A Literary Correction. (THE CRITICS FICTION)

By Gessen, Keith | The American Prospect, November 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Literary Correction. (THE CRITICS FICTION)


Gessen, Keith, The American Prospect


TOWARD THE END OF JONATHAN Franzen's magnificent new novel The Corrections, Chip Lambert, an associate professor who has lost his job--in the great tradition of fictional associate professors, for sleeping with a student--returns to his parents' midwestern home after three months as a Web-based con artist in Lithuania. "A holly wreath was on the door," Chip observes.

   The front walk was edged with snow and evenly spaced broom marks. The
   midwestern street struck the traveler as a wonderland of wealth and oak
   trees and conspicuously useless space. The traveler didn't see how such a
   place could exist in a world of Lithuanias and Polands. It was a testament
   to the insulatory effectiveness of political boundaries that power didn't
   simply are across the gap between such divergent economic voltages.

One can quibble with Franzen's use of Poland and "political boundaries" in the same breath, and with his suggestion that boundaries, rather than enormous militaries, are what keep political entities insulated. But the insight is appropriate, because the events of September 11 must at least partially be interpreted as just such an arcing--the awful, flaming end to a bubbly, crazy decade.

It is a decade toward which Franzen's book directs a great deal of scorn. The "corrections" of the title refer to pharmaceutical fixes and to jail, but they refer most directly to the market correction with which the decade should have ended. Franzen is no prophet--there are no terrorists in this novel, and he predicts, wrongly, that the financial correction will be a "gentle letdown, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to hurt anyone but fools and the working poor." That is, of course, how things had been going; the recent pronouncements of the changed-ness of everything elide the fact that, psychologically and economically, America was already changing: The Nasdaq was losing value precipitously; jobs, especially near bloated Silicon Valley, were vanishing; and the Supreme Court had called an election for the wrong guy. Nonetheless, it's remarkable that a book written over the past nine years should otherwise read so well on the other side of history.

THE CORRECTIONS FEELS AT TIMES like a catalog of ended modes of being. On a literary level, the book is a correction to the big postmodern novel. Franzen is, after all, a writer with a strong postmodernist pedigree: He is good friends with David Foster Wallace and has referred to Don DeLillo as being "sort of dad-like"; he has said that until recently he believed that working in the cerebral, allegorical-political mode of DeLillo and William Gaddis was "the only way to have adult dignity as a white male fiction writer." His first two novels contained ironic, leftist/conspiracist plots; and though for The Corrections he has adopted a traditional family-romance frame, Franzen has still produced a book that includes, among other things, a shadowy corporate-pharmaceutical conspiracy, a Lithuanian cell-phone riot, and several different font sizes.

And yet nearly everyone who's written about The Corrections has lauded Franzen's abandonment of the postmodern heritage; The New York Times praised the book, on Tuesday and on Sunday, for its "family dynamics"; Poets and Writers compared the author to Leo Tolstoy, and The Atlantic Monthly likened him to John Cheever. A week later, the book began appearing in stores with the "Oprah Book Club" sticker affixed like a little prize pin. So where, at a moment when they might reasonably claim vindication, are the Pynchonians? Has anyone seen the Derrideans? The Corrections features one of the most memorable allusions to Michel Foucault in recent American literature:"[I]t warmed his Foucaultian heart," Franzen writes of Chip in the hypercapitalist wilds of post-Soviet Lithuania, "to live in a land where property ownership and the control of public discourse were so obviously a matter of who had the guns. …

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