Only correct

Jonathan Franzen talks about the medicalization of love and loss, the charms of Narnia and living in an America where no one grows up.

By Laura Miller

Published September 7, 2001 9:38PM (EDT)

At the core of "The Corrections," Jonathan Franzen's meaty new novel, stands a painfully recognizable and deeply bewildered American family, each member trying to make up for some botched aspect of their shared past. The corrective measures they opt for range from playing the stock market to perfecting a recipe for sauerkraut with juniper berries to signing on with an Internet scam operated by the government of Lithuania. They try body piercings, antidepressants, cruises and prodigious amounts of vodka, none of it particularly effective, and some of it disastrous. Franzen dropped by the Salon offices recently to talk about "The Corrections."

Let's talk about the people this book is about. It's a family, a husband and wife and their three adult children. The patriarch of the family, Alfred, is failing from Parkinson's disease, but he's also still an incredibly powerful figure. You also recently published an essay about your father's experience with Alzheimer's disease, and it seems that Alfred has a certain amount of your father in him. He almost stands for the mythos of the "Greatest Generation," this admirable moral rectitude, and yet there's a difficult side of that, a sense of too much will and too much control being pressed upon the emotional life.

Things have relaxed a lot in this country in 50 years, and people want to be able to "break the rules," as all the TV commercials urge you to do. They want to be children, and Alfred's not a child. He's very, very much an adult. Too much so. He has a fairly unhappy marriage and some fairly alienated children to show for it. And yet if you get inside a person like that, I think you can see a lot that's admirable and I think in the course of the book he does a few things for his children, invisibly, that he does purely because he has a feeling that this is right. He's not doing it to win anything from them, he's just doing it because it's right.

I think one of the motives I had in writing the book was to do justice to the world of my parents, which seems like a vanishing world. My father grew up in a town in northern Minnesota that didn't get electricity until he was a teenager. All of his parents and uncles were born in the 19th century, and fairly far back in it. So I grew up knowing all these people who had been born in the 19th century. There was something lovely about how hard people out in the middle part of the country were trying to be adults and to be responsible and to provide for their children and to do the right thing. There was a terrible personal cost to that in many, many ways. And you can understand why Alfred's children would not want to have marriages like his or work for the kind of company he works for. On the one hand, it's obviously an improvement, the kind of changes they've made in their lives, but there's a cost to that as well in the form of moral anarchy or a diminished grasp of what their lives might really be about or for. So I feel a mixture of condemnation and love for those attitudes that Alfred embodies.

Of Albert and Enid's children, the first one we meet is Chip, who represents the bohemian alternative to Alfred's way of life. He's alternately touching and completely ridiculous. Yet he is his father's favorite. I think that's kind of interesting, that the most flailing child is the one that the very controlled father loves best.

Is hardest on and loves the best. That's partly a matter of Chip being the most like his father. He wants to see himself as the most unlike his father, the most "transgressive" and wild and crazy of the children, but you don't have to be as repressed as Alfred is if you don't have anything to repress. To me, they're two sides of the same person. On one side, you have the older version who has all of these same anarchic and amoral impulses and whose response is to just screw the lid on really, really tight and to keep it screwed on until he dies, basically.

And in Chip you see why he does that, why that was not such a bad decision on Alfred's part because once you let it out, you want to screw every 19-year-old walking by on the street. Nothing makes any sense; you attempt to do something and soon realize the emptiness of that pursuit, you try another pursuit and then that's an empty pursuit and it's just a mess. The love between Alfred and Chip is partly just that irrational, prodigal son kind of love, but to the extent that I understand why Alfred has a soft spot for Chip it's because of that underlying identity between them.

As bad as Alfred's marriage to Enid is, his son Gary's marriage might be even worse. And he's the good boy.

Well, yes and no. Gary's the oldest child, who's more or less done what parents might expect a good boy to do, which is to get a good job as a banker, marry an attractive woman, have three kids and live in a big house in a nice part of Philadelphia. And not surprisingly, this being contemporary fiction, he's not entirely satisfied with the life he's achieved. He's done all the things expected of him while also attempting not to repeat the mistakes his parents made. He's chosen what he believes to be a very different kind of woman to be married to, his approach to work and parenting is different. His father was a ferocious worker, Gary's very strict about only 40 hours per week. While his father was very strict with his children, Gary is permissive, and where his father dominated his mother, Gary is more or less dominated by his wife. So right down the line, a set of corrections. I wouldn't want to sign off on the idea that it's just as unhappy a marriage, but it speaks to the idea that there's no gain without loss and almost no loss without potential gain. That's a spirit that animates the whole book.

Then there's Denise, the baby of the family. How does she fit into all this?

She's the daughter, and daughters tend to do a lot of the emotional caretaking to begin with. One of the ways I think that families work is that there's never enough of something to go around in them. Everybody is always hungry. It's unimaginable that there could be a point at which everyone is satisfied with what they're getting from everyone else. There's never enough food to go around.

If you're a daughter in a family like that, you really worry about getting eaten alive. So she's particularly well-defended, by necessity, simply not to get devoured by her needy mother in particular. But also, as the father falls apart, every head in the family turns to the daughter to say, "What are you going to do about this?" So she's walled herself off in a career and not tried to correct that impulse to work really hard that her father had but instead has embraced it. She's a demon worker in a restaurant and reasonably good at what she does -- and then she enters a dark wood.

In my experience, when things start to crumble in the original home, when the parents start to have problems, it will seldom happen at a time when everything is just sailing along smoothly in the lives of children. For some perverse reason, the call from the hospital or wherever will almost always come at the most inconvenient, the worst possible time. There's some absolute freak-out event going down in the children's lives as well. That was the structuring principle for "The Corrections," each of the children freaking out for reasons of their own at just the wrong time, just as the roof is caving in back in St. Jude, where Enid and Alfred live. Denise, who's managed to make it through her 20s working hard and also keeping the lid on as her father did, she hits 32 and suddenly it doesn't make any sense. Nothing has been examined and everything is chaotic. And she does have to loosen the lid because it's no longer an option to do what repressed people of 50 years ago did.

Probably my favorite character in the book is Enid, who starts out being the kind of mom you grate your teeth over, and then just keeps unfolding in so many surprising ways until she becomes almost a towering, tragic figure in some way.

The funny thing is that she's the one character who, although she changes a little at the end, it's more like the book and the world change around her. What initially seem like ridiculous fantasies of hers and a really grating inability to face the reality of what's happening with her husband and her children remain largely unchanged, but that comes eventually to seem like a life-saving skill. The capacity to retain hope in the face of bad reality I think is a lovely thing. She's my favorite character, too, for those reasons. She wants something, lots of things. And I think people who want and are able to hope are the really great people of the world.

I have to ask, what's with the Narnia theme? It seems like it crops up over and over.

Hey, I like motifs as well as the next writer. Do you want me to do a little Cornell visiting lecture on themes of the book?

Just that theme.

But it ties in with all the others!

By all means, then, let's roll out the Cornell lecture.

OK. Well, let's first step waaay back and talk about the devaluation of adulthood in the country we live in. The commercial devaluation of it: So much cultural product is now aimed at children. The very basis of a consumer culture is to consume like kids, don't be restrained and so on. You don't call an older person Mr. Smith, you call him Joe now. It's like the whole country's been handed over to kids and you never have to stop being a kid. It's a social phenomenon that I was consciously engaging in the book. Now, I'm just going to set that on the back burner and let it simmer on low while we tend to the Narnia question.

The response of pretty much every character in the book to the pressures under which they find themselves is to pretend the pressures aren't there or to act out in some way, but just basically to avoid the reality. Over and over in the book I saw these various enchantments. You get stuck for years thinking that you're one way and then overnight the spell was broken and you see how things really are. That was something I was applying pretty much to every character and it's a model firmly set in my own imagination by the Narnia books. This idea of an alternate, childish universe that's parallel to and intermittently accessible from the everyday adult world is one that has resonance for me as just a feature of our psychology. You slip into this fantasy world and it's not always a bad thing. Enid lives in fantasy much of time and that's a good thing.

One of the contemporary quandaries you deal with is the relationship between identity and biology, which is a pretty thorny question these days and one that fiction seems particularly well-suited to tackling. Yet most novelists don't seem to be very interested in it.

Yeah, I'm pretty impatient with realist fiction written today that tells these stories of family conflict or bad marriages and that pretends that those conversations can now happen without a discussion of drugs or therapy. Well, there is the genre of the therapy novel or the therapy story, but it's the degree to which a conversation about mental health and mental states has infiltrated all of our interior conversations, which are about how we understand ourselves, and exterior conversations, too. If you have a fight with your girlfriend, then you say "You're the one who should be seeing a therapist, and not only that, but I have a diagnosis for you: I think you have mild OCD." The way a medical understanding has displaced the old vocabularies of love and loss is interesting to me and I wouldn't want to tell a significant story of emotional pain without alluding to it. But that's just keeping your ears open. I don't have any sense of mission about it and I don't think I'm the only person who writes in that way.

It's been nine years since your last novel, "Strong Motion," came out and some of the readers of your first two books are likely to find it a surprising departure. What was behind that change?

I don't think I ever consciously tried to change anything. I was always just trying to write a novel I could be happy with and live with. In the early years of scratching at the impenetrable surface of this new project, I kept trying to do a book that was more like the first two. By that I mean a book with a complicated, very externalized plot, a rangy story that would encompass a lot of hot zones in contemporary culture and society. I felt a sense of constraint and duty about doing that and became increasingly unhappy spending page after page attending to the story. It kept crowding out the stuff that did interest me, which were these little moments of acute discomfort or comedy or anxiety. So I think the big change was that I stopped feeling responsible for writing a social novel and began to work towards a book where I was having fun on every page and if the story wasn't fun, I got rid of it.

The first two books do place plot more in the foreground and they use more conventional storylines. What sort of things did you wind up writing about once you weren't so wedded to that approach?

I'm very fond of those first two books still, and in fairness to them, my intention was to bridge the gap between the large-scale social and the very intimately personal. Those first books are also family stories unfolding in kind of absurdist plot situations that are vaguely akin to real things happening in the world. I was trying to get at the content of my emotional life as well as do justice to the strangeness of the world we live in. I'm still trying to do that, but I found that when the big superstructure fell away, I had room to dig much deeper into the characters and began to find all the formerly externalized conflicts to be inside the characters in the form of anxieties or desires.

This idea of the "social novel" in some form or another comes up every few years in essays on the state of American fiction. You wrote one about five years ago for Harper's magazine and Tom Wolfe wrote a piece that dealt with some of the same questions for the same magazine 10 years earlier. What does the term "social novel" mean to you?

I'm not sure the "social novel" really exists. What Tom Wolfe was proposing in his essay was that the novelist has a duty to do social reportage à la "Germinal" or "Sister Carrie". But the turn of the century social realists had no competition, and ever since we've had television, the idea that the novelist had any responsibility to go out and report has been faintly ridiculous. If someone says "Here's a good social novel," that goes to the bottom of my reading pile and always has.

The essay I wrote was animated more by a concern with where the novelist today fits into the culture. I had the feeling that Fitzgerald and Hemingway and even Bellow and Roth and Updike had really spoken to the country and gotten something back and been in their not-huge but significant way celebrities. They were writers to whom people looked in order to understand their own lives and to have some sense of where we were as a country, and that role was disappearing, or had disappeared, or had shifted to a modernist fringe within the literary community that was for a tiny audience, or an academic audience. That essay was about the social novelist, more than the social novel.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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