The New American Farce
A few years ago, I read a story called “Chez Lambert” in The Best American Short Stories and laughed until I was nearly doubled over in pain. It was written by one Jonathan Franzen, frequent contributer to the New Yorker, Harpers Magazine, and other highly visible literary journals, such as The Paris Review. A story at once both tragic and comic, it provided a glimpse into the lives of an old couple living in St. Jude, a Midwestern town named after the patron saint of hopeless causes, but Franzen portrayed them in a way that was neither sentimental nor caustic. The contributor’s notes in the back of the book said that this “story” was going to be chapter two in a book Mr. Franzen was writing called The Corrections. I looked forward to its release, unaware that it would take several years.
It was well worth the wait. The Corrections, Franzen’s third novel, was hailed by Fortune Magazine as “the novel of the year.” The Philadelphia Inquirer calls it a “huge, ambitious, powerful, funny, imaginative yet realistic novel.” Interestingly enough, when The Corrections was finally released in September 2001, just two months before it won the National Book award, the story “Chez Lambert”, which had gotten me hooked, appeared as the foreword to the book. I was reminded of Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”, part of the now classic Invisible Man.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux has clearly fired up the publicity machine with this one. Mr. Franzen has his own website, www.jonathanfranzen.com, that comes replete with study guides, reviews, and blurbs from the A-list of the review world. His book, clearly his seminal work, was praised early-on by literary heavyweights like Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Pat Conroy, and Michael Cunningham (several of whom are now friends of Franzen), which got the ball rolling. The book exploded into national consciousness when it became the subject of a literary scandal involving Franzen’s comments about Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry and certainly an influential figure in literary circles.
Upon learning that his book was picked by Oprah’s book club, Franzen wondered aloud whether her readers could appreciate serious literature, which is a little absurd given that her picks have also included Andre Dubus III, Toni Morrison, Jane Hamilton, and Joyce Carol Oates. He also objected to her demand of placing the big “O” on the cover, which he saw as a visible and invasive form of corporate identity, which, of course, it is. (Consider also, how the book section on her website is labeled “Oprah’s books”). Book publishers love Oprah, however, because it is this visible “O” that draws readers in droves to purchase books. In Mr. Franzen’s case, FSG struck a deal with Franzen and Oprah in which some copies of the book would be printed without the “O” and some with. Interestingly enough, the first printing of the book had pages 430 and 431 reversed, and came with an errata slip that identified this mistake. This, coupled with the fact that it does not have Oprah’s stamp on it, has made this early edition relatively valuable. I’ve seen copies on eBay, a popular online auction service, going for $65.00—not bad for a new book.
One can understand Franzen’s position. He doesn’t own a TV, doesn’t watch TV, and his image of Oprah was probably fueled by the jokes made about her over the years, jokes that have more relevance to the Jerry Springers and Maury Povichs of the world. It took him nine years to write this book, and he didn’t want it compromised by an unsavory association with daytime television. Franzen has since thanked Winfrey, according to the The Atlanta Journal, “for her enthusiasm and advocacy,” and all is well again with the world.
Despite the scandals, publishing hype and other attention-getting maneuvers, this book is not for everyone. And here, too, Franzen’s argument becomes clearer. This book is about a dysfunctional family, their dysfunctional lives apart from their families, dysfunctional career choices, and general dysfunctional behavior (detect a pattern here?). It is a veritable cornucopia of dysfunction, and because Franzen skewers American culture through the lens of one American family, the book has the potential to alienate large segments of the reading public, particularly, or at least in my experience, an older reading public.
The Corrections centers around the Lambert family. Enid and Alfred Lambert have two sons, Gary and Chip, and a daughter, Denise. The general plot of the novel is simple enough—Enid Lambert is trying to get the entire family together for one last Christmas in St. Jude. But with her husband suffering from Parkinson’s and dementia, children scattered across the face of the globe, and her own quirky mannerisms, we begin to see how unlikely it is that this holiday get-together can be accomplished. Yes, this is an absurd plot, but it is absurd in the way that some kitsch is fascinating—it makes us want to know more about the characters. And this is where the novel succeeds, grandly.
Franzen uses each character to reveal truths about the intersection of social and personal histories. For example, Chip Lambert is the intellectual wunderkind of the family and early-on we see him after he has been fired from a cushy liberal arts college tenure-track job for having a sordid sexual affair with a female student. He is in New York at this point, writing a screenplay and polishing an opening monologue that is so dense with critical theory that no one wants to read it. To top it off, his girlfriend, an assistant to a producer he wants desperately to impress, is offended by all the references to breasts. She chooses to leave him on the day his aging parents stop by to visit, and after he stops by the office to look for her there, he is introduced to her husband, Gitanas, a diplomat from Lithuania. While there, Chip notices that her young son is scribbling on a manuscript that looks suspiciously like his. Gitanas, who has been tortured by the Russian army, hires Chip to setup a website to defraud American investors. Because Chip is critical of American business, and a desperate out-of-work writer to boot, he is perfect for the job. The fact that he’d been sleeping with Gitanas’s wife turns out to be a non-factor, though it makes Chip crazy at first. He owes his sister $25,000, and sees this as a quick and interesting way to make enough money to pay her back. After a few months, though, the country collapses and Chip is robbed by the “police”. As disheartening as this might be, Chip gains some insight into why his manuscript does not work. It needs to be a farce. He realizes that he has been taking his subject too seriously, and that in order for audiences to identify with it, it should have an element of hilarity.
It is at this point that I realized Franzen was using this realization of Chip’s as a vehicle for his own text. The Corrections is more than a satire. It is more than a story. It is a new kind of American farce. It is a book that challenges a reader’s suspension of disbelief. A huge, sweeping work, we are given histories of each family member’s current life, their lives growing up, and cultural and historical factors that continue to shape them as human beings. We are given their little epiphanies, their struggles, joys, sorrows—but in settings and situations that are often quite hilarious.
This book is the real deal, easily one of the ten best books I’ve read. With the exception of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter, and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, I can think of no other work that even comes close to the magnitude of Franzen’s new book. Years from now, critics will look back and see that this book, his third, is his seminal work, and surely everything he writes, from this point forward, will be compared to this book. As Stewart O’Nan from the Atlantic Monthly writes, “[Franzen] reminds us of the timelessness of human folly.”