On “The Corrections”

by vinnyhaddad

It has been a few years since I have read The Corrections, but, steeped in my research on David Foster Wallace, I have recently had the occasion to think of the novel again as I read a fellow blogger’s review. As it remains one of my favorite novels, I felt rejuvenated to write a little just on Franzen. In my research on Wallace, I had the occasion to read Stephen J. Burn’s Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism and Jeremy Green’s Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millenium (the latter needs more of my attention so I will avoid too close of commentary on it here),[1] both reminding me that I ought not let Franzen move too far on the periphery of my thinking about contemporary fiction and cruel optimism.

Stephen Burn’s account of Franzen offers a very wide scope “of literary, rather than cultural criticism” (xiii), meaning that it traces out the interconnections and conversations that Franzen’s fiction (as well as Wallace’s and Richard Power’s) is having with their post-modern predecessors. On the one hand, the type of approach Burn’s employs with his objects of study (biographical, literary historical & contextual analysis) is not one that I generally employ. For example, while reading The Corrections I remember simply experiencing an intoxicating attunement with all of the minor negative affects (irritation and paranoia) that the characters Gary, Chip, and Denise felt towards one another, their parents, and their Midwestern past whose borders seemed to be melting with their Eastern adult lives. When I return to The Corrections for future work I intend to explore the text with Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings to think of how these feelings function “as allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action” (Ugly Feelings, 3). I wanted to state this apostrophe for two reasons: 1.) Ngai efficiently argues in her introduction how this analysis of ugly feelings (so pervasive in The Corrections) allows literary and cultural studies to “think of the aesthetic and the political together—a task whose urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in a increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society” (3) and 2.) Franzen seems as much in conversation with the relevance of fiction (as his inner and public battle with literary versus popular fiction suggests) as with its relationship to postmodernism and intertextual dialogues, so taking that relevance seriously seems to occlude an analysis that removes the literary from the cultural. However, Stephen Burn does offer several key insights that I think are worth noting here that can easily be overlooked when you begin to too excitedly develop an unbalanced study of affect, as I am sometimes wont to do.

First, Burn successfully illustrates through intertextual dialogues that understanding Franzen’s work (particularly his latter work in The Corrections and, while this predates its publication it, I imagine, even more firmly falls under this mistaken rubric, Freedom) is seen as nostalgic a return to nineteenth-century realism. I think Burn is exactly right, particularly by highlighting Franzen’s usage of complex temporal shifts and flirtations with technomodernism(“the all-important engagement of postmodern literature with information technology” [The Program Era, 32]).

More interestingly, however, Burn rightly makes the case that Franzen’s “reputation has developed somewhat unevenly” (ix). For several reasons, among them Franzen’s proclivity to seemingly resolve difficult tensions in his nonfiction that his fiction only amplifies his ambivalence of as well as the varied (mostly negative) responses towards the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, have served mainly as a distraction from the ways in which his fiction “is a development from, rather than an explicity rejection of, [postmodernism], and so—just as modernist works have affinities with postmodernist works—post-postmodernist [like Franzen’s] novels betray a family resemblance to the previous generation’s work” (19). Burn states,

In virtually every critical interpretation of The Corrections the argument in ‘Perchance to Dream’ is treated as a kind of preface to the novel itself…The underlying belief that animates each of these interpretations—regardless of the conclusions that the individual critic extracts—is that ‘Perchance to Dream’ represents a successful resolution to the creative problems Franzen suffered in the early 1990s. Because Franzen’s nonfiction nearly always resolves dichotomies, there is certainly evidence in the essay itself to support this belief. The essay moves toward its conclusion with a simulated epiphany, a note of breakthrough: ‘As soon as I jettisoned my perceived obligation to the chimerical mainstream, my third book begain to move again. I’m amazed now that I’d trusted myself so little for so long.’ However…the reductive sketch of a solution to the contemporary novel’s ills in ‘Perchance to Dream’ actually bears only a marginal relation to the novel Franzen actually wrote, and that the aesthetic foundations of The Corrections are more complex than the essay intimates. (50-51).

In other words, what Burn is right to point out that Franzen’s nonfiction (and I will add that a similar phenomenon occurs with David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction) oxidizes the medium-specific literary analysis of his fiction. I will qualify here that Franzen’s nonfiction and the other extratextual  events (interviews, Oprah scandal, etc.) have structured the complex author figure that, in my view, primes a particular mood that reader’s have when they approach his work. Burn is not trying to separate the two, he seeks a way to complicate the relationship of Franzen’s fiction and postmodernism in order to “fill-out the two-dimenisonal cartoon figure of Franzen who sometimes functions in accounts of the Oprah affair” (x). However, the complicated picture we take away of Franzen from Burn’s text still should be used to illuminate the “cartoon figure” whose prevalence Burn’s recognizes all to well. In other words, we need to police the ways in which we understand how these forces intermingle and interact when we examine the “politics of aesthetics” in these cases because the ecology of literary fiction depends on the cultural capital of the text (the shared situated and trained moods that congeal around texts before we crack the cover) as well as the text itself.[2]

[1]  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s The Anxiety of Obsolescence offers an analysis on Franzen and what we associate with him as anxiety over the death of the novel I find to be the very persuasive on this topic.

[2] In Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max includes a footnote that no good discussion of Franzen should be without. Feeling anxious and jealous about his peers’ success, “Wallace told the New York Times Magazine  that Franzen exercised in black socks, but then felt ashamed, as he wrote DeLillo. (The comment was not used in the article.)” (323).