You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Abhorring a Vacuum


If anyone still had a longing for the great American “social novel,” the events of September 11 may have corrected it, merely through the reminder of an asymmetry of their own: that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk smarts—in sum, the contemporary American novel in its big triumphalist form—are the novel’s chosen sport, then the novel will sooner or later be outrun by its own streaking material. The novel may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road, but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan. And so a passage at the conclusion of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, about the end of the American century, now seems laughably archival:

It seemed to Enid that current events in general were more muted or insipid nowadays than they’d been in her youth. She had memories of the 1930s, she’d seen firsthand what could happen to a country when the world economy took its gloves off.... But disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States. Safety features had been put in place, like the squares of rubber that every modern playground was paved with, to soften impacts.

The CorrectionsJonathan Franzen(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 568 pp., $26)

Despite the falter of this passage, Franzen would probably agree that the novel should not go chasing after the bait of social information. Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, was such a book; but it came and went pretty quietly, and Franzen was left pondering “the failure of my culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture. I’d intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum.” To be sure, there was a book tour, a photo spread in Vogue, and a large advance (which is more than most serious writers are vouchsafed): all this was merely “the consolation of no longer mattering to the culture.” Franzen’s second novel also dribbled into the celebrity-sand; there were good reviews, “decent sales, and the deafening silence of irrelevance.Five years ago he published an essay in Harper’s in which he declared that the social novel is no longer possible. The piece was so punctually intelligent and affecting—it had the charm and the directness typical of his work—and it was above all so long, that few noticed its incoherence. Franzen began by admitting to a recent depression, a dejection about the American novel, a “despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social.” No challenging novel since Catch-22 had truly affected the culture, he complained. As a young writer he had believed that “putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told.” The novel, he used to think, should bring “social news, social instruction.” It should “Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream.” It had “a responsibility to dramatize important issues of the day.

So the social novel, it seemed, had no utility. The novel had lost its cultural centrality, its cultural power; modern technologies, such as television, “do a better job of social instruction.” And how to create something permanent whose subject—modern culture—is ephemeral? Franzen rightly asked the question, perhaps the most tormenting one for contemporary novelists, of how to write a novel both of its time and properly resistant to its time: “how can you achieve topical `relevance’ without drawing on an up-to-the-minute vocabulary of icons and attitudes and thereby, far from challenging the hegemony of overnight obsolescence, confirming and furthering it?

By the end of his essay, Franzen had decided that there was “something wrong with the whole model of the novel of social engagement,” and had admitted to a “conviction that bringing `meaningful news’ is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental product.” The solution, it seemed, was aesthetic. “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. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?

It certainly is. Franzen’s aesthetic solution to the social novel—the “refuge” of “sentences”—is the right one, or at least one of the right ones. But his reasons for arriving at it are, I think, the wrong ones, such that they cast doubt on the certainty with which he believes in that solution. For a start, his essay was so autobiographically infected that his argument quickly sickened into subjectivity. Quite predictably, it is this autobiographical malheur that has appealed to the media at the publication of The Corrections, so that the essay is increasingly read as if Franzen had merely complained about the feebleness of a particular genre of American novel, and then decided, with The Corrections, to go ahead and invent a really strong one—above all, a novel that people really want. Time magazine, noting that one of Franzen’s definitions of how seriously the culture takes fiction might be a Time cover about a novelist, delivered itself of a review whose explicit theme was that The Corrections must be an important novel if Time is running this review of it.

Franzen has himself to blame in part for the idiocy of his coverage, for his essay repeatedly had recourse to the personal as a way of solving what should have been impersonal arguments. We read about his despair, his “depressing estrangement from the mainstream,” his “hunger for a large audience,” his “isolation.” At one point he said, in effect, that he was disillusioned with the novel because he had become so isolated; so he decided to go back into society, do a little journalism, go to some literary parties, write for The New Yorker, and so on—and then he began to feel much better about the novel! As a result of this kind of Twelve-Step argument, it is never entirely clear that Franzen is not declaring the social novel dead just because his social novels died.

More importantly, although his solution may have been aesthetic, the reasons that he offered for the difficulty of continuing with the social novel are themselves social reasons, not aesthetic ones. At no point did Franzen ask if topicality, relevance, a large audience, the mainstream, are things that the novel should in fact be courting. He simply said that the novel had not successfully courted them. At no point did he consider the proposition that “social instruction,” the bringing of “news,” might have nothing much to do with art.

Like Don DeLillo, whom he quoted in his essay, Franzen establishes a kind of competition between the novel and society, almost an equivalence. The novel must somehow match the culture, must equal its potency. And since the novel obviously cannot do so, then the novel has lost, and must fatten itself up. DeLillo, in an essay published in 1997 called “The Power of History,” argued rather shockingly that “at its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism with elements of obsession, superstition and awe. Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship to history.” Franzen has come to the much more acceptable decision that the novel should stop trying to act like the culture, and become properly aesthetic.

And yet Franzen’s premises, like DeLillo’s, flatter the culture that the novel is supposed to resist. They do so because they assume that the culture has a power that must be socially attended to rather than aesthetically bypassed. Franzen laments “the failure of my culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture I’d intended to provoke.” But does this “engagement with the culture” not actually mean that the culture should engage back with the novel? And doesn’t the culture then become the judge of the success of that engagement, the controller of it, precisely as Time decided? Time declared, in effect: “your culturally engaged novel has engaged us, and the proof is that we are here to tell you so.” And Franzen’s sentence can only mean: “the failure of my culturally engaged novel to provoke a response from the culture I’d intended to provoke.” Well, he has finally provoked his response.

The danger of this kind of argument lies in its utilitarianism. Reflect on what would count as evidence, for Franzen, that his novel had indeed engaged with the culture. Two hundred reviews and forty profiles? What would be the definition of a novel not published “in a vacuum”? Is it not true that The Corrections, already a bestseller, and chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her “book club,” will also in the end be essentially published “in a vacuum”? For the only true success for a novelist is aesthetic success, and “the culture” will never validate aesthetic success, will never “engage” with that. And finally we will not be the judges of this success: Samuel Johnson suggested that a hundred years might be the test of a book’s artistic power. Aesthetic success is measured in leagues of posterity. In this sense every great novel is published in a vacuum; it teaches the empty space around it. Nausea and The Stranger are not great novels that successfully engaged with an existential culture, but great novels that taught a culture existentialism.

So when Franzen reaches for the autonomy of art—a new novel form that will appeal to the “refuge” of “sentences”—the gesture seems weak, because he does not seem to believe in the autonomy of art. He seems to believe in the sociality of art. And what kind of “refuge” can be taken in an aesthetics that is drained of both the moral and the authoritative? About the moral question Franzen writes: “I can’t stomach any kind of notion that serious fiction is good for us, because I don’t believe that everything that’s wrong with the world has a cure.” (Re-read that sentence and it quickly becomes the very definition of a non sequitur.) And on the idea of aesthetic hierarchy: “I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because ... my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.” Notice again the flight to the personal at the moment that logic’s army threatens. And what kind of serious writer considers Michael Crichton any kind of competition?

An aesthetics without any faith in morality or in the arguability of aesthetic distinction—an aesthetics without beauty or truth, in effect!—is a starved one, starved down to the “refuge” of a few authentic “sentences.” And it is hardly surprising, given this starved aesthetic, that most of Franzen’s argumentation is either sociological or autobiographical. It would be impossible, on this aesthetics alone, to make a proper argument against the social novel and in favor of a different kind of American novel. Only gestures are possible within this kind of aesthetics. Or rather, what is possible is only what Franzen produced in his essay: a polemic that has a bit of everything—a bit of aesthetics, a bit of sociology, a bit of pragmatism, a bit of autobiographical justification.


Franzen has so lengthily lamented the impossibility of producing the social novel that he seems, really, to be longing for its renewed possibility. He appears to be disillusioned only with the possibility of the social novel, not with its desirability: he is still half in love with it. And just as his essay looks toward the social and toward the aesthetic at the same time, and combines all modes of argument, so is his new novel a kind of glass-bottomed boat through which one can glimpse most of the various currents of contemporary American fiction. There is domestic realism (a Midwestern family); there is social and cultural analysis (a nasty Philadelphia biotech company); there is campus farce; there is the broad Dickensianism that has decayed into crudeness in too much American fiction; there is “smart young man’s irony” of the kind familiar from Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace (riffs on corporate gardens, on the politics of cuisine, on the Lithuanian black market); and there is, rather too often, an easy journalism of narrative style.

But to be fair to The Corrections, there is also considerable grace and power; and these qualities appear most reliably when Franzen is cleaving to the human, when he is laying bare the clogged dynamics of his fictional family, the Lamberts. I do not mean this as the anti-intellectual faint praise that Franzen is at his most affecting when merely telling a story, and eschewing the theoretical or the ambitious. I mean that Franzen is at his finest when being ambitious and even theoretical about the soul, when he is examining consciousness and finding, willy-nilly, that consciousness is the true Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the random angles of the age.

Franzen’s Harper’s essay proposed, in effect, a softened DeLilloism. What is retained from DeLillo is the tentacular ambition, the effort to pin down an entire writhing culture. The DeLillo notion of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry, has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die. Nowadays anyone in possession of a laptop is thought to be a brilliance on the move. Franzen has some of this portable theoretical “brilliance,” and it can be wearying. But against this he has politely implied that Underworld, DeLillo’s most ambitious novel of cultural critique, is weakened by its total lack of characterological depth, and his new novel imagines itself as a correction of DeLillo in favor of the human.

This is welcome. More than welcome, it is an urgent task of contemporary American fiction, whose characteristic products are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things—the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons!—but do not know a single human being. Such books, congested and anxious, resemble the millipede mentioned by Meyrink, which, when it realizes it has a thousand legs, is suddenly unable to move an inch.

So The Corrections is a correction, and as such it succeeds marvelously. At its warm center—and it says much for Franzen’s charm as a writer that his book should seem warm while it is in fact dark—are Enid and Alfred Lambert, retirees who live in a fictional Midwestern city named St. Jude. They are the striving middle classes: Alfred, an old-fashioned authoritarian, worked for most of his life as an engineer at Midland Pacific, a big Midwestern railroad company, and Enid, who stayed at home, has spent much of her life calibrating their slow social rise. Stubborn, repressed, self-denying, Alfred is the kind of adamantine patriarch who has always been a rocky obstacle to his children, either as example or as cautionary lesson; Enid is the kind of noisy, bursting mother who drowns her children in striving. She wants too much for them, but what she wants is not what they want. Franzen provides a nice example of one of her “florid bi-weekly letters” to her son Chip, begging him to abandon his Ph.D.: “I see your old science fair trophies ... and I think of what an able young man like you could be giving back to society as a medical doctor, but then, you see, Dad and I always hoped we’d raised children who thought of others, not just themselves.

But the parental authority of the Lamberts is dissolving. Alfred has Parkinson’s disease, and is losing control of his body and of his memory, and Enid, forced to become his helper, is weakened by Alfred’s weakness—her appeals to her three children have become increasingly shrill. Franzen intelligently explores the shadowed lives of those three adult children: Gary, a banker in Philadelphia, and the only one of the three children to be married and have children himself; Chip, a former academic who has been wasting his time in Manhattan trying to write a filmscript; and Denise, a successful chef who has opened a trendy new restaurant in Philadelphia. The stately length of his book enables Franzen to accumulate quiddity gradually and persistently, so that we gather a real sense of each of these people. In particular, we see that all of the Lambert children, despite their successful and free lives as adults, are unfree, because they are still above all parented. All decisions, consciously or not, are routed via the parental desk—and so the Lambert children, like many of us, are really only honorary adults, ex officio.

Family is the great determinism. One of the subtlest and most moving aspects of Franzen’s book is the way in which he develops the idea of “correction” as a doomed struggle against this determinism. At its simplest, it is no more than the notion that children often believe themselves to be living lives that correct those of their parents. Franzen writes of Gary that “his entire life was set up as a correction of his father’s life,” and much the same might be said, in different ways, of Denise and Chip. But parents may also imagine their children as new corrections of themselves, and yearn to live through them vicariously, as Enid so earnestly does. Yet again this yearning promises pain, because it is painful to be self-corrected: sure enough, Enid is tormented by the sense that her children have corrected her too sharply and too publicly. Why don’t her children, she thinks sorrowfully, want what the children of her neighbors want? Why do her children live so far away, and why do they launch themselves into outlandish occupations such as screenwriting and cooking? Enid reflects that “her children didn’t match. They didn’t want the things that she and her friends’ children wanted. Her children wanted radically, shamefully other things.

This dream of correction is chimerical, of course, because family determinism tends to turn correction into repetition. Denise repetitively inherits her mother’s restlessness and her father’s unhappiness; Gary repetitively inherits his father’s unhappiness. When Gary accuses his father of being depressed, Alfred says that, on the contrary, his son is the one who is depressed, at which Gary bursts out: “My life is on a fundamentally different basis than yours.” Family illusion of this magnitude and this wrongheadedness is one of the great novelistic themes—vivid in Buddenbrooks and Confessions of Zeno, to take two modern instances—a source of both comedy and pathos; and it is this antique sensitivity that constitutes the best of Franzen’s fine achievement.

The novel of intimacy, of motive, of relation, creates a heat that burns away feebler energies such as the social novel. The proof of the comparative weakness of the social novel is that, although Franzen attempts to enlarge his theme of correction socially, the attempt stalls. He strives to link correction to the prosperity of the 1990s and the market “correction” that followed the 1990s; and he labors to address America’s dependence on anti-depressants by figuring it as an enormous national attempt to “correct” the brain’s chemistry. “Everyone’s trying to correct their thoughts and improve their feelings and work on their relationships and parenting skills,” thinks one character, “instead of just getting married and raising children like they need to.” These may not be Franzen’s sentiments at all, but they certainly represent his attempt to thicken the idea of correction by seeing it as a larger American malaise. In various interviews Franzen has suggested that his commentaries about American medicine and about the stock market are leftovers from an earlier version of his novel, in which, struggling under the deluded ambition that he had to achieve a social-realist masterpiece, he threw in a great deal of social information. Presumably, as he began to write the story of the Lamberts, that earlier ambition was still difficult to abandon. The leftovers seem a little stale.

The novel’s short coda, titled “The Corrections,” begins thus: “The correction, when it finally came, 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.” This sentence is also broadly a description of the slow end and correction of the Lambert family: Alfred enters a nursing home and gently withers away, while Enid and her children regroup themselves without Alfred.

What grates is not just that this passage is now untrue as a description of market correction—we are currently being rather savagely “corrected”—and is now obsolescent in a way that the familial idea of correction can never be obsolescent. What also grates is that there was no need to make enlargements of the theme in this way. What is larger, as a subject, than the eternal corrections of family? Since the Lamberts have not before been obviously linked to their times in this way, it seems somewhat desperate to be suddenly suggesting that their inner changes are akin to the economy’s changes, or to the society’s changes. Far from enforcing such a link, Franzen’s comparison seems only figurative—and once it begins to seem only figurative, it becomes merely aesthetic, a metaphorical gesturing. So in a cruel self-punishment, the hard lunge toward the social dimension actually turns out to look like a soft lunge toward the aesthetic dimension.

And this, of course, is because the social already exists anyway, firmly embedded in the Lamberts and their doings. Michael Cunningham has swooned that The Corrections bears comparison to Buddenbrooks, but the lovely transparency of that novel lies in Mann’s singleness of implicit purpose, whereby he never makes explicit the larger sociology of his family’s fall. Franzen’s wavering between the aesthetic and the social recalls the uncertainty of his Harper’s essay, and is the more peculiar because he seems at other moments perfectly capable of trusting the bona fides of the intrinsic and the unspoken, perfectly capable of respecting the implicit and not chasing after the explicit.

The theme of family corrections has a fine suggestiveness about it, and Franzen shows himself an intelligent manipulator of suggestive patterns; indeed, at such times an artist. Consider, for example, a moment early on in the novel, when Alfred is having difficulty controlling his hands. His illness is already surging. In a delicate simile, Franzen likens the disobedient hands to children, and the implication rises that Alfred is a man being pitifully “corrected” by his own hands:

His affliction offended his sense of ownership. These shaking hands belonged to nobody but him, and yet they refused to obey him. They were like bad children. Unreasoning two-year-olds in a tantrum of selfish misery. The more sternly he gave orders, the less they listened and the more miserable and out of control they got. He’d always been vulnerable to a child’s recalcitrance and refusal to behave like an adult. Irresponsibility and undiscipline were the bane of his existence, and it was another instance of the Devil’s logic that his own untimely affliction should consist of his body’s refusal to obey him.

Such writing is clear, direct, humane, and sensitively intelligent; and it is typical of this novel at its deepest. Alfred, a stern and proud man, suffers awfully the indignity of his illness, but he rarely says more than “I am increasingly bothered by my affliction,” even as his children, now returned home for a final family Christmas, are changing his underclothes and mopping up his urine. And finer still is the unintrusive way that Franzen quietly expands this picture of Alfred’s hands as rebellious children. Later in the book, Chip, in a weak rage, will deliberately burn one of his hands with his own cigarette; and Gary, in a weak rage, will accidentally cut one of his hands with an electric saw; and Denise will show a group of strangers her scarred and burned hands, the working hands of a chef. This patterning is precisely what the form of the novel exists for; how it justifies its difference as a genre, earns its genre salary. This is the true novelistic language: the language of the implicit, the suggestive, the formal, the figurative. Alfred is indeed corrected by his hands, and the novel shows us how. And Alfred is also repeated by his hands.

Franzen errs when he leaves this path and noses along the trail of his old documentary impulse, his old love of the social novel. Whenever he does so, his tone begins to crack, and Franzen the clever journalist, the pocket theorist, peers through. The contemporary novel has such a desire to be clever about so many elements of life that it sometimes resembles a man who takes so many classes that he has no time to read: auditing abolishes composure. Of course, there are readers who will enjoy the fact that Franzen fills us in on campus politics, Lithuanian gangsters, biotech patents, the chemistry of depression, and so on. But such people seem to me to be prisoners of circularity, whereby their definition of a novel that “engages with the culture” is one that tells the culture things that the culture already knows.

Franzen should be bright enough to escape this circularity, and it is sometimes dismaying to see him falling into it. He has an idea, for example, that medicalizing the language in which he describes his characters’ various moods and motives carries an ironic charge, a way of acknowledging and thereby resisting the saturation of our mental language by chemistry. The result, as so often in simple mimesis, is just the re-representing of that saturation for his readers, in a way that looks a little close to complicity with it. So we learn that “the remorse neurofactor (Factor 26) flooded the sites in Gary’s brain specially tailored by evolution to respond to it,” and later we find “his glial cells purring with the first sweet lubrication of his drink.” When Denise gets angry, Franzen writes that “the anger was an autonomous neurochemical event; no stopping it.

In general, his prose loves nothing so much as a chance to show off a little technical know-how.Denise is irritated by “the bradykinetic languor” of her mother’s old stove. When she is irritated by a new worker in her restaurant kitchen, we read: “Cooks were not supposed to be political. Cooks were the mitochondria of humanity; they had their own separate DNA, they floated in a cell and powered it but were not really of it.” (Thus he proves that he knows what mitochondria are!) And elsewhere:”tonsils release an ammoniac mucus when serious tears gather behind them”; “bluish swirls of inhomogeneity in his milk.” And of Chip’s indebtedness to Denise, who has lent him a lot of money:”He’d lived with the affliction of this debt until it had assumed the character of a neuroblastoma so intricately implicated in his cerebral architecture that he doubted he could survive its removal.

At such moments Franzen becomes a cultural ironist, always a twisted adjective ahead of his characters. The best example of this occurs at a moment when Gary, a stolid banking executive, is arguing with his sister in downtown Philadelphia. He is standing in a little corporate plaza, neatly planted with rows of corporate flowers. “Gary had always enjoyed corporate gardens as backdrops for the pageant of privilege, as metonymies of pamperment, but it was vital not to ask too much of them. It was vital not to come to them in need.” This little passage might stand as a little metonymy of its own. It sounds like a hundred other smart American writers. The prose fairly droops with smirking. The neatness of that word “metonymy,” the cute neologism of “pamperment,” the ironic joke inherent in the idea of coming to a corporate garden “in need.” It seems like good writing for about three seconds. And then one reflects that Gary would never think like this, would never formulate such language. So the thinking is Franzen’s. But it is hollow. Who would ever “ask too much” of a corporate plaza? The unfortunate result is that the tone sounds as if Franzen is making fun of Gary, condescending to him a little, or perhaps to the reader—and this is assuredly not Franzen’s aim.

Too often Franzen’s narrative style relaxes into debased journalism. At times, one is struck by the novel’s somewhat inartistic language: “Denise had never been a crier, but her face was crumpling up”; “Her effortless good looks ... movie-actress thin”; “Enid and Jonah were a lovefest”; “He was glad Denise was taking heat again from Enid”; “What gave him the real techno boner, however, was a radio-controlled toy automobile”; “she glommed onto the belief that she was gay”; “And so she worked her ass off”—and so on. It is as if Franzen has not heeded his own words about how to write against the age in a way that is not also of it.

The Corrections is a big book, and the prose, in its long course, is likely to cross a few plains and flats. But as soon as one compares this language of smart commentary with the language of truth that also runs throughout this book, one is struck by the superfluousness of the former. Alfred’s awkward refusal to describe his illness as anything other than a inconvenient “affliction” is worth paragraphs about neuroblastomas, glial cells, mitochondria, and neurofactors. Sometimes a single sentence lances the heart with its clear and sharp rightness. Franzen describes a familiar contrast in Denise’s childhood:”She’d gone to school in a bright modernity and come home every day to an older, darker world.” Yes, we think, we know this division. Or when Alfred, in a moving final scene, is dying, trapped on his bed, desperate to undo the belts that are tying him to the bed but unable to, Franzen finely writes:”He was like a person of two dimensions seeking freedom in a third.” It might be Alfred’s epitaph.

Likewise this novel, which swerves between various dimensions, some richer and freer than others. If it can be said that it unwittingly enacts a fine argument against the viability of a certain kind of social novel, it must also be said that it purposively makes a fine case for the vivacity of another kind of book, the novel of character. This is—or this should be—what Franzen means by the taking of refuge in “authentic” sentences. It is easy to imagine that the press of modernity makes authentic encounter uniquely difficult, that we are all belated exceptionalists; but this is postmodern provincialism, surely, and Franzen, in his heart, seems not to buy it either. We are not uniquely doomed by modern conditions. And if we are doomed, then we are doomed in rather old-fashioned ways, as Cervantes and Sterne and Svevo knew. We are doomed because humans always flow over their targets; their souls are gratuitous and busy, congested with aspiration and desire. This is the dark theme of Franzen’s novel, this is its truest touch. All the rest is “social news” and may be turned off, as it deserves.

James Wood is the literary critic for The New Yorker and author of How Fiction Works.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.