Reading Jonathan Franzen’s commendation of Christina Stead’s novel The Man Who Loved Children I see that it is also a commendation of a particular kind of novel, the realistic family-centered novel, like his own The Corrections, from what he fears is a permanent dismissal. “Haven’t we had enough of that?” — and you know, I think we have, for now anyway. Why is Franzen so much less interesting than, say George Eliot or Trollope? — not, please note, why isn’t he as good as they are, for few novelists are, but why is he not as interesting? I am inclined to think that that kind of novel depends on a certain kind of society, a society with elaborate explicit and implicit rules, and without the necessity of characters navigating those rules, just isn’t worth writing. In our society people can be whatever they want in relation to any other people and in relation to any branch of society, or that’s what we think anyway, and so there just aren’t enough structures of resistance to make the realistic social-familial novel work. We’re all internal, or (again) think we are, and the proper media for that kind of experience are the essay, the memoir, the blog, and maybe the lyric poem. The novel isn’t dead, but the kind of novel Franzen wants to commend will not have the kind of resonance he wants it to have until society becomes more formally and thoroughly structured. Which at some point will happen.
I think the structures of resistance are there in our society; they just aren't universal and they vary in the different branches of our culture. There was that brilliant Simpsons episode where we learn that Ned Flanders parents were hippies who imposed no rules on him; and thus his rebellion against them took the form of flight into the Ned we know. The Sexual Revolution and such things have broken down many of the old societal taboos, but haven't new ones risen in their place? Look at the pressures our society places on teenage boys and girls to look, dress, and act certain ways. Conservative society has rules, but Liberal society has rules as well. Some churches force you out for being gay and some social groups force you out for eating fast food. I think what America lacks currently is a novelist capable of melding the complexities of Red and Blue America. I hate to sound like Harold Bloom, but I think our serious novelists are too often giving us period pieces with a limited view; when what our culture starves for is another Huckleberry Finn.
Why is Franzen so much less interesting than say, Randall Jarrell?
One thing, Bert, that you didn't say but almost said, by omission from your catalog of contemporary structures of resistance, is that the common forms of resistance no longer repose in the family. So a novel like Disgrace works those structures (but they function not as obstacles to navigate but as a force of or potential for revenge, a much stealthier sort of fate). So, as in Franzen, the family novel becomes a collection of parallel odysseys in which the tragedy arises not from the family's oppressive forms but from everyone's guilt at successfully escaping the formless family. The family becomes a nagging ideal or counterfactual in a cautionary story about the costs of emancipation. That said, I quite liked The Corrections.
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