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Oh, the misanthropy and
sourness. Gary wanted to
enjoy being a man of wealth
and leisure, but the country
was making it none too easy.
All around him, millions of
newly minted American
millionaires were engaged in
the identical pursuit of feeling
extraordinary. Of buying the
perfect Victorian. Of skiing
the virgin slope. Of knowing
the chef personally. Of locating
the beach that had no footprints.
There were further tens of
millions of young Americans
who didn't have money, but
were nonetheless chasing the
perfect cool. And meanwhile,
the sad truth was that not
everyone could be extraordinary.
Not everyone could be extremely
cool, because whom would
this leave to be ordinary? Who'd
perform the thankless work of
being comparatively uncool?
Ordinariness is at the heart of
Jonathan Franzen's extraordinary
novel. Here at his bolt hole in
Santa Cruz on the Californian
coast, he's a world away from
the claustrophobia of his writer's
lair in New York, where for
seven long years he worried
away at the story of the Lambert
family. Franzen shut out the
outside world, shuttling between
his soundproofed office and his
apartment, via the tunnels of
the New York subway. Music
was his occasional companion.
What is the music for this book?
(Author, The Corrections)
The Mekons. Always the Mekons.
The Mekons were kind of like
the background music of my life.
I think it goes to that theme of
the loveliness of failure and
But mostly, he surrounded
himself with silence.
I voluntarily inflicted a certain
level of insanity on myself.
I think to write well, you have
to turn up all the sensitivity
dials in your head. You to make
yourself horribly sensitive.
Sometimes I would be so
buzzing with inability to
concentrate, that I would
blindfold myself. Yeah, it's true.
Jonathan Franzen put himself
under huge pressure to deliver
a novel which would be a critical
success. While struggling with
some early drafts, he published
an article in Harpers magazine
in 1996, in which he argued that
there was no longer an audience
for socially engaged fiction. TV
had taken over. The literary
establishment read it as a
resignation letter from a failing
novelist. It could be regarded as
being a great publicity scam.
"Jonathan Franzen disappears for
That's not at all how I saw it.
I had described my growing
gloom about the seeming irrelevance
of serious novels in the cultural
and social life of the country. In
hindsight, it appears that I had said,
"Well, we're in a deplorable state,
and who's going to get us out of it?
I'm going to get us out of it." I
don't say that in the piece. But it
makes a nice story now.
There is a simple plot. A
Midwestern mother, Enid Lambert's
desperate attempts to retrieve her
children from the cities of the East
Coast for a Christmas together.
Franzen explores their tortured
relationships and anxieties, which
have a very real resonance.
When I finally gave up any hope
of doing anything representative
of the American family, I actually
seemed to have tapped into other
people's weirdness in that way.
The interesting thing about that,
then, is they are quite happy to
own that weirdness without thinking
That people understand in the
early 21st century that dysfunction
is part of their lives?
I hate that word dysfunction.
That's one of the phrases that's
been attached to this book,
"dysfunctional family". I have
distantly glimpsed a functional
family or two at various points of
my life. I've never been part of one.
I've never known anyone well
who's been part of one. How do
you talk about dysfunction when
it seems to you that 90% of families..?
I mean, perhaps that's simply
functionality and we're not calling
it what it should be. I do think the
family functions, it's just not
Gary Lambert, the eldest brother,
is a one-stable and happy suburban
banker, who's engaged in low-level
warfare with his wife, who refuses
to entertain the idea of Christmas
with her in-laws. Caroline, in turn,
is using their three sons as
ammunition. Gary is drinking too
much and is terrified that his wife's
diagnosis that he is depressed and
needs medication is right.
If you're interested in how people
behave, if you're interested in the
way they talk about themselves,
the way the conceive of themselves,
it's very hard to ignore drugs
nowadays, because that is so much
part of the conversation. Not only
between people, like in a marriage.
"You're depressed. You need to take
a medication." "No, you're depressed,
you need to take the medication!"
Literally, that is the conversation in
relationships often enough. Do I
speak from personal experience?
I've observed this. At close
quarters? Never mind how close!
"Dad, are you feeling OK?", Aaron
said. Gary wiped his chin. "Fine,
Aaron. Thank you. The chicken's a
little chough...er, a little tough."
He coughed, his oesophagus a
column of flame. "Maybe you want
to go lie down?", Caroline said, as
if to a child. "I think I'll trim that
hedge", Gary said. "You seem tired",
Caroline said, "maybe you should
lie down instead." "I'm not tired,
Caroline. I've just got some smoke
in my eyes. I know you're telling
everybody that I'm depressed. But
as it happens, I'm not."
Blake Morrison, the writer, says
that The Corrections has the
satisfaction of a serious soap
opera. Is he right?
I hadn't heard that one. You're
springing that one on me! Serious
soap opera? Soap opera is such
a pejorative. I have to say I bristle
a little bit at that choice of words.
But if he says satisfaction, well,
This ability to capture the
frayed nerve endings of family
life caught the attention of the
most powerful talk show host
in America. Just as the book
was about to be published, Oprah
Winfrey picked The Corrections
for her monthly televised book
club. Franzen had serious
reservations, and he made the
mistake of airing them in public.
There were certain aspects of
the process that I wasn't entirely
comfortable with. Because the
book was just coming out, I had
some resistance to the presence
of this sort of silver dollar-sized
logo, with her name smack in the
middle of the book. I was unwise
enough to actually mention this
in public a few times, and in fact
to point out that there were two
versions of the book now. One
of them had somebody else's name
on the cover, one had my name
on the cover.
Did someone call you a pompous
It goes on from there, yes.
I think Oprah should accept one
or more of Jonathan Franzen's
myriad apologies, and reinvite
him on her show.
Now way! He insulted her! She
doesn't have to take that.
She didn't take it. She rebuffed
him They're even.
And the spat just won't go away.
This cartoon appeared in last
week's edition of the New York
Times book review.
There's a lot of energy in
American culture about class,
and about a tension between
popular art and less popular art.
And this was sort of a lightning
rod for all of that. Everybody got
out the big guns, the Big Berthas,
and started shelling each other,
but mostly shelling me!
She should ask him point blank
if and why he thinks her views
are middlebrow, and what exactly
that is supposed to mean.
It did you no harm, of course,
because there was a reprint on the
book straight afterwards. From
that point of view, the endorsement
or otherwise by Oprah has certainly
helped your sales. Tell me, would
you read a book with Oprah's
stamp on it?
I wouldn't not read it simply
because it had an Oprah stamp on
it. Me, personally? No.
In The Corrections there are
passages which take the book
off in what seems like a totally
different direction, but the undertow
of anxiety and despair is always
there. There is some hilarious
writing, but always with a tenderness
for the frailty of the old.
An old couple go on a luxury
cruise, or what's billed as a luxury
cruise. It's not a happy situation,
because Alfred, the old man, is
spending quite a bit of time
hallucinating. Whether it's his
medication or his illness, we're not
sure. And Enid, his long-suffering
wife, just wants to have fun.
Enid sat in the B-deck lounge
and listened to the slow plant
and drag of someone's walker-
aided progress across the A-deck
lounge above her. "Of course," she
murmured, reflecting on how old
everyone was, "I suppose, who else
could afford a cruise like this?" The
seeming Dachshund that a man was
pulling by a leash turned out to be
a tank of oxygen mounted on roller
skates, and dressed in a pet sweater.
A very fat man walked by in a
T-shirt that said "Titanic, the body".
She was acutely conscious that
the Nordic Pleasure Lines was
deluxe. She expected, and had
paid for, in part with her own money,
elegance. Each T-shirt she saw was
a specific small trampling of her
fantasy, and hence, pleasure.
I was a late child from my parents,
so I grew up surrounded by people
a lot older than me. I think even
when I was 21, I felt like I was a
You recently wrote an article
talking about your own father's
Alzheimer's, which was also about
his relationship with your mother.
Is that what's in the book?
It's rather kind of dealing with
the emotional landscape that my
family inhabited in the early '90s,
when my father was sick. That's
there. But, you know, it's so
thoroughly run through the characters
I've developed for the situation,
that the incidents are entirely new.
Vulnerability and fear are central
themes of The Corrections. On
September 11th, days after the
book was published, these emotions
were felt intensely across America.
Franzen was at home in Manhattan
when the plane struck the towers.
Tell me about what New York was
like in the aftermath of September
11th, for you and others like you.
I'll know in about three years
what it was like, if that makes
sense. I don't think I'm gonna forget
it. And yet it was so...so awful and
so unreal, to be unscathed whilst
smelling that awful smoke that was
coming off the site, and living in a
semi-shutdown city. The memory
is probably likely to be truer than
anything, truer than the event itself.
You're just taking stuff in. It's
almost more interesting to think
about how it is reconstructed in
one's memory as the years go by.
By the same token of judging too
quickly the impact of September
11th, is it even reasonable to say
that there will be a change in the
cultural life of the nation? Are there
things that writers will and won't
do as a result of it?
I was shocked by the number of
writers who were lining up to say,
"I'm really going to have to reconsider
what I'm doing." It's like, "Where
have you been?!" It's not like the
world has actually changed. Anyone
with any imagination has been
expecting some sort of crashing in
of the larger world into this little
bubble of American bliss for years,
if not decades. I thought it was
embarrassing to hear people say,
"This is going to make a big
difference in my work."
What The Corrections has brought
you that your previous two novels
didn't, sadly, bring you, was fame
and a good deal of fortune. Does
that mean can you no longer be a
struggling writer in a garret?
It becomes an act if I persist in
the garret life. I'll probably have
to change that. But I'm sure I'll find
some other way to be miserable,
you know, in a good way.