There is plenty of his trademark humour and sharp observation of social situations, but unlike his other notable works, The Corrections and Freedom, he’s also dropped a murder into proceedings.
The novel’s set-up involves a 23-year-old called Purity, or Pip as she goes by, and her hunt for the father she never knew.
Stuck living in a squat in San Francisco’s Bay Area, she gets on her absconded father’s trail partly in the hope that she can get him to help out with the €115,000 student loan that’s weighing her down.
Her investigation drops her into the underworld of the charismatic leader Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange-type who, in terms of universal admiration, “is right up there with Aung San Suu Kyi and Bruce Springsteen”.
He’s on the run from American and European governments for hacking and spying offences.
The backstories of Pip and several other characters are told in the kind of detail and depth of novellas.
The story of Andreas is particularly compelling. He grew up in Cold War-era Berlin, the only son of a father who is part of the higher reaches of the Communist Party leadership and an unhinged, philandering mother.
“As Andreas came to see it, his mother was not unlike a suicide bomber, forever carrying the threat of crazy behaviour fully armed and ready to detonate, and so his father acceded to her wishes as much as possible, asking only that she help him maintain the necessary lies,” writes Franzen.
Andreas emerges from this Oedipal cesspit as a militant feminist and possessed of an unhealthy sexual obsession with teenage girls, which he preys on first as a renegade youth counsellor and once the Berlin Wall falls in 1989 he morphs into a notorious online hacker with legions of followers for his Sunlight Project.
Franzen turns a cold eye on the insidious nature of cults and celebrity. Pip first crosses paths with Andreas in the forests of Bolivia where his movement has been exiled. The “chokingly high admiration levels” of the other interns make her doubt his motives. She tackles him.
“There was this place,” she said.
“This dairy called Moonglow Dairy, near where I lived when I was growing up. I guess it was a real dairy, because they had a lot of cows, but their real money didn’t come from selling milk.
"It came from selling high-quality manure to organic farmers. It was a shit-factory pretending to be a milk factory.” Andreas smiled.
“I don’t like where you’re going with this.”
“Well, you say you’re about citizen journalism. You’re supposedly in the business of leaks. But isn’t your real business–” “Cow manure?” “I was going to say fame and adulation. The real product is you.”
Franzen drops in wry observational gems ever couple of pages, like the way Pip notices some people are not good at taking social cues, but with the character Annagret, who moves in to live with her briefly, “(maybe this was a German thing?)”.
The real genius of the novel, though, is the way he explores the power dynamics in relationships, the way some — if not most — people find being commanded as a kind of relief, and his ability to weave disparate threads into a pacey read is a something of a marvel. He has produced a breathless 560-page read.