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Words Written From Out on a Limb

Jonathan Franzen's new novel is a smashing success. So why is he so uncomfortable?

October 07, 2001|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Equally disheartening, though, were his doubts, his frustrations, his inherent pessimism about "the institution of writing and reading serious novels," concerns he elaborated upon in a long essay called "Perchance to Dream," published in Harper's in 1996. Franzen likened America's literary landscape to "a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways. Ringing the depressed inner city of serious work are prosperous clonal suburbs of mass entertainments: techno and legal thrillers, novels of sex and vampires, of murder and mysticism. The last 50 years have seen a lot of white male flight to the suburbs and to the coastal power centers of television, journalism and film. What remains, mostly, are ethnic and cultural enclaves ... [where] much of contemporary fiction's vitality now resides." In the face of this, Franzen said, contemporary writers have no choice but to "forget the big novel, forget the chimera of engaging with the mainstream. Just tell your story, and tell it to the people who you know care."

The irony is that, for Franzen, telling his story has led to precisely the sort of mainstream recognition he had written off as beyond literature's reach. This, it turns out, is something of a mixed blessing; on the one hand, it can't help but soften his sense of marginality, while at the same time, in producing such "a crossover book," he has alienated some of the very readership--the clannish, hypercritical literati--who once claimed him as their own. For all the attention "The Corrections" has attracted, it's also drawn a small undercurrent of backlash, typified by acquaintances who tell Franzen, "If it could happen to you, it could happen to any of us," or the reader who left a message on his phone machine saying, "I know that, in your heart of hearts and soul of souls, you know that this is not as good as your earlier books."

Franzen is not particularly surprised by any of this; from the beginning, he understood that the decision to write a social novel about the dynamics of family posed a peculiar set of risks. "My first books," he says, "were the kind where, when you bring them to the table, you can cop a certain postmodern pose. But if you let on that you have this problematic relationship with your mother, or that you fight with her about coming home for Christmas, you're revealing that you're not this tough guy, you're this emotional mess from the Midwest. It's potentially extremely shameful to do that without irony, and it's extremely risky because you're always flirting with sentimentality. It's harder to find a tone to write about someone's father dying than to do tough-guy dialogue about a cutting-edge brokerage house."

Given his concerns about producing a novel as narrowly focused as "The Corrections," one has to wonder what made Franzen persist. "It's complicated," he sighs, and pauses, as if waiting for the words to find their form. "I felt the old mode was exhausted, that there was a tiredness in that tradition, in the idea of saying, 'Let's pretend we're really cool.' I felt it when I was reading, and I felt it literally on the page when I was trying to write a third book in that tradition. Every time I did pages that were heavily plotted, I would look for simpler dramatic situations so I could write more fully about people's lives." In other words, Franzen was tired of playing games with fiction, tired of maintaining an ironic point of view.

Eventually, he threw out most of the novel he was writing and began to excavate his characters vertically, revealing them in all their layered depth. Yet even as he found himself compelled by such a process, he had doubts. "If you had known me personally just over a year ago," Franzen recalls, "you'd have seen me rage and moan and wail. 'I don't know what it's about. ... There's no story.' I stayed up at night worrying about this. People told me the book was about a son dealing with his father's death, but the real answer comes from Flannery O'Connor's assertion that we read fiction to have an experience. That's what it was. I was trying to create an experience rather than a message, to render as intensely as possible a set of actions, a set of lives."

Franzen's comments open up a window into "The Corrections," casting it in starkly personal terms. Over the last few weeks, such a space has become less and less available to the author, as the book takes on a life of its own. Even the Oprah's Book Club edition makes for its own kind of distance; as Franzen says, somewhat wistfully, seeing someone else's name imprinted on his dust jacket makes him feel "like there's my book, and then there's her book, and they're not necessarily the same."

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