The Last Supper

La lutte continue: Jonathan Franzen fights to save the American novel

Forgive me for opening a review of a 568-page novel on a truly superficial note--but they wouldn't put authors' photos on books if they didn't want you to check 'em out. And my, did Jonathan Franzen get foxy for his portrait, pairing nerdish spectacles and a crisp white shirt with a few days' stubble and a steely-eyed gaze. The gaze is what prompted my recollection of having been loaned, a few years back, a signed copy of Franzen's 1992 novel, Strong Motion, in which the author had inked a rallying cry to a comrade in arms: "La lutte continue!"

Throughout his career, Franzen has been loosely associated with the club of big-boy authors battling to save Literature: DeLillo, Gaddis, Wallace, et al. He may not make the grade in style or in output alone: The Corrections (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is hefty, not huge; and it's not stuffed with tracts on obscure topics or with dazzling verbal pyrotechnics. But this is hardly a bad thing. Franzen's achievement, by his own assertion, is in blurring literature's gender lines, successfully marrying postmodernism's (male/public) sprawl and social commentary with a more traditional (female/private) character-driven approach.

So he might try to spice things up by telling the New York Times Magazine "I don't think you know how weird I am," or waxing urgent about this mission to Save the Great American Novel (do female writers worry about such things?). But the fact is, the result of that mission is a book that hinges on nothing more profound than one Enid Lambert's fervent desire to have her whole fam damily back in St. Jude for Xmas.

The novel begins and ends with Enid's "corrections" of her husband Alfred--the two characters being products of the Depression who prospered, but never got as rich as their friends. Enid blames Al, her own flair for finances having been stifled by this stubborn man who broods on Schopenhauer. In turn, she's become a classic neurotic nag, dishing out a litany of complaints stored up over the decades. Enid's natural self-sufficiency and ambition are borne out by her youngest child, Denise, a hotshot chef at the coolest restaurant in Philadelphia, whose confused capacity for trying to please others brings her plenty of man (and woman) trouble.

Gary, Al and Enid's oldest, is the resentful do-gooder with a beautiful family and loads of consumer goods bought with his bank vice president's salary (and his wife's inheritance). It's a life carefully constructed as a "correction" to his father's. And yet he finds himself denying his depression just like Al, and also, in one of the book's eeriest dissections of family dynamics, watching his wife and older sons mount a subtle alliance against him. The most cartoonish and least sympathetic Lambert offspring is Chip, a hipster academic derailed from his tenure track after being caught in an affair with a student--an incident he then attempts to parlay into a screenplay while living off loans from his sister. Just when his house-of-cards lifestyle is beginning to totter, he escapes from New York to Vilnius, Lithuania, where he aids an ex-politician/fledgling crime lord in defrauding irrationally exuberant American investors.

At the base of this pyramid of unease is the Lambert patriarch. He's one of a dying breed: an irony-free absolutist and fundamental pessimist who believes in hard work, truth, and integrity. Al's penchant for privacy has emotionally cut him off from his family, but that remove is quickly eroding as he succumbs to Parkinson's disease and dementia. The trajectory of the novel finds him enduring both the loss of control over his body, and Enid's incessant cajoling.

None of the Lamberts is overtly likable, but all are ultimately redeemed except one, whose eventual absence seems more a condemnation than an oversight. They boast an entirely average panoply of problems--mental illness; chronic disease; sexual repression, confusion, and transgression; festering secrets, miscommunications, and all the sundry, subtle hurts directed at one another. And in turn, they flirt with our culture's average solution--the prospective balm of pharmaceuticals, promising a "correction" for every ailment.


Franzen for the most part resists the ostentatious tangents and thematic sprawl that are the hallmarks of the ambitious postmodern novel. But sometimes he gives in. There are digressions and subplots here that seem to be trying to build up narrative weight through pure accretion. And there's no shortage of in-depth minutiae on numerous topics--neurology, pharmacology, railroads, haute cuisine, etc.--to prove that Franzen did his homework. Fact and fiction are cleverly blended with the Ford Stomper SUV (almost a minor character itself), but then a Microsoft-like "W____ Corporation" remains pompously anonymous. Similarly, one character goes by "Famous American Director," despite plenty of other real-life name-checking (Mira Sorvino, Stanley Tucci, Stephen Malkmus). With fact, fiction, or both at one's disposal, why settle for these precious constructions?

These annoyances aside, the deeper structure of The Corrections is a marvel. Given that Franzen devoted most of the Nineties to writing The Corrections (la lutte continue, indeed), it's only fitting that his book takes its cues from the jolts, dips, and spikes of the stock market. Franzen is attuned to the way his characters ride this roller coaster: "[Gary's] seasonally adjusted assessment of life's futility and brevity was consistent with the overall robustness of his mental economy."

And yet, fitting to a domestic novel, the story doesn't reach its crux when the Dow Jones breaks 10,000. The actual fulcrum is an ordinary Lambert family dinner, circa 1963. Franzen goes deep, charting the psychodramas enacted at the meal, how they play out over the course of the evening, and, in a sense, each family member's life. And though no one would mistake Franzen for John Grisham, he does have a knack for suspense, building momentum out of unresolved questions. What's become of the patent Al got on a process he developed from his metallurgy hobby? Will letters pertaining to this patent, hidden by a frazzled Enid, ever resurface? And how about that shotgun he unearthed from his storeroom? Then there's Chip's fate as Vilnius descends into chaos, which, in our post-September 11 world, comes as a chilling metaphor for Americans' rude awakening to global realities.

In taking postmodernism mainstream, Franzen brings us a tale of resistance, refusal, and denial of all sorts, and the effects (okay, the "corrections") that play out as a result. It's a family drama that follows the cycles of an ecosystem--or the stock market.

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