A podcast about Jonathan Franzen
Episode 14: Season One Finale
At the start of this podcast, Erin, Eric, and Alex asked a simple question: Is Jonathan Franzen good? After fourteen episodes, the answer is clear: Yes, he’s good (most of the time). But which Jonathan Franzen books are good? In the season one finale, we rank all of Jonathan Franzen’s books, answer a few listener questions, and reveal what’s next for the podcast.
Episode 13: The End of the End of the Earth
In the final book-focused episode of our first season, critic Leo Robson joins us to discuss Jonathan Franzen’s most recent collection of essays, The End of the End of the Earth. It’s a more focused book than its nonfiction predecessor, Farther Away—nearly all of the essays revolve around nature and, in particular, birds. But is that a good thing? (No, it’s not.)
There are some non-bird things in this book, most notably a repellant essay about Edith Wharton that focuses on her attractiveness. And there is at least one decent essay, the title essay, which covers Franzen’s time aboard an Arctic cruise ship and is his take on his frenemy David Foster Wallace’s most famous work of nonfiction, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” But mostly, this is a book about Jonathan Franzen’s only friends: the birds.
Episode 12: Farther Away
As we enter the home stretch, novelist Gabriel Roth joins us to discuss Jonathan Franzen’s second essay collection, Farther Away, which was published in 2012. A bit of a grab bag, Farther Away consists of twenty essays about a host of random subjects: the history of the novel, environmental degradation, Alice Munro, New York, the word then, among many others. But mostly, it’s centered on two subjects. One is the recent suicide of Franzen’s friend David Foster Wallace, which haunts the most recent essays. And the other is Franzen’s growing obsession with birds, which permeates nearly every paragraph in this pretty long book. Even if you know that Franzen loves birds—and you surely do—you’re not prepared for just how much bird stuff is in Farther Away.
Discussed in this episode: Does this contain Franzen’s worst piece of writing ever? Is it normal to have a crush on your cousin? And just what is it with Franzen and the birds, anyway?
Episode 11: The Discomfort Zone
As we continue our descent into madness, we are joined by author Scaachi Koul to discuss Jonathan Franzen’s 2006 memoir, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Focused mainly on Franzen’s early life in Webster Groves, the St. Louis suburb that appears elsewhere in his fiction and nonfiction, the book is made up of a series of essays stitched together to create a loose timeline.
Episode 10: The Kraus Project
In this episode, we’re joined by novelist Nell Zink to discuss The Kraus Project. Published in 2013, The Kraus Project is ostensibly a work of translation. For four decades, Jonathan Franzen had been trying to translate the work of the notoriously dense Viennese satirist and critic Karl Kraus, a kind of hater’s hater, whose constant word play and allusions make him difficult to translate. Here, at long last, he completes his Kraus project, collecting translations of four essays and a poem. However, the book is most interesting for its footnotes, some of which provide helpful historical context to Kraus’s often incomprehensible prose and some of which contain Franzen at his most unhinged, including long rants about technology and revealing excerpts from letters written by a young Franzen to the woman who would become his ex-wife.
Episode 9: How to Be Alone
In this episode, we’re joined by novelist Brandon Taylor to discuss Jonathan Franzen’s first essay collection, How to Be Alone. Published in 2002, the book collects fourteen essays that previously appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, Details, and other publications, including arguably his two most famous and controversial: “Perchance to Dream”—retitled and revised here as “Why Bother?”—which grapples with the state of the social novel in a country increasingly indifferent to fiction and “Mr. Difficult,” an essay that purports to be about William Gaddis and “difficult fiction” but is really a kind of manifesto about Franzen’s own turn toward the accessible. These are essays that have a reputation for being solipsistic and dour and yet, they’re also moving, curious, and surprisingly funny.
An excellent podcast if you know how to read and like to do so.
I didn’t think it was possible to go “too shallow” with a Franzen podcast but these guys managed to do it, at least in the “Freedom” episode: