A few weeks ago, in the wake of the unfathomable events that had unfolded in New York City, novelist Jonathan Franzen found himself with poet Maya Angelou, journalist David Halberstam, and writer Bebe Moore Campbell being interviewed by Ted Koppel on ABC television. Early in the program, the usually well-informed Koppel turned to Franzen and earnestly asked if he could explain how young people were feeling about the horror they had witnessed. The baby-faced Franzen, who is 42 years old, stared blankly at the camera and hesitated for seconds that seemed an eternity. Then he plainly informed the confused Koppel he didn't see himself as spokesman for the younger generation.
Oops! Had Koppel, who was reporting from London, thought that he was speaking to Dave Eggers, whose A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and its postmodern pyrotechnics bombarded the best-seller list last year? Or that he was chatting with David Foster Wallace, whose weighty novel Infinite Jest made him the darling of the bookish scene in the late Nineties? Perhaps. But Jonathan Franzen, aside from not being named David, is something altogether different from those writers. He's a novelist who has seemingly made it his business to produce a book people might actually read, which doesn't mean he's hoping to become the newest Oprah book club selection of the month.
Franzen's latest novel (his third), The Corrections, is the compelling story of the Lamberts, a dysfunctional Midwestern family of five slogging through life. It has all the necessary literal and figurative heft, possibly a consequence of the seven years it took to write. A painful process indeed, but somewhere in the middle the author realized what he was after: "I started noticing that the writing I liked was much more personal, and interior, and domestic in scale. And much of the fun, the challenge then, was to pick various domestic situations maximally far apart that would, when taken together, present as broad a picture as possible of the world we live in but in and of themselves remain small and intimate."
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The exacting, all-encompassing book and its author have been embraced by the big business of publishing and are being hyped up the wazoo. Franzen's scruffy face gazes from blurb-ridden full-page ads, and reviews and features galore have popped up in a variety of publications. However, don't believe all you read in the New York Times Magazine, Franzen warns, calling its recent article an inaccurate portrayal of his motives and adding that "none of my friends recognized anything about me except the picture in that piece."
What chums and strangers may discern is that Franzen succeeded in creating an engrossing read that offers a much-needed escape from the sometimes-scathing reality of day-to-day life. "I subscribe to Flannery O'Connor's view of what a novel is or what a work of fiction is," Franzen admits. "It's a way to have experience. You're not reading for information. You're reading to have a certain kind of experience, and it's a kind of experience like no other." Such could be said about The Corrections.