Jonathan Franzen whose "The Corrections" is hailed as the latest Great American Novel grew up a child of the suburbs.
Like his novel's suburban town of St. Jude, Franzen's St. Louis neighborhood was a sanctuary of seemliness and sameness.
"My mother would open the back door, and I'd run out and ride my bike," says Franzen, 42. "It was wonderful."
Now he's a man of the city, and it's the changing contrasts of Manhattan that delight him. "As an adult, I find it's the contrasts that make for an interesting life and book."
"The Corrections" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25), a satirical family saga, is gleefully filled with just such contrasts and contradictions along with characters whose attempts to correct them, in themselves and in others, are both ridiculous and oddly heroic.
Franzen is on a national book tour, and unlike other authors who view readings as a book-hawking chore, Franzen enjoys talking with his readers and reading aloud to them.
"This is the best part the readings and signing a reader's book and looking in their eyes," says Franzen, whose previous novels are "The Twenty-Seventh City" (1988) and "Strong Motion" (1992).
"Maybe I'm just exhausted or dissociated," he says, on the phone from a hotel room in Minneapolis. "But I feel as if this is all happening around me not to me. I know it's ephemeral. I didn't set out to get attention. I set out to write a book."
Either way, all of this attention has to feel good. Critics are calling it a masterpiece. The book is scrambling up the New York Times Bestsellers List. And it has been chosen as the Oprah Book Club selection.
In the land where the Lambert family reside, there's the patriarchal, puritanical Alfred Lambert dethroned as the head of the family by senile dementia-induced hallucinations and Parkinson's disease.
No character is really what he or she seems like on the surface. Take Alfred's wife, Enid, who is at the heart of the novel. To all appearances insipid, Enid has long suffered not only Alfred's aversion to sexual joy but her three adult children's emotional and geographic abandonment of her. Her wish for just one last Lambert family Christmas at home is the story's catalyst. At story's end, it's a kick to find there might be some juice and gumption in Enid, after all, apart from her roles as wife and mother.
That Franzen can write about Alfred's frightening mental and physical descent with such fierce humor and deep compassion testifies to the insights the author gained as his late father declined from Alzheimer's disease and, earlier, having been the youngest child (of three) to older parents.