Mr. Fix-It

The American belief in progress, and the resultant failures, makes for high comedy in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections

The backlash against Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections has begun in earnest. What with the gush of publicity it has received -- Oprah's blessing, Time magazine's devoting two whole pages to a review (a third of which being a photo spread of the author lounging), a National Book Award nomination -- the aesthetes were bound to protest. The New Republic (who else?) has dispatched the first wave of dispraise, with senior editor James Wood employing (what else?) the destruction of the World Trade Center as proof of the paucity of Franzen's narrative. Wood quotes from the novel the ruminations of Enid, the pleasure-starved mother in the story, a Depression-era child living in the go-go American '90s: "She had memories of the 1930s, she'd seen firsthand what could happen to a country when the world economy took its gloves off.... But disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States. Safety features had been put in place, like the squares of rubber that every modern playground was paved with, to soften impacts."

"And so," Wood snickers, "a passage at the conclusion of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, about the end of the American century, now seems laughably archival." So there. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.

If Wood's targets were elsewhere, he could have chosen just about any passage from any American novel, at random, and found a phrase "laughably archival" in the face of Sept. 11. To employ the horror of current events as critical leverage is an easy strategy, unbecoming of a normally responsible critic. But then, Sept. 11 has driven away a great deal of normality.

Franzen can expect further deflation over the coming months, because that's what becomes of artists who are both talented and ambitious, or overly ambitious. No wonder he had to leave Webster Groves, where he grew up (St. Louis is the locale for his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, and is poorly disguised as St. Jude in The Corrections). If the national media feasts so readily on open ambition, our city diminishes ambition through the slow starvation of the spirit.

Franzen isn't so harsh on his former home, although the Midwest is good for a comical aside, a place where a character is doomed to encounter "the fattest and slowest people in the central tier of states," in The Corrections. His leaving spurred other considerations, which he discusses during a phone conversation on his recent book tour. "The fact that I was moved to leave the Midwest created this conversation in my head," says Franzen, "which has been the conversation in every book, between the Midwest that I grew up in -- a very lovable place, if occasionally somewhat limiting-seeming -- and the coastal, indeed global, world, which is more exciting but also scarier and not so easy to make sense of morally.

"That's what I come back to again and again. I didn't [leave] in order to have material to write about; I did it because ..." he pauses and recalls those early seductions "... first I saw Chicago as a 16-year-old and I said, 'Yeah, now we're talkin,' because I was frustrated with St. Louis as it was when I was a teenager -- I wrote a whole book about that frustration (The Twenty-Seventh City). Then, a year later, I saw New York, and I said, 'This is the place for me.'

"As a novelist I like cities, and I like cities because cities are rather novel-like in bringing together disparate kinds of people and setting up these compelling and significant juxtapositions. Webster Groves could not have been a better place to grow up, and now, if I were doing anything but what I do, I'd be very attracted to some of the Midwestern cities."

For now, though, he'll remain in the unfolding novel that is New York. It is from New York that The Corrections takes off. Chip meets his Midwestern parents, Alfred and Enid Lambert ("To anyone who saw them averting their eyes from the dark-haired New Yorkers careering past them, to anyone who caught a glimpse of Alfred's straw fedora looming at the height of Iowa corn on Labor Day, or the yellow wool of the slacks stretching over Enid's outslung hip, it was obvious that they were midwestern and intimidated") before they take a cruise on the Nordic Pleasurelines. He's not with them for long, as lust and poverty send him racing blindly through the city, away from the immediate responsibilities of family (his sister, Denise, is in town for the brief reunion as well) and off to, by chapter's end, Lithuania.

New York is where such things are possible, but Franzen explores more than the phantasmagorical city. He follows the Lambert children in their lives on the East Coast and in Eastern Europe (Chip is a deposed college professor scrambling for a screenplay deal who falls in with Lithuanian swindlers; Denise is a chef who traverses moral and sexual boundaries; Gary is a successful banker caught in conflict between his scheming wife and scheming mother), Midwesterners who've departed from the course of middle-American stolidity for a trackless universe.

The parents themselves, as their chapter is titled, are "At Sea." Enid grasps at an idyllic conception of Christmas to bring her family together. Alfred descends into the despair of Parkinson's disease. Be it drugs, sex, travel, work or family, each character tries to find a refuge, a route toward a better life than he or she has been handed. "It's in the nature of any self-correction to fail," Franzen observes. "It's a very simple book: Something bad's happening to Dad. In fact [novelist] Donald Antrim, when we were trying to retitle it -- there was some feeling in certain crowds a year ago, or a little less than a year ago, that the title was a little bit too forbidding for a book that was not itself forbidding -- Donald Antrim's suggestion was 'My Sad Dad.' Then he said, 'Come to think of it, almost all of us could title our books that.'

"It's very simple. It's 'My Sad Dad,' or 'Dad Is Sad' was another version. That's the unbearable reality that everyone is trying to find refuge from -- and failing, of course, which is always the delight. Failure is a great, wonderful thing to write about because it's awful and it's funny at the same time."

In writing about the pratfalls of the Lamberts as they try to solve the wrongs done to them and the world, Franzen explores, he says, "an old American theme. This is the New World. This is the corrected Old World. They were writing a constitution in the late 1700s, trying to correct what was wrong with the monarchies back home. It goes right on through the present. People go to California to reinvent themselves. It's my own 2 cents' worth in a great American theme."

He plays this old American theme with laugh-out-loud humor, masterful narrative skill and a sympathetic portrayal of each of his fully developed characters. Franzen says that, yes, all along the book tour readers have been commenting on how their mother-in-law is Enid or their first wife is Denise. He wasn't trying for such familiarity: "I was just trying to write the book. I was hoping people would enjoy it. If anything I'm surprised by that because I felt that for the kind of novelist I am and for the kind of novelist I hang out with I felt I was dealing with somewhat shamefully small domestic stuff. I felt it was so weird. Who else was writing about moms like that who are passionate about Christmas? Funny thing, everyone's saying, 'You're writing about me.'"

The Corrections will survive the backlash, as it will the thrust of current events. Franzen figures other writers won't be so lucky, though. In response to the question of what a writer is to do in the face of such terrible events, Franzen guffaws, "It's like asking a bricklayer, 'What are you going to do now?' 'I think suddenly I'm going to become an immunologist and work on the question of biological warfare.'

"What do they expect of us? There have been a number of articles along those lines. I haven't actually read them, but I've had them described to me. Certain writers -- who I don't particularly care for, who've been writing the same book for the last 30 years over and over again -- are saying, 'I'm really going to have to examine this. None of what I've been doing makes any sense to me.' Hello! It hasn't made any sense to me for the last 30 years. Wake up! It's not 1963. Hello! What a damning admission."

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