The difficulty of being Jonathan Franzen.

Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 570pp, £20

When Jonathan Franzen decided to call his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone, it was a case of wordplay trumping truth, for "discomfort" is inadequate to convey the feeling he most associates with being a man or a son; and his fiction everywhere confesses this. "At a certain point," we read in Franzen's third novel, The Corrections, "Enid's capacity for fantasy was physically painful to Gary." Things aren't much better with his father: "It shouldn't have hurt that Alfred, who was wrong about almost everything, did not respect things in Gary's life; and yet it did hurt." One potential consequence of this pain is rebellion; another is full retreat. As Gary's younger brother, Chip, writes to their younger sister, Denise: "Parents have an overwhelming Darwinian hard-wired genetic stake in their children's welfare. But children, it seems to me, have no corresponding debt to their parents."

Franzen's fourth novel, Freedom, is warmer and more conventional than its predecessor, but again it places us among parents and children. If The Corrections is, in Franzen's words, "a comedy about a family in crisis", then the new novel is a tragedy on the same subject, one that shares the comedy's emphasis on the child's desire to turn away.

Patty and Walter Berglund, the novel's central couple, encounter great difficulties with their teenage son, Joey, who leaves the family home in Ramsey Hill, a suburb of St Paul, Minnesota, though he only moves as far as the house next door, where his girlfriend Connie lives with her mother and her mother's hick boyfriend. Later, when he enrols at the University of Virginia, Joey meets Jonathan, the son of a wealthy neocon. Joey, the son of a well-intentioned liberal, had previously assumed that "only his parents could truly mortify a person", but Jonathan suffers in the same way, and the sense of shared fate prompts this cold-hearted boy to something like compassion: "Although Joey was annoyed by his sulking he did keenly understand the pain of being a son."

There is also the pain of being a daughter, wife and mother. After introducing the reader to Patty Berglund through the neighbours' spiteful conjecture on Ramsey Hill, we are presented with her memoir, "Mistakes Were Made", which supplies biographical background and psychological explanation, as well as advancing the narrative. Patty was born to liberal easterners more interested in politics than parenthood. By the time she and Walter became the "young pioneers of Ramsey Hill", she had already suffered two hefty blows. As a schoolgirl, she was raped by a boy whose father (in her own father's chilling words) "does a lot of good in the county". Then, as a college student, she slipped on ice, ending her promising basketball career.

The second misfortune brought her closer to Walter, a diligent student and do-gooder who made an overgenerous estimate of Patty's goodness, though one in which she was initially happy to collude. When, years into a marriage of lost illusions and failed compromises, Patty starts to feel alone, she turns for sympathetic comfort and sexual solace to Walter's best friend, Richard, who, despite his debts to Walter, is willing to provide it.

Patty is not the only character extended the courtesy of generous portrayal. We may think that "Mistakes Were Made" tells us everything worth knowing about strait-laced Walter and callous Richard, but the novel's next - and longest - section, "2004", puts us in more in­timate contact with both of them, revealing Walter's passion and Richard's guilt.

These relationships are tracked over 25 years, from punk to "shock and awe", by which point Richard is enjoying belated musical success with his band Walnut Surprise and Patty is in alcoholic meltdown. Meanwhile, Walter, a lifelong birdwatcher, is at work on a shadily funded project to save the cerulean warbler. Assisting him is Lalitha, glamorous and 27 years old, a campaigner against overpopulation who ought to have been smothered at birth.

The collapse of the Berglunds' marriage is set against an elaborate cultural and historical backdrop. But, for the most part, the book's sociological concerns do not crowd out its central question, "How to live?", just as the book's stateliness does not spoil Franzen's appetite for the emotionally scuzzy. This is a generational saga in which frustration deepens like a coastal shelf, and a family anti-romance in which being "like an older sister" to someone means being much kinder and warmer than an older sister. At one point, Patty recalls watching the "famous scene" in D A Pennebaker's 1967 film Don't Look Back in which Bob Dylan "outshone and humiliated the singer Donovan . . . purely for the pleasure of being an asshole". The novel is full of such behaviour. It is often motivated by the pleasure of being an asshole, though never - and here is one difference between vérité and fiction - "purely" so.

Jonathan Franzen does not possess, or anyway does not exhibit, the subtle "cluster of gifts" - implying, dramatising - that Henry James celebrated in "The Art of Fiction". What he does possess is an ability to place the reader right in the thick of his characters' lives, so that their pain becomes ours. He baldly states their problems and greedily ransacks their thoughts, and although he prefers rumination and paraphrase to the dramatic scene, his discoveries about a character's intentions or ideals are repeatedly tested in the sphere of action against their conduct. He has a gift for generating details and scenarios that bring out latent conflicts. Franzen's method is trenchant and energetic without being brutish or crude; and he shows tremendous skill in his arrangement of material and distribution of detail.

But, as Joey says about "freedom", Freedom is "a pain in the ass sometimes". One source of the pain is Franzen's insistence on exploring his title-word as if it were a contradictory concept, rather than a noun with different uses. In general he is too easily seduced by the cliché-busting paradox, apparently failing to see that readers may already have encountered the observation he is offering - indeed, may find it as familiar as a cliché.

The whole novel is constructed around the idea that, in trying to avoid our parents' errors, we may overcompensate and commit different mistakes. Franzen combines this with the notion that trying to avoid our parents' errors is futile anyway because family operates a kind of behavioural heredity - Walter has his grandfather Einar's anger about "stupidity"; Richard's depression is passed down from his "Jewish paternal forebears" and "the old Angles and Saxons on his mother's side". Oddly, the repetition of errors is shown to extend beyond family, with characters tending towards the behaviour of other characters whom they hardly know or have never met. This has the effect of making the novel both conveniently shapely and, at times, wildly improbable, suggesting only two or three potential ways of being human in America.

Besides tying his characters too closely together, Franzen ties them too closely to their historical moment, a habit previously informed by Don DeLillo's work but intended here to evoke Tolstoy. Joey is annoyed when the 11 September 2001 attacks occur during his first term at university; he fears that history will interrupt his fun. Franzen is a writer who knows things - about urban planning and the housing market, about semiotics and seismology - but in associating Walter with corrupt allies of George W Bush and involving Joey (still a college student) in private contracting, he takes things too far. Add the details surrounding Richard's music career, and the reader is liable to feel drenched in what Franzen calls "blogospheric leakage". Indeed, he would do well to learn from Richard, who starts off reading Thomas Pynchon before switching to Thomas Bernhard and whose "non-Apple MP3 player" carries a track of "pink noise", a low-frequency variant of white noise "capable of neutralising every ambient sound the world could throw at him".

Since the publication of The Corrections, Franzen has become one of the central figures in American literary culture, a position that affords certain privileges. He collected, in How to Be Alone, his magazine essays about finding a balance between solipsism and distraction, as Saul Bellow did in It All Adds Up. He published a six-chapter memoir (The Discomfort Zone) based largely on personal essays first printed in the New Yorker, as John Updike did with Self-Consciousness. In the run-up to the publication of this new book, Franzen has appeared on the front cover of Time - a sure sign of established prominence, especially if we accept his claim that the magazine, having once aspired to shape American taste, "now serves mainly to reflect it".

Those words appeared in an essay Franzen wrote in 1996, originally headlined "Perchance to Dream", abridged for How to Be Alone and retitled "Why Bother?", but generally referred to as "the Harper's essay". This was his account of how he overcame his "despair about the American novel", specifically "despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social". The essay was the latest instance of the American novelist's head-scratching about how to accommodate the competing demands of reality, form and readership (earlier attempts include Philip Roth's "Writing American Fiction", first published in 1960, and Tom Wolfe's "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" of 1989). Franzen charts the gradual process of accepting the limitations of his enterprise, and he has since written two novels that display the opposite of despair about the possibility of linking "private experience" to "public context".

The debate has moved on since then, however, and Freedom is published at a time when the social novel faces opponents altogether sillier and noisier than Franzen's anxiety. There is David Shields, who disparages The Corrections in his polemic Reality Hunger despite limited acquaintance ("I couldn't read that book if my life depended on it"). Although I understand Shields's exhaustion with what E M Forster called the "conventionalities of fiction-form", I don't think he has chosen the right example. The Corrections may not be Finnegans Wake, but that doesn't make it Ian McEwan's Saturday.

Franzen probably thought that arguments about the novel's inferiority to the memoir and the essay belonged to an age gone by. Still, he did pre-empt the debate to an extent. In an essay on William Gaddis, he identified two related syndromes: "The Fallacy of the Stupid Reader", in which "difficult" art serves "to ‘upset' or 'compel' or 'challenge' or 'subvert' or 'scar' the unsuspecting reader"; and "The Fallacy of Art Historicism" - "a pedagogical convenience" that applies the art world's demand for innovation to the novel. Gabriel Josipovici has recently emerged as a persuasive exponent of this position, but he exaggerates both the degree of stasis and its potential danger - he treats everything non-experimental as anti-experimental.

Fortunately, there is no need to choose. Our reading habits do not constitute a lifelong allegiance to this or that philosophy; enjoying "well-written narratives" (Josipovici) or even "big, blockbuster novels" (Shields) does not signify approval of their position in our culture. And for those who are still able, or even eager, to read works of fiction that succeed in communicating by broadly familiar means a powerful sense of what Franzen called, without blushing, "the difficulty of life", this compulsive novel is not to be ignored.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter