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For his first novel, Jonathan Franzen’s “Naked Lunch” (Simon & Schuster), which came out in 2004, the author had little in common with his fictional protagonist. That young, white male protagonist was a rich older father, but Franzen wanted to write a novel that could appeal to all men, regardless of age. He came up with an approach: The book, set in a rural community during the mid-late 1980s, included a chapter in which the father and son had a friendly debate.
In the pages of “naked lunch,” Franzen’s “big guy” son, named Benjamin Franklin in the book’s title, talks frankly with Benjamin, a young man with schizophrenia. Ben is in a hospital where he has been institutionalized for mental illness. The father, who has been estranged from his family for most of his life, is in a rut and struggling with a complicated relationship with his son, which involves his mother and his girlfriend, who suffers from bipolar disorder.
Franzen writes that his approach was to turn the topic of “mental illness” into a love story, something that he was already comfortable writing about. Instead of Ben’s being a “crazy” person, the book is “about being the odd man out who tries to be both.”
“Naked Lunch” is one of Franzen’s best-cited books and in 2010 the New Yorker said it was “one of the great fiction books of our time.” (It’s also not to be confused with a 2011 story about a man who makes his mother commit suicide.) To learn more about the novel, we caught up with the author to get an inside look at Ben’s mental illness, his relationship with his father, and how his book came about.
I thought he wanted to write about mental illness. Why does he choose that subject? Why does he spend so much time on it? I don’t think he wanted to do that. [Laughs.] I think he wanted to make the illness real. The illness is not a story, as any sane person in any relationship can see. That is part of the reason why he would choose to write a novel about mental illness. He didn’t want it to be a story about a person’s struggle with another person. That wasn’t something he saw
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