By Greer, Bonnie
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4569
Bonnie Greer sees The Corrections as part of the Bush project to return the US to its "core values"
There is no question that The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is an important book, perhaps even a landmark one. But not for the reasons it is being praised.
Once again, we are being presented with that mythical beast, that holy of holies-"The Great American Novel". No other country on earth gives its writers the challenge of setting its nationhood down in words. On one level, this is a noble task, the testament of a democracy that takes pride in its ability to reinvent itself constantly. On another level, it is the literary equivalent of "go west, young man", a trek into uncharted wilderness. It mirrors America's push forward; and somehow, if no one attempts to make that trek at any given time, American literature lies moribund, waiting for its true adventure, its real purpose. That there are many bodies littered on the road to this particular Mecca is all part of the quest.
Franzen, in a kind of manifesto, laid out just what the components of this most important of novels should be. He then embarked on his vision quest, alone, armed only with his intelligence and courage. He entombed himself in a Harlem garret lot 1,460 days (or 1,825 days, depending upon which chronicle you prefer). At times, he kept himself blind and dumb, walled in against the teeming life around him. Like some lone chevalier for high European art, he hid himself away, deep within the capital of black America. There he wrote his parable of the Lambert family, who live in a town named after the patron saint of lost causes. The literary establishment, hostage to political correctness and imprisoned by those afflicted with what Harold Bloom called "the anxiety of influence", lit candles to the king over the water, praying that he would set them flee. Finally, Franzen, blinking in the sunlight, his fragile ears ringing, climbed down from the heights of Harlem into the valley of midtown Manhattan, armed with his quarter-million-word opus, his statement to the world made flesh. Not only had he written a novel called The Corrections, he was the correction, the man to return things to the way they should be.
The author has called himself "a male writer". By this, he does not mean a tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking writer, the sort of the Hemingway school, two-fisted and hard-drinking. Besides, the Hemingway school has been discredited, blown away by feminism and self-parody. His is not the Tom Wolfe, Man in Full version, a kind of bastard Zola. Franzen's statement is about reclamation. It is about men like hint taking back their rightful place in the scheme of things on the front line and giving orders. Naturally, Franzen is much too subtle to say this, but essentially his novel is about order, about the way things should be.
When Chip, Franzen's best character, sneers at a female student who drops the name of Walter Benjamin, the great Jewish-German philosopher, he is dismissive of her because she is filled simply with information, not knowledge. She doesn't know that only Chip, a refugee from order yet yearning for it, can explain Benjamin to her.
The double game that Franzen plays throughout his novel is to use the naming of objects, the description of their use and the dropping of the names of great thinkers such as Benjamin as a way of signalling his high literary intent. But using Benjamin's name backfires on him. For example, in his Arcade Project, Benjamin piled on objects as a way of illuminating the culture. Franzen does this, too, but while Benjamin's approach is fresh and enlightening, the author of The Corrections has all the air of a clever but pedantic teacher of English lit at an Ivy League university. …