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Interview With Jonathan Franz En

Interview With Jonathan Franz En

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Published by: api-32298441 on Aug 29, 2010
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09/28/2013

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INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN FRANZEN, AUTUMN 2001
By Elena Lappin

Two events shook, shocked and divided America in the autumn of
2001: the cataclysm of 9/11, and the publication of a novel called THE
CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen. It may sound far-fetched to
mention the two in one breath and to refer to the latter as an event, but
that is, without exaggeration, precisely what it was. This novel hit the
country like a literary earthquake, exposing its raw interior along clearly
defined though long dormant faultlines. The conversation about THE
CORRECTIONS was everywhere - not only in the media but among
friends, family members, in email exchanges. It quickly became a book
everyone read and had a strong opinion about - for or against. “I HATED
that novel,” a friend told me over the phone from New York,
immediately adding: “You should read it.”

For or against what, precisely? THE CORRECTIONS is a novel about
a midwestern American family, the Lamberts. Its patriarch, Alfred, a
retired engineer, is in the process of dying from an Alzheimer’s-like
disease. His wife, Enid, oscillates between a complete dedication to her
husband and her now adult children, and utter, hopeless disappointment.
The children, Gary, Chip and Denise, lead lives which are instantly

recognizable as the proverbial modern American experience: success,
failure, neurosis, depression, fun, addiction, isolation and despair. And
love - its absence acutely felt, its presence often hidden behind an
elaborate pretense of feigned indifference, like a bad, bloody bruise under
an ornate tatoo. Throughout the book, this family seems to be either
disintegrating or, on the contrary, coming together. Its members are either
incapable of communicating with one another or, unexpectedly, finding
new, surprising ways of looking at others, and inside themselves. One
last family Christmas dinner seems like an unattainable goal, an obstacle
to happiness rather than its symbol.

Franzen’s two earlier novels dealt with major political and social issues,
with terrorism and other threats to humanity. They did not engender
much controversy; in fact, as he wrote in a much-discussed personal
essay in Harper’s magazine, in 1996, he was so disappointed by their lack
of impact that he lost faith in the possibility of writing a novel which
really mattered. Yet, when (almost a decade after first experimenting
with a version of THE CORRECTIONS which bore very little
resemblance to its final form) 42 year old Jonathan Franzen delivered
this story of a family in a state of barely visible flux, it was received by
a vast section of the reading public with the kind of palpable excitement

we tend to save for phenomena which have the power to transform our
lives.

However, the negative response to the book was equally tangible and
loud. It was as if, after a powerful concert performance, one half of the
audience stood up to boo the composer, while the other rewarded him
with deafening applause and cries of cheers. [Accordingly, on
amazon.com, almost 600 readers’ reviews alternate between five stars
and one or two stars.] The well-known New York playwright Donald
Margulies described it to me like this: “The merits of THE
CORRECTIONS seem to have become the topic of East Coast dinner
parties. I was such an enthusiastic fan of the book that I was initially
surprised by the virulence of people’s reactions. The argument I most
encounter is that Franzen shows only contempt for the older Lamberts,
but I don’t agree with that at all; I think there is enormous compassion in
his portrayal of Alfred and, in particular, Enid. I suspect that the people
who most object to these characterizations are revealing their own
discomfort with their diminishing parents. I think Franzen, like the
screenwriter Alan Ball (who created the film American Beauty), has
tapped into a particularly American view of family life, and done it
truthfully, unsentimentally, and unapologetically.”

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