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Book Clubbed

Oprah's new book club choice is full of characters who feel anxious about a trend toward packaged emotions

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Poor Jonathan Franzen. Oprah doesn't understand him. After she selected his novel The Corrections as the latest entry in her literary pantheon, Franzen expressed reservations about having Oprah's logo pasted all over the covers of his book. He further opined that some of Oprah's past choices have been--his word, please note, not mine--"silly." Oprah was miffed. She canceled her dinner with the author. She intimated that, if only it were possible, she would expel The Corrections from the pantheon. That, it must be said, would have been going too far. A pantheon is a pantheon is a pantheon. It must be timeless, universal and unchanging--or it is nothing.

To be misunderstood by Oprah--it must be something like being found too gamy by Hannibal Lecter. After all, understanding--or some version of it, anyway--is what Oprah sells. Franzen ventured his misgivings to interviewers for provincial newspapers. Who would ever have thought that Oprah would have minions in Kansas City, reporting back to her on the doings of such backwater tabloids? Besides, Franzen really respects Oprah. He loves her. She is a hero. Protest as he may--and even Oprah no doubt knows he doth protest too much--Franzen's dinner with Oprah will probably never happen. Now Franzen says he's learned something about giving interviews. Good for him. Hedge those bets, Jonathan.

As it happens, if Oprah packages understanding, Jonathan Franzen knows a thing or two about misunderstanding. It is what The Corrections is about. The No. 1 Bestseller in the United States as I write, and recently anointed with a National Book Award, the book is a contemporary family chronicle about the Lamberts, aging Enid and Alfred and their three grown children, Chip, Denise and Gary. During a year in which Alfred seems to be descending gracelessly into what appears to be Alzheimer's but turns out, oddly, to be Parkinson's, Enid lobbies relent- lessly to bring the kids home for one last Christmas in St. Jude, Mo. Chip is a former professor and wanna-be screen- writer, Denise a sexually ambivalent chef, and Gary a depressive equities banker with a family of his own, the most secure upper-middle-classer of the bunch. The novel shifts perspectives among these characters, mostly to show how little they really know of each other.

Tolstoy was wrong: All unhappy families are alike. In the land of American dysfunction, not much has changed since the days of John Cheever's The Wapshot Chronicle in 1958, Franzen's most obvious model. It, too, is filled with addicts, depressives, control freaks, anal retentives, poor relations, generalized nut cases, all bickering ferociously until they're even bluer in the face than they already were. Like Cheever's book--much criticized at the time, despite its National Book Award, for failing to cohere as a novel--Franzen's consists of a sequence of loosely connected episodes, each tracing the viewpoint of a member of the family.

The connections are looser in Franzen than in Cheever, the episodes less chiseled, and the sudden, electrifying currents of magical surrealism in Cheever--the elements that buoyed up his style in a kind of manic-depressive exhilaration--are largely absent from Franzen, whose comic mode consists mostly of a stolid, deadpan exaggeration. Cheever's sourness, or that of the cramped little world he found himself in, led him more and more into transcendental allegory, especially in his later novels, Falconer, Bullet Park, and Oh What a Paradise It Seems (the most perfect novel, I sometimes think, that I've ever read); neither Cheever nor his characters wanted to stay stuck in that petty bickering forever.

Franzen's don't either, but if the book makes one thing clear, it's that the author thinks they are stuck there. One of the novel's recurrent effects is a kind of sharp, intentional bathos: After terrible bouts of bickering, the characters resolve to change their lives--and then they go on bickering. Many members of families will recognize this dynamic. On the last page of the novel, one of those characters vows, one last time, to change; optimistic on the surface, it's really a conclusive moment of piercing sadness, because Franzen sets us up to see that it will never happen.

Many reviewers have called the novel "sprawling," probably because it's long, and loosely constructed. But its emotional range is severely delimited--like many American novels, its emotional tenor mostly combines blunt severity with gestures toward a compensatory gentleness. Aside from the bathos, Franzen aims, until the last 50 pages, only for brittle, comic, Cheeveresque sourness, and minor shock effects, mostly relating to Alfred's physical decline. The virtuosity of the novel resides in what variation it can find in these three notes, percussively dedicated to exposing, over and over, the indignity of being. In turn, these notes are sharpened by three recurrent literary techniques: the glib riposte, the smart-aleck's catalog, and the paranoid litany.

Here are two of the more extreme examples of the glib riposte. Chip has gone to Lithuania to defraud American investors (don't ask) and is robbed by a band of marauders. "I'm struggling to put a positive construction on this," he quips, in the middle of the robbery. A robber savagely orders him to strip, and his companion translates: "He's inviting you to take your clothes off." It is nice for both Chip and his companion--and good for Franzen's comic intentions--that they have cultivated such detachment that they can exercise their brittle wit in moments of desperation. I don't doubt that we are all so jaded, nor that alienation is the norm--only that the terrified or the traumatized always fall back so predictably on their characteristic defense mechanisms.

The smart-aleck catalogs manifest Franzen's own defense mechanism. In interviews, he refers to himself, paradoxically, as an "old-fashioned modernist," and accordingly, he peppers the novel with allusions to Ulysses (like the meditation on "metem-psychosis"). Though it's really closer in sensibility to someone like James Gould Couzzens, the novel is much concerned, like the modernist classics, with fending off the corruptions of commodity culture. Chip enters a store that is either actually called "Nightmare of Consumption" or that he just thinks of that way, and we're treated to a catalog of its wares: Belizean Sorrel, Wild Norwegian Salmon, "gourmet" coffee from a bar "that gave running ironic tallies of TODAY'S GROSS RECEIPTS and TODAY'S PROFITS and PROJECTED QUARTERLY PER SHARE DIVIDEND. ... " The store is ironic about its own commodities, anti-consumerist Chip is ironic about the store, and Franzen's ironic about it all. The catalogs of consumerist detritus often have a tone of studied neutrality, but that is only meant to make them funnier, and the contempt underlying them more cutting.

What attitude should we take, when we've reached a point where corporations use affect--whatever comes to hand, whether it be ironic self-awareness or trumped up expressions of grief about national catastrophes--to fetishize their own commodities? The novel mocks Chip's academic Marxism, but blasts commodity culture even more fervently. In its way, the Oprah ambivalence is right there in the book itself. Split between social satire and psychological realism, the novel wants to criticize the foibles of every one of its characters, mercilessly, and then deepen its empathy for them still and all, without appearing to forgive them. It's a feat designed precisely to distinguish the book from the literary commodities that flood both Oprah's pantheon and the market itself, from the kind of book that, usually with a little comic twinkle, shows us at length how bad everything is, then lunges into portable uplift, so critics will praise it for offering up a nice serving of the milk of human kindness, or for showing the persistent redemptive etcetera of the human spirit--or some other such malodorous swill. (Can't we see even now how such platitudes themselves define, and feed, commodity culture?)

The unforgiving treatment of the characters seems meant to neutralize the question of whether the author "likes" them or not. Whether showing us the incontinence of the family patriarch or exposing the meanness of the favored son, The Corrections is as uncompromising as a middlebrow bestseller can be--in a way that almost suggests it only half wanted to be a middlebrow bestseller in the first place. The characters' emotional lives are revealed in litanies both paranoid and blameworthy. Alfred's bile:

He blamed the man for his easygoing confidence. He blamed both of them for lacking the consideration to keep their voices down. ... He blamed God for allowing such people to exist. He blamed democracy for inflicting them on him. He blamed the motel's architect. ... He blamed the motel's management. ... He blamed the frivolous, easygoing townspeople. ... He blamed. ... He blamed. ...

A minor character on her daughter's murderer:

She wanted him dead despite her recent interview. ... She wanted him dead despite the religious fervor. ... She wanted him dead despite believing that Jordan's death had been a random tragedy. ... She wanted him dead. ... She wanted him dead. ... She wanted him dead. ...

Denise begging Chip not to pay her back a debt:

Do you understand what a huge favor you'd be doing me if you let me forgive the debt? Do you understand that it's hard for me to ask this favor? Do you understand that coming here for Christmas is the only favor I've ever asked you? Do you understand that I'm not trying to insult you? Do you understand ... ? Do you understand ... ?

These litanies are pure repetition compulsion. They are hysterical efforts to feel, and communicate or hide feeling. They are the thoughts and feelings of people who are terrified that their emotions themselves will become, or have become, commodities.

It's a fear the novel, despite its own commitment to protective glibness, understands. For a big book, it's remarkably single-minded: It has the conceptual framework, like Cheever's novels, of a short story. But this odd stringency gives way in the end, mysteriously, to a clarity of vision that really lets the characters breathe. The book never lets up on them; the tone does not change, but the angle of vision, somehow, does. It's because the emotion of the book has been so narrowly focused that the opening up of these last pages feels so powerful. By the end, though the characters are not forgiven, and will never understand each other, and never escape, they know that they are loved, without mulling over it too much--since love, the novel shows us, is just another feature of the quotidian, albeit a fine one.

It is a feat worthy of a book complicated enough to be both Oprah fodder and serious literature: to convert its own sourness, at the last minute, into purity. EndBlock

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