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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Jonathan Franzen

NARRATOR:
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?

KIRSTY WARK:
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?

JONATHAN FRANZEN:
(Author, The Corrections)
The Mekons. Always the Mekons. The Mekons were kind of like the background music of my life.

WARK:
Why?

FRANZEN:
I think it goes to that theme of the loveliness of failure and darkness.

WARK:
But mostly, he surrounded himself with silence.

FRANZEN:
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.

WARK:
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 several years!"

FRANZEN:
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.

WARK:
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.

FRANZEN:
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.

WARK:
The interesting thing about that, then, is they are quite happy to own that weirdness without thinking it's wrong.

FRANZEN:
Right. Right.

WARK:
That people understand in the early 21st century that dysfunction is part of their lives?

FRANZEN:
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 entirely happy.

WARK:
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.

FRANZEN:
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!

NARRATOR:
"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."

WARK:
Blake Morrison, the writer, says that The Corrections has the satisfaction of a serious soap opera. Is he right?

FRANZEN:
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, that's good.

WARK:
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.

FRANZEN:
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.

WARK:
Did someone call you a pompous prick?

FRANZEN:
It goes on from there, yes.

ACTOR:
I think Oprah should accept one or more of Jonathan Franzen's myriad apologies, and reinvite him on her show.

ACTRESS:
Now way! He insulted her! She doesn't have to take that.

ACTOR:
She didn't take it. She rebuffed him They're even.

WARK:
And the spat just won't go away. This cartoon appeared in last week's edition of the New York Times book review.

FRANZEN:
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!

ACTOR:
She should ask him point blank if and why he thinks her views are middlebrow, and what exactly that is supposed to mean.

WARK:
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?

FRANZEN:
I wouldn't not read it simply because it had an Oprah stamp on it. Me, personally? No.

WARK:
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.

FRANZEN:
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.

NARRATOR:
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.

FRANZEN:
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 70-year-old man.

WARK:
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?

FRANZEN:
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.

WARK:
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.

FRANZEN:
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.

WARK:
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?

FRANZEN:
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."

WARK:
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?

FRANZEN:
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.


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