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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.”
Alfred, Enid, Chip, Gary, Denise: these have become household names in America, in a way that is today usually achieved only by much-watched television soap operas. One of the pleasures of reading THE CORRECTIONS is how close Franzen allows us to feel to ALL his characters, whether they’re going through good times or bad, whether we like what they’re doing or despise it. He paints his complex picture of their lives on a vast canvas, but , after reading almost 600 pages of this novel, you walk away with a sense of having just seen it all flash before your eyes, like your own life crystallized into a quick sequence of images. I was really curious to meet the young writer who can do this kind of magic.
Like Bill Clinton, Franzen has an office in Harlem, in a spatious loft which, as I will find out, is so sound-proof it could be anywhere. I take the usual yellow cab there, without realizing that I won’t be able to hail one on the street to take me back to mid-town Manhattan. New York may have lost its permanent whiff of danger, but apparently not to the extent that taxi drivers feel comfortable enough cruising around 125th Street. “ It’s a big yellow building. There’s no intercom. I’ll wait for you downstairs,” Jonathan Franzen tells me on the phone before we meet. When I get there, a man happens to be leaving and lets me come inside. He knows there is “a Franzen upstairs.” I must be early, because
Jonathan isn’t there and I find myself all alone inside what feels like an industrial-size lobby, with corners dark enough to unsettle me. There is a payphone and I try to dial his number, but it doesn’t work, and I lose my only quarter. So all I can do is wait, and, well, it’s kind of scary. The sounds of 125th Street just outside the heavy door, an eerie, echoing silence inside. I’m not even sure I’m in the right part of the building, though I can certainly identify the sweet bakery smell Franzen had mentioned to me when describing the place. After a few moments, I opt for acting on my instinct, which tells me not to linger in isolated spots, and to assume that there is no such thing as irrational fear. I escape next door, into a tiny, busy, noisy and fairly messy manicure salon, and spend some time talking to ALL the women there about whether or not I’d found the right entrance to the building. Part of me wants to just sit down and ask for a manicure.
But I go back and soon enough Jonathan Franzen appears, tall, trim, polite, very pleasant, yet at the same time, almost imperceptibly pissedoff: another interview, another interruption. Later, however, I will discover that the conversation we had may have been a fairly pleasant distraction from a bad day’s work: he will show me half a page of a new novel, the result of many hours’ of effort (he tries to put in six hours a day, Monday to Friday), and declare it to be “absolutely terrible; useless.”
He also spent hours playing hearts on his roommate’s computer “I don’t have it on my own.” Franzen shares this space with Chris, a sculptor, for whom the loft is not only a studio but also his home. We walked around for a while, looking at the sculptures (Chris wasn’t there). Large and colourful, they completely dominated the loft - yet now, I have absolutely no visual memory of them. Whereas I retain a clear, sharp image of Franzen’s austere, simple office space.
The first thing that strikes me about him, and then again when I listen to the tapes of the interview, is his earnestness - even when he’s funny, which is very often. When he talks, he seems committed to finding the
most truthful, complete answers to every question, with vast amounts of understanding for an interviewer who is anxious to cover too much, too fast. He is only 42 and does not have any children at this point, but it suddenly occurs to me that with this patience and ability and willingness to explain things and put them in context, he’d make a wonderful GRANDfather some day. Franzen doesn’t talk in soundbites; like his novel, his conversation is rooted in continuity.
His own life is firmly grounded in what he describes as a very happy childhood, with a loving family and very good friends. “Precisely because I have those things in place, I can go and just open myself up to
the worst kind of stuff here in this office, that otherwise would be unbearable to look at.” A writer invents, he says passionately, “because it means nothing, literally nothing to be a mirror to society. Excuse me, I’m not a reflective body.”
But isn’t he a mirror to his own experience? There is a boy called Jonah in THE CORRECTIONS, Alfred’s grandson. He reads and thinks about books and talks like a wise adult. Franzen grew up in the Midwest as the youngest of three brothers, who were nine and twelve years older than him. “By the time I was eight, they were out of the house, so I spent a lot of time with my parents and their friends and their parents who were all born in the 19th century. The house was very still. I had an amazingly long attention span because my parents would need me to be quiet for 3 or 4 hours. I’d just read a book...I’m told by one of my aunts that I was insufferably precocious and that I spoke in an extremely adult way at a very early age. My oldest friend, whom I’ve known for 37 years, remembers me saying in kindergarten: ‘I’d rather not play.’” I wonder whether his parents realized how funny this was. Franzen sighs: “I don’t know what was up with that... It was a strange childhood. Very loving parents, but a very isolated time all around.”
The word ‘loving’ pops up often when he talks about his family, in an almost defensive way; I’m about to ask about this when his phone rings. Jonathan apologizes to me and listens to someone on the phone telling him what sounds like very good news. Whatever it is, it makes him laugh and beam and say “Thank you. Excellent. I’ll be down to give you a hug in a couple of days.” To me he says, a little embarrassed: “That was a silly call, actually.” And later, when our interview is almost over, he confesses that it had been his publicist, telling him that THE CORRECTIONS had gone up again on the NYT bestseller list: “They’ll sell a good million of them. Amazing. It’s not an easy book.”
I say I can’t remember what we were talking about before the phone rang. “Loving,” he offers, helpfully. “You were picking up the word ‘loving,’ something about the word ‘loving’ caught your attention, and we began to talk about parents...”
I mention another interview (one of the few he’s really pleased with), in which he says that he couldn’t talk to his mother for years. “Yes,” he says, simply. “That’s a frequent response to someone who’s perhaps a bit TOO loving.” In a suffocating sort of way? “My mother could be a little bit intense, yes. She had a lot of excess energy, and she was too preoccupied with her children, maybe particularly me.” Did she expect
him to become a writer? “No,” he declares, decisively. “Writing she was very opposed to. I think principally on moral grounds. She said more than once: fiction is lies. And also, it was not familiar to her as a pursuit, she was not really a reader, and there was no precedent for it in the family.”
The stillness of the idyllic Franzen family home was misleading, for they were, in fact living in turbulent times. “It was the 60s and first half of the 70s, a very stormy period. My father was very bitterly opposed to the Vietnam war and was very isolated in his pacifism, even among the people he knew. My brothers were also very much of the 60s. My middle brother was a hippie. There was a lot of real anger and complete noncommunication between my brothers and my parents. One of the things that got me in the habit of being conflicted was watching those contradictions within the family and feeling equal sympathy for the oldfashioned and the new.”
In a forthcoming collection of Franzen’s essays (HOW TO BE ALONE), there is a very moving one entitled “My Father’s Brain.” It begins with an account of Jonathan receiving a Valentine’s package from his mother, containing the usual greeting card and chocolate, but also a copy “of a neuropathologist’s report on my father’s brain autopsy.” The essay then describes how Alzheimer’s was first misdiagnosed, resisted, finally
courageously dealt with by his father and the family, and ends with the insight that, after his father’s death, “There would be no new memories of him. The only stories we could tell now were the ones we already had.” This realization is, I believe, the key to the power, poignancy and, perhaps, the sheer existence of THE CORRECTIONS. When I asked Franzen about the moment in time when he felt his novel coming alive, he pointed to a number of factors: “I’d just read De Lillo’s Underworld, and I just finally quit smoking, learning how to take naps in the afternoon instead. I was coming out of the hard year after my father died, my divorce was final. I was writing about a page a day, not particularly sequentially. This is when I wrote the dinner table scene in THE CORRECTIONS. That was an entirely imagined scene, nothing was happening there and yet I felt like this thing is really happening. And there was something about the language that was so different from anything I’d ever written. Who knows where that came from... But the idea that I could actually take as my subject a boy sitting at the table staring at his food, instead of having to save the world... I felt I was breaking free then.”
THE CORRECTIONS was written before 9/11, and I wonder whether he feels that it is dated in any way, that he is writing about a more innocent time. Franzen disagrees: “The book is a kind of impatience on the
writer’s part: is the apocalyptic downturn NEVER gonna happen?? I’ve been thinking about this stuff literally for twenty years. As far as the supposed loss of American innocence post 9/11 goes .... “ He pauses, waiting for a plane, or maybe just some particularly noisy sound of 125th Street traffic from down below to pass by. Then he resumes, in a quiet voice: “...Maybe a lost ignorance, rather than a lost innocence. The book is written very much out of a sense that something bad is gonna happen, something terrible is gonna happen. And now something terrible HAS happened, but I don’t think it’s anything like as terrible as what’s going to happen.”
These are ominous words, but as I walk out of the silent building, past the still buzzing manicure salon and towards the subway station, I’ve almost forgotten them. Instead, I think of how he described his pleasure in being a writer: “This is just the best life for me. It’s very much like my childhood.” And I wish I could start this interview all over again.