For the past 15 or so years, novelist Jonathan Franzen has been engaged in friendly literary competition with David Foster Wallace, whom Franzen describes as his "main rival and dear friend."
Five years ago, Wallace's magnificent novel Infinite Jest jolted Franzen like a kick in the pants. "Infinite Jest got me working, as competition will get you working," Franzen says during a call to his girlfriend's home in California's Santa Cruz Mountains, where he was visiting from New York.
At the same time that Wallace's novel was getting so much attention, Franzen was struggling to write a book called The Corrections—not, it turns out, the exhilarating masterpiece of one family falling apart that recently arrived on booksellers' shelves, but another book that was grander, or at least more grandiose, in conception. "The earlier book was much more about the stock market, insider trading and prisons. I finally found that the big social picture stuff wasn't working so well, whereas the little crises these characters were involved in interested me a lot."
Franzen had also recently published a lengthy, controversial essay in Harper's magazine lamenting the sorry state of contemporary literary fiction. For him, it signaled a departure from the high-concept, postmodern novels that had earned him wide critical acclaim (he was often called one of the four or five best American novelists under 40) but had appealed to a relatively small circle of readers.
"I found I was not so much turning away from but outgrowing or being done with writers like William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon who had so preoccupied me when I was young. And I was turning toward more conventional and accessible kinds of storytelling. For whatever reason there has come to be an increasing divide between a kind of highbrow, art fiction and really entertaining fiction that is accessible to a lot of people. I wanted to write a book that was both, that would satisfy the 'discerning avant-gardist' and would simply work at the level of story."
Franzen says the turning point, the moment when the old Corrections pointed toward the new, came when he wrote the "At Sea" section of the novel. "I wrote the cruise ship chapter to fit into the old version of the book. . . . I liked it so much more than anything else I'd written that I ended up throwing all the other stuff away and trying to build a different kind of book around it. Which I then, after a year of false starts, did."
In a novel in which every sentence counts, every page is alive and important, where the comic and tragic blend so seamlessly that they appear to be one and the same, and all five main characters—Alfred and Enid Lambert and their grown children Gary, Denise and Chip—embody the conflicting consciousnesses and the personal and social dramas of our era, it is impossible to choose a single section of the book as the most outstanding.
Yet the "At Sea" section is literally at the center of the book. In it, Alfred, a retired engineering department manager at a Midwestern railroad and a man of forbidding moral rectitude, reaches a critical point in his slow decline into Parkinson's-induced dementia. His wife Enid, a housewife who is a curious blend of virtuous self-sacrifice and steely control, has a crisis of her own. As the two interact with their fellow passengers and lurch toward private catastrophes, Franzen presents their lives in ways that are both chilling and hilarious.
"I don't trust a writer who is never funny," Franzen says, "and I take it as an unfailingly bad sign if a book I'm writing fails to achieve comedy early on. I think the comic is intimately connected with the tragic—both perspectives signal to me that the writer . . . can be trusted to put my interests as a reader ahead of the interests of the characters. I would no sooner fall in love with a humorless book than with a humorless woman."
"Much of what I throw away, as a writer, consists of uncomic scenes and passages. It's not until I laugh at what I'm writing that I know I'm on the right track. It doesn't always come easily, but I don't feel safe to be serious, either as a reader or as a writer, until I know there's going to be some lightness in the book."
But in The Corrections, at least, it is a particular, perhaps alternative kind of lightness that Franzen generates. "This is a personal growth-focused culture," Franzen says. "We're all constantly trying to correct ourselves, particularly my generation, which wants to correct a lot of mistakes we felt our parents made. For me, informing the book as a whole was a sense that, yes, that's a good thing to do, but you fix one thing and you break something else. You gain on one front and you lose on another. I don't think anybody wants a marriage like Alfred's and Enid's. At the same time, some of what Alfred stands for and some of what Enid stands for are things that the culture really feels the loss of."
This emotionally and morally nuanced response to American middle-class culture is part of what makes The Corrections such an exciting and deeply satisfying book to read. But Franzen still professes some surprise that so many early readers are responding so favorably to the book.
"When I was writing The Corrections, I was ashamed to be dealing with such mundane, emotionally exposed little things rather than some grand, 'important' story. We live in such a cool-conscious and hip-conscious culture that it's very hard to say any of those icky, shameful, personal things. I felt that I was putting down this weirdness in me and that I was going to be horribly exposed, that everybody was going to laugh and say, 'What's happened to Franzen? He used to do these interesting books about big themes and now he's given us this weird I don't know what.'"
Of course, just the opposite is happening. For very good reasons, The Corrections created a literary stir even before it arrived in bookstores. Franzen calls the acclaim "disorienting and weird." And also very gratifying. "It's been hard walking around for the last few years thinking, I know what kind of writer I am, but nobody else seems to know." Now, of course, the whole world will know.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.