The secret Jonathan Franzen influence, hiding in plain sight

The acclaimed novelist and playwright Tennessee Williams share a hometown -- and much more

Published November 22, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

  (Wikipedia/<a href=''>Tungphoto</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Wikipedia/Tungphoto via Shutterstock)

St. Louis is basking in the literary glow of two famous sons – celebrating the centennial of playwright Tennessee Williams' birth, and novelist Jonathan Franzen, whose award-winning novel "The Corrections" is currently being adapted for an HBO series. But the two writers also share an undiscovered link: a big, blue chair.

The chair made its debut in "The Man in the Overstuffed Chair," a raw and moving essay Williams wrote in 1960 three years after the death of his father, Cornelius, the subject of the piece. “The best of my work, as well as the impulse to work,” wrote Williams in a breakthrough line, “was a gift from the man in the overstuffed chair.”

Forty years later, Franzen carefully exhumed the chair – color, context and corpulence intact – and wedged it into the heart of his Midwestern novel. Literary critics call this practice an "inter-textual reference," and while it’s true that Franzen’s novels are inlaid with semi-precious puns and nods to writers that he admires, such as William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, there is something more sacred, more ancestral, going on here than this dry academic term suggests. Williams and Franzen are frequently mentioned together for sharing St. Louis roots, but Williams is a less-discussed influence. Indeed, Franzen declined to talk about Williams and the blue chair for this story.

Nevertheless, those familiar with "The Corrections" will easily recall this emotionally loaded piece of furniture -- it's introduced on the very first page, when Alfred Lambert, the doddering patriarch of a house not meant to stand, awakens in “his great blue chair” and struggles to his feet trembling with anxiety. The chair is terribly important to this once tyrannical but now emasculated pensioner. It is the only major purchase he has made without the permission of his manipulative wife, Enid, and which, despite her every stratagem, he has refused to part with. “The chair was overstuffed, vaguely gubernatorial. It was made of leather but it smelt like the inside of a Lexus. Like something modern and medical and impermeable that you could wipe the smell of death off easily, with a damp cloth, before the next person sat down to die in it.”

On that awful day when Enid casually declares, “I never liked that chair,” Alfred is devastated. “This was probably the most terrible thing she could have said to Alfred," Franzen writes. "The chair was the only sign he’d ever given of having a personal vision of the future. Enid’s words filled him with such sorrow – he felt such pity for the chair, such solidarity with it, such astonished grief at its betrayal – that he pulled off the dropcloth and sank into its arms and fell asleep.” Franzen then deftly deploys the man-chair conflation to capture the sparking tension between Alfred and his tenure-reject son Chip. In Chip’s tiny New York apartment, Alfred sorely misses his chair’s “big, helpful ursine arms” as he lowers himself onto his son’s semen-soaked, red chaise lounge. The solid, repressive rectitude of the blue chair provides a delicious contrast to the spongy, sexual redness of the couch. It’s hard not to laugh at the proxy moral face-off between Lambert and Lambert.

Although the chair appears only a few times in the novel, the heft of its symbolism can be gauged from the fact that it was chosen as the cover image of the U.K. hardback’s first edition. Also interesting is that Franzen included it in another piece he wrote. Last year, he told the Paris Review that he had once worked on a short story “about a person living in New York, trying to have a life, trying to make contact with women, and impeded by the fact that his father was sleeping in an enormous blue chair in his living room.” Strangely, though, Franzen has rarely, if ever, named the playwright as an important literary influence -- and this probably explains why the provenance of the big, blue chair has remained buried.

All his life, Tennessee Williams loathed his beastly, homophobic father, but after Cornelius' funeral in the Williams' ancestral hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., he drank himself near unconscious because “he was still my father.” During his father’s lifetime, he never dared include him in a play except as a craven absence in "The Glass Menagerie," but in this bruising piece of prose, he makes up for it. He first presents Cornelius as a red-eyed shouter returning from his stultifying desk job at the International Shoe Co., and then cracks through the carapace of alcoholism and anger to get to the beaten-down and surprisingly gallant essence of a man who belonged to “one of the most distinguished families of the South” but had been reduced to a caged animal. Crucially, he finds the key to his father’s misery and complexity in the one object the old bully clung to as his refuge: a large, blue chair. Like Alfred Lambert, Cornelius needed what Franzen would four decades later call a “chair of permanence, a monument to his need.”

The Williams family moved nine times in St. Louis, and every time the chair went with them: “My father was never willing to part with the overstuffed chair. It really didn’t look like it could be removed. It seemed too fat to get through a doorway. Its color was originally blue, plain blue, but time had altered the blue to something sadder than blue as if it had absorbed in its fabric and stuffing all the sorrows and anxieties of our family life and these emotions had become its stuffing and its pigmentation (if chairs can be said to have a pigmentation). It doesn’t really seem like a chair. It seems more like a fat, silent person. Not silent by choice but simply unable to speak because if it spoke it would not get through a sentence without bursting into a self-pitying wail.” The overstuffed chair reappears in "A House Not Meant to Stand," Williams’ last and most nakedly autobiographical play, about a “house literally built by termites,” where the father, Cornelius, and mother, Bella, have just returned from the funeral of their homosexual son whose name is -- and here comes the uncanny bit -- Chips. It also opens on a howling winter night with Bella trying to hide a fat, yellow envelope of money from her husband just as "The Corrections" opens with a shuddering afternoon storm and Enid Lambert frantically trying to find an envelope she has hidden from her husband. It's hard not to make The Connections.

While Franzen wouldn't talk for this piece, Stephen Burn, the author of "Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism" (Continuum), says Franzen has always been acutely aware of his literary heritage. As an undergraduate, he renamed the Swarthmore literary magazine Small Craft Warnings after a moody, barroom Williams play and his novels carry on a “subterranean dialogue with ancestor texts.” Is it coincidence that the Lamberts live in St. Jude, a fictional town named after the patron saint of desperate cases, and to whom Williams built a shrine in his Florida home? Even more pertinent, Burn says, is that “Franzen’s first published work was a co-authored play, and the genealogy of his fiction is arguably more firmly rooted in drama than readers might initially assume. He tends to use a specific physical space as you would in a play — think of Chip’s New York apartment and red couch — and builds his novels around a set of taut relationships that, in turn, play out in a claustrophobic emotional space where psychic bonds between people become highly charged. It’s this sense of a narrowed world where interchanges between people can be artistically escalated that reminds me of the way drama works.”

Williams despised St. Louis so completely that he called it St. Pollution and made it clear he did not want to be buried there – a wish his brother ignored – but Franzen has happy childhood memories, and says that it would be “obscene” for him to mock its tree-shaded, stucco-clad innocence. In Williams’ time, the city was reeling from smog and the Great Depression, whereas the 1959-born Franzen grew up “in the middle of the golden age.” More than these externals, it was personal circumstance that defined their attitude. Young Tom (as he was known till his early 20s) had a mentally fragile sister and a father who called him Miss Nancy. Jonathan was “cocooned in cocoons that were themselves cocooned,” with a father who read to him and “confided his love of the depressive donkey Eeyore.” Both boys were small, sensitive anti-jocks, but Tom was also gay, and therefore far more vulnerable to discrimination.

And yet both men chose the moral mediocrity of family life and the hard glitter of the American dream as their central theme, and explored it brilliantly if differently. Williams’ plays, marbled as they are with his fear of madness, trap his viewers in an uneasy, "El Greco-lit" space, while Franzen, who is addicted to the narcotic of interconnectedness, lures his readers into a giant maze illuminated not by sunlight but by the cheap, artificial bulbs of the basement, that semi-finished refuge to which the whole country has migrated so that “life came to be lived underground.”

Both Williams and Franzen diligently work two levers at the heart of this middle-class malaise: self-delusion and the fear of female sexuality. Franzen said that his mother “had literally been made sick, seriously ill, by news about the sex life of one of my brothers. I’d seen firsthand that the mere expression of overt masculine sexuality could put a woman in the hospital!” Williams’ beautiful mother hated sex and screamed through the act and was shocked when her daughter Rose began to talk about how college girls used candles from the chapel to masturbate. Eventually, Rose was lobotomized. Tennessee was not party to the decision but he never forgave himself and wrote out his anguish and guilt through his female characters. If Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie" marinate in a la-la world of sepia sexuality, with Blanche being raped and institutionalized for it, Patty, Franzen’s desperate housewife in his 2010 novel "Freedom," smoothly telescopes delusion and desire by seducing her husband’s friend while she is sleepwalking, and Enid Lambert, deprived all her life by the repressed Alfred, whose size, shape and smell she loves, touches and kisses him to her heart’s content when he is in, not the blue, but a geriatric chair and too weak to rebuff her.

The creepy sexuality of the mother figure vis-a-vis her son is another dynamic that crawls through their work. In the Paris Review interview, Franzen said that one writer he simply couldn’t stand was D. H. Lawrence: “I ­wanted to kill him for having inflicted 'Sons and Lovers' on me. Much later, I went back and read the book again, or read half of it, because I felt that the Joey and Patty material in 'Freedom' had some kinship with the Morels. And I could see why I’d hated it when I was eighteen: It hit way too close to home.” Williams, though, was all praise for the “old fox’s” sexual intuition, and gleefully worked him into a scene in "The Glass Menagerie," where Amanda berates her son Tom for reading “the hideous book by that insane Mr. Lawrence.” Despite this, the comic irony with which Williams handled the mother-son, sister-brother dynamic in his play was far less queasy and probably appealed more to Franzen than Lawrence’s novel, “a shining example of how not to approach this radioactive material.” Both Patty’s cloying obsession with her golden boy Joey and her hatred of his girlfriend, and Amanda’s need to control the way her son chews his food and to outclass her crippled daughter in the Gentlemen Caller Olympics are portrayed as more pathetic than ick.

Williams says that his mother, Edwina, developed a hostility to his father, “which he took out on me, the first male to replace him.” His therapist once told him that he would only forgive the world if he first forgave his father. Through this almost unbearably cathartic essay he comes as close as he can to leeching a lifelong toxin. He finds not only his father in the stuffing of that chair, but himself. For Williams, the chair was a surrogate for the grave, a traditional site of closure. He finally accepts that despite his whole life being a correction to his father’s, he is more like him in his alcoholism and frustrations than he wants to accept. His father, he says bitterly, taught him to hate, but he also gave him a reason to live: "The best of my work, as well as the impulse to work, was a gift from the man in the overstuffed chair, and now I feel a very deep kinship to him. I almost feel as if I am sitting in the overstuffed chair where he sat, exiled from those I should love and those that ought to love me. For love I make characters in plays."

The circular tragedy that turns children into their parents is at the heart of "The Corrections." By choosing the overstuffed, blue chair over more popular artifacts from the Tennessee Williams' canon – glass menageries, streetcars, iguanas – Franzen has tapped straight into the dark sap, the father-lode from which the playwright's scalding fictions sprang.

By Nina Martyris

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