Everything Must Go!

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
    Fourth Estate, 568 pp, £17.99, November 2001, ISBN 1 84115 672 8
  • Ghost World directed by Terry Zwigoff
    August 2001
  • Storytelling directed by Todd Solondz
    November 2001

Today there are only second acts in American lives. No generation to find itself interestingly lost in Paris; no elegant tribe crowding the lawn with portents of disaster at Gatsby’s parties; no collective urge to write the great war novel; no second sex. To judge by the best of the new writing, the most urgent of the new films, the most-watched television, American lives are now devoted to a wholesale inhabitating of the dead afternoon. It is not the world of beginnings nor the world of ends that obsesses: it is what Lionel Trilling called the middle of the journey. There is limbo, there is stasis, there is open-all-hours petrification. There is mild domestic psychosis and there are soft furnishings. All art is the art of real estate and self-help. The universe described is a middle-class America, a place of spiritual lassitude and window-blinds. Market populism travels in through the air-conditioning and fastens to the red blood cells. And in these lives, and in the books and films that venture to look at these lives, you notice how a single, powerful question pertains: what now?

This is not a consequence of 11 September: some would argue, and might be right to argue, that 11 September was a consequence of this. Jonathan Franzen’s new novel is a concatenation of dead afternoons, the kinds of afternoon that will constitute the life, or lives, of a Midwestern family, the Lamberts, who live in times not unadjacent to now. For sure, they are the scions and the debris of the New Economy,[1] but they are also, at their best, characters out of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, the sort of people who get up in the morning and count their change and wonder who they are.

Yet something new did occur in the 1990s, and this newness is something the Franzen-type wants to approach at the level of the sentence. It was a decade when a strange reversal came about: rich people got thinner, poor people got fatter, rich people gave more of themselves to work, poor people gave more of themselves to leisure, and it was thought almost holy that Bill Gates earned more than the lowest-paid 40 per cent of Americans combined. ‘Once,’ Thomas Frank writes in his terrific book One Market under God :[2]

Americans imagined that economic democracy meant a reasonable standard of living for all – that freedom was only meaningful once poverty and powerlessness had been overcome. Today, however, American opinion leaders seem generally convinced that democracy and the free market are simply identical . . . What is ‘new’ is this idea’s triumph over all its rivals; the determination of America’s world leaders to extend it to all the world; the general belief that there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets. A better term for the ‘New Economy’ might simply be ‘consensus’.

Though it’s not a word that appears in The Corrections, the Lambert family might be understood to be a common skin blistered with the lies of ‘consensus’.

The novel opens with a rather screechy throat-clearing exercise in which Chip’s mother and father, Enid and Alfred, potter about in their Midwestern agonies – deafness, depression, disappointment, shopping coupons, and a tendency to be ‘cowed by authority of all kinds’ – in a place called St Jude, while preparing to go on a restorative cruise with Nordic Pleasurelines. They will pick up the ship in New York and are due to have lunch there with their son Chip in the hours before departure.

Chip Lambert is a former college lecturer who got done for messing about with a clever student. When we meet him he has an apartment in New York and a handsome girlfriend, but no money, and he is pinning all his hopes on a screenplay he has been writing for ages. The girlfriend finishes with him just as his parents arrive for lunch, so Chip is left with nothing but his hopes for the screenplay, a script which opens ‘with a six-page lecture about anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama’.

Chip’s sister, Denise, is a chef in an upscale restaurant in Philadelphia. She arrives at her brother’s apartment and makes lunch for the parents just as Chip runs off in search of a producer who might or might not care for his script. By now Enid is in full flow, and you begin to wonder if you will ever get over the articulate hatefulness of Enid’s free-associating complaints:

‘Well, as you know,’ Enid said, ‘we’ve gone to Philadelphia for the last eight Christmases in a row, and Gary’s boys are old enough now that they might like to have a memory of Christmas at their grandparents’ house, and so I thought . . .’

‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘I thought that if you and Chip were interested, we could all have one last Christmas in St Jude. What do you think of that idea?’

‘I’ll be wherever you and Dad want to be,’ Denise said.

‘No, I’m asking you, though. I want to know if it’s something you’re especially interested in doing. If you’d especially like to have one last Christmas in the house you grew up in. Does it sound like it might be fun for you?’

Chip doesn’t come back that day; he gets involved with a Lithuanian official who employs him to help run an Internet scam from Vilnius, and off he goes. Meanwhile, Enid sets out on Nordic Pleasurelines with her thoughts of Christmas and with Alfred behind her, coughing back his secrets, descending moment by moment into Parkinson’s disease.

The Christmas get-together in St Jude is the novel’s golden rubric: for 500 pages we wonder if these damaged and damaging people will manage to fit it in, or manage to fit themselves into Enid’s hopes for it. Gary Lambert, the elder brother of Chip and Denise, is a banker and a father of three, the sort of man who worries a lot about his mental health (he has the depressed person’s fear of being depressed).

Although in general Gary applauded the modern trend toward individual self-management of retirement funds and long-distance calling plans and private-schooling options, he was less than thrilled to be given responsibility for his own personal brain chemistry, especially when certain people in his life, notably his father, refused to take any such responsibility. But Gary was nothing if not conscientious. As he entered the darkroom, he estimated that his levels of Neurofactor 3 (i.e. serotonin: a very, very important factor) were posting seven-day or even thirty-day highs, that his Factor 2 and Factor 7 levels were likewise outperforming expectations, and that his Factor 1 had rebounded from an early-morning slump related to the glass of Armagnac he’d drunk at bedtime.

Gary’s wife, Caroline, is damned if she is going to St Jude for Christmas. She refuses to become a willing figurine in Enid’s tableau vivant of personal martyrdom, and, more important, she can’t stand to watch what being around his parents does to Gary’s sense of himself and his sense of himself as a parent to their three boys.

Franzen has that tendency common among younger American novelists to medicalise everything. A postman can’t walk up a path and, as it were, deliver a letter, without his actions being garlanded in super-conscious irony about the meaning of corporate gardens, the infernal consciousness of dogs, and wised-up statements about the general homeostasis of the postman, his brain-rush, his synapse-acrobatics, his attempts to cope with a bewildering internal hinterland that daily yearns for the deployment of weapons of mass destruction. The boredom of life is sought in lists. Here’s how Franzen brings you a room full of junk: ‘The old playroom in the basement, still dehumidified and carpeted and pine-panelled, still nice, was afflicted with the necrosis of clutter that sooner or later kills a living space: stereo boxes, geometric Styrofoam packing solids, outdated ski and beach gear in random drifts.’ Afflicted. That is what happens to rooms in the suburbia of contemporary American novels. And somehow the illness of ‘America’ becomes a polite contagion in a good novel such as The Corrections: it is infectious this non-life, and this frenetic summoning of anomie’s final frontier. Before you know it you are lulled into philosophical submission by the gentle, inevitable purring of an air humidifier in a pristine living-room, or lost in the void of a swinging cat-flap on the door of a suburban kitchen.

The midmorning light of a late-winter thaw, the stillness of a weekday non-hour in St Jude, Gary wondered how his parents stood it. The oak trees were the same oily black as the crows perching in them. The sky was the same colour as the salt-white pavement on which elderly St Judean drivers obeying barbiturate speed limits were crawling to their destinations: to malls with pools of meltwater on their papered roofs, to the arterial that overlooked puddled steel yards and the state mental hospital and transmission towers feeding soaps and game shows to the ether; to the beltways and, beyond them, to a million acres of thawing hinterland where pick-ups were axle-deep in clay and .22s were fired in the woods and only gospel and pedal steel guitars were on the radio; to residential blocks with the same pallid glare in every window, besquirrelled yellow lawns with a random plastic toy or two embedded in the dirt, a mailman whistling something Celtic and slamming mailboxes harder than he had to, because the deadness of these streets, at such a non-hour, in such a non-season, could honestly kill you.

This is nice to read, but it’s not nice to think about: it is pure millennial bullshit in fact, the kind of bullshit that sometimes carries The Corrections away from its greater purpose. But you wouldn’t want to mount a fierce opposition to the novel based on these over-exertions: they are most likely just part of the cultural clutter that propels a novel that has this kind of ambition. Even so, Gary and his siblings are struggling with something much bigger than the black oaks, even if they are the same black as the crows: their father is dying, and in his dying he is killing their mother, who in her martyrdom and dumb expectation is killing them, and killing the relationships they have made for themselves in the world. Gary’s ‘entire life was set up as a correction of his father’s life’. Denise ‘has bizarre and unshakable notions of Alfred’. Chip ‘felt like a child out of Grimm, lured into the enchanted house by the warmth and the food; and now the witch was going to lock him in a cage, fatten him up, and eat him.’

This is a novel about a family and the society behind them but everything it needs is in the hearts of the Lamberts. The relationships, indeed, are so thought about and so delicately rendered, and the characters are so full in themselves, that all the lists around them quickly shred into the nothingness they seek to describe. We are on the cruise ship with Enid and Albert and everything of interest occurs in the speech and thoughts of these two: essays on the social organisation of Norwegian ships or riffs on the stupidity of the cocktails don’t matter (though it does raise a smile that they have to attend the Sören Kierkegaard Dining-Room). Stylish metaphors are suddenly welcome (a neighbour of Albert’s, an investor, steers his Fairlane ‘into his driveway with one index finger, as if dialling his broker’), but one becomes aware of The Corrections as a quite exceptional novel constantly troubled by the gaudy cleverness of its outer casing. On the Nordic pleasure cruise a whole world of seniorhood opens up – an internal world, to which things outside will neither genuflect nor give way – and Franzen has the grace to take us steadily into Alfred’s lostness. People who read this book will laugh and fidget at the dynamic ironies and the journalistic lists, but it’s the lostness they’ll remember, and the way this lostness plays into the lives of the others.

Denise gets involved in an affair with Robin, the wife of the guy who owns her restaurant, and a failure to prove herself as a keen progenitor of family values relates her (as they are all related) to the moral and economic exigencies of her day. This is a novel about corrections in the family, but also about ‘corrections’ in the economy, and though Franzen fails to mesh these as well as he might, you are convinced that something important has happened in the imaginations of these Americans, something has altered in their sense of what is possible and what is needful. Enid ‘felt that she and Al were the only intelligent people of her generation who had managed not to become rich’. The Corrections is a sometimes beautifully woven narrative of disappointments, costly gains and impending losses. We see Alfred in his diapers. We see Gary at the drinks cabinet. We see Enid writing Christmas cards as if they were suicide notes. We see Denise sending e-mails to Chip in a discombobulating Vilnius demanding that he make the effort and turn up for Enid’s much-invested-in dinner.

Modern American novelists are fast drivers, and they drive under the influence; in Franzen’s big novel there is not only a world of prewar social realists, a touch of the Upton Sinclairs: you can feel the tread of each generation in his prose, Mailer’s sparring with American devilry, Bellow’s invocation of distracted urban souls, Updike’s comic droplets of suburban normalcy and questionable sex, and, most of all, Don DeLillo’s diagnosis of a shock modern America, a place where crowds and destructions, paranoias and dreads, swarm with malevolent elegance into the everyday.

Franzen is under the influence, yet he is mainly wise, and Postmodernly wise, in the manner of his integrations, and we might find in the mulch of his deepest reading a new consistency. The Corrections is written with the assurance that lives by swallowing uncertainties whole, and Franzen offers a story back to the culture whose nullity he once assumed it was impossible to breach. In ‘Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels’, an essay published in Harper’s in 1996, Franzen described his frustration at the failure of his earlier novels to bring ‘meaningful news’ to the culture, and his sense that such a project, the social novel, was impossible. ‘Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society – to help solve our contemporary problems – seems to me a peculiarly American delusion,’ he wrote.

Not at all peculiar and not at all peculiarly American, I would say. American letters are rife at the moment with definitions of the novel and the novelist’s role; a couple of months ago it was clarity v. prolixity, and then after 11 September it was the unimaginable v. the imagination. Now, again (the last time it was Tom Wolfe decrying his fellow American novelists for not reporting), it is the social v. the aesthetic, as if the aesthetic was something stable and unchanged by society, as if, indeed, the aesthetic were not constantly refracted and transformed by the social, as if we look at a Vermeer today with the same eyes as Vermeer’s contemporaries, as if Flaubert’s sentences are untouched by the moment’s passing and by the experience of a living language. James Wood applauds Franzen’s call for an ‘aesthetic solution to the social novel’, as declared in the essay, but finds this solution ill-applied in The Corrections.[3] There’s no arguing with the notion that Franzen is guilty of muffling what is better in his novel with what is simply show-offy, but Wood’s notion of the primacy of the aesthetic, expressed again in the Guardian, fails to register the extent to which the world of Franzen’s novel is one in which the aesthetic has undergone some unlovely but crucially social redefinition.

Wood writes as if what is beautiful in novels is simply one thing and a thing unchanged. He makes the implicit mistake of imagining that Flaubert and Stendhal and Turgenev and Dickens never wrote to a present. They exist for him as patterns of graven style; pieces of established art open only to the flexibilities of our belief in them. But novelists do write to a present, and though there may be nothing of fishwives or moneylenders or hip hop in their pages, the language, the texture, the pattern, the ‘aesthetics’, have everything to do with the social pressure under which the book was written and under which it was initially read. Stendhal is a blunt instrument to bring to the current streets of Manhattan: language is something else now, and so is imagery, and so is originality. A book like The Corrections, at its best, and in contradiction of Franzen’s own essay, is filled with society, but the society comes with the aesthetics, not apart from them, and to opt for one over the other is to opt out of life.

Society seeps in through the minds of the Lamberts. It arrives on the air. It comes from the radio and the children’s toys. And the aesthetics of The Corrections are most pert, most alive, most thoroughly aligned when Enid opens up her heart in the privacy of her own voice and leaves you in no doubt about what society has made her, what it is making her still, and is making us as we read.

Franzen’s novel has more of the cultural pressure – I mean pressure coming into it, and pressure going out from it – of certain American independent film-makers and un-American rock acts than it has of Chekhov. The suburban ennui is familiar from Todd Solondz. In fact, Solondz’s new film, Storytelling, is cut from the same cloth as The Corrections, filled with the same sense of altered usage and the uncanny images which flood the average American life. Solondz hasn’t solved the problem either (he solved it better in his last movie, Happiness, a near-perfectly pitched drama about incest and sexual obsession in a suburban house), but he shares with Franzen a sense of domestic estrangement. The music of Belle & Sebastian which floats over the spaced-out world of Storytelling could just as easily seep like gas under the door of The Corrections.

Ghost World, another of this season’s suburban-reality flicks, about two alienated smalltown teenage girls who want the world to fuck off, surfs on the same unfussy certainty of what the New Economy has made life look like and seem like in out-of-the-way places. Theirs is a world of fast food and instant fame and services and talk shows: like the Lamberts, they look at the people they love and wonder if anything’s real between them.

The Corrections has an interesting relation to the Great American novel that it is claimed by some to be: it is a compendium of attempts, and its sentences are never entirely themselves, which might be a definition of literary Postmodernism. Being yourself is a question at the very heart of the book – at the heart of the society the novel pulses into – and part of the novel’s unconscious aesthetic drive is to summon all the writing that makes this writing what it is. Welcome to the aesthetics of the literary clearance sale. Everything Must Go!

Reading The Corrections, with all its riffs and borrowings, finessings and unconscious homages, you become aware (and aware of it as a newness) of the extent to which Franzen travels the open road with a genuine non-anxiety of influence. His sentences exhibit a kind of hot-pants bricolage: they say hello to everybody and still manage to be pretty much themselves. Of course, red-hot non-anxiety should not be mistaken for a badge of courage, but Franzen’s novel is a one-tome definition of what the American novel (for good or ill) so often seeks to be nowadays. David Foster Wallace and Kurt Anderson step aside: today’s big novel is the type of book which aims at bigness with the notion that all other big books are folded inside. The example is not War and Peace but the World Wide Web.

The Corrections chimes with a hundred pop songs and cartoon strips and American movies now: what it fails to do is what it does, and in its failure lies its success. ‘The correction, when it finally came,’ Franzen writes, ‘was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle letdown, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.’

[1] For those unfamiliar with the New Economy, it means e-commmerce, deregulation, privatisation, 'austerity plans for the poor', the Market is God, anti-unions, pro-sweat shops, focus groups, wealth polarisation and the repeal of the welfare state.

[2] One Market under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy (Vintage, 336pp., £7.99, 7 February 2002, 0 09 942224 7).

[3] 'Abhoring a Vacuum' (New Republic, 15 October).