- a sharp questioning -- of the unhappiness, the imbalance, the doubts that come with this upper-middle class existence that your characters, the Berglunds, are living.

FRANZEN: I don't personally see it as a book about upper-middle class ennui, I think the various characters all want things powerfully and are frustrated in not being able to get what they want -- which is kind of the American condition, especially nowadays.

It was a question that came up over and over for me in the last decade, hearing all of the talk about the terrorists hating our freedom. If that is really a good description of our international situation, why do we, who have so much freedom, why are people so angry? Why do they seem so unhappy? That might apply to the Berglunds, they are certainly free -- relatively, economically -- and they have some free time, and yet they can't find a way to make themselves happy.

RYSSDAL: There are economic metaphors and outright economic statements everywhere in this book. And maybe the biggest one, the most profound one, are the views that Walter Berglund has on the issue of growth. I mean, it's a substantive theme throughout this book, that we can't keep doing what we're doing in this economy and hope to make it last.

FRANZEN: It makes you wonder about the economics that underpins our entire way of life, that it has no way of accounting for the limits to growth. There are all these externalities, which classical economics simply ignores, and that most important one, the one that's most in the news this summer, is the environment. I don't have an answer to this, but I was certainly at pains to put a character in the book who was consumed by this problem.

RYSSDAL: I know it took you basically 10 years to write this book, but your timing literally could not have been more perfect. I mean, a book about growth and about these issues coming at a time when the American economy is stuck and growth is the key issue.

FRANZEN: Yeah, not just the stagnant economy but also the Gulf Spill, and there you have it side-by-side. You want more growth? You're going to drill ever deeper in the Gulf; the deeper you drill, the higher the risk, the more catastrophes are waiting for us. And yet, what's the alternative? My job as a novelist is to create characters who have some depth and some life on the page, who can themselves then embody some of these questions. It's not merely abstract, you see these are actual problems that make life harder to live.

RYSSDAL: When I finally put this book down, after having turned the last page, the emotion that was left was depressing: That these people and the lives and the stories that you, as you say came up with inside your own head, it's all just depressing as hell.

FRANZEN: Oh, everybody at my publisher is tearing at their hair to hear you say that. "Great, go out and buy this book, it's really depressing." I consider that a bit of a personal failure on my part as a writer, that even one reader saw no change.

RYSSDAL: Well no, it's no change, it's that they had come on this route and this circle and wound up in the same place. That's not to say no change.

FRANZEN: Well that is kind of the way of life, is it not? It actually ties, I think, in a way into the question of sustainability. We have this notion in this country, not only of endless economic growth but of endless personal growth. I have a certain characterological antipathy to the notion of we're all getting better and better all the time. And it's so clearly belied by our experience. You may get better in certain ways for 10 years, but one day you wake up and although things are a little bit different, they're not a lot different. And I think if one can get more accustomed to that somewhat more tragic view of life, that people would think yeah, "We don't actually need to have a bigger and bigger house, and a bigger and bigger car, and more and more things in the house." That there might some way to think of the world in different terms, so it was more about being and less about growing.

RYSSDAL: Jonathan Franzen's newest book is called "Freedom" and it is a good one, by the way I should say. Jonathan, thank you so much for your time.

FRANZEN: A pleasure to talk to you, thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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