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The Suburban Grotesque
by rejoyce on October 2, 2007In Jonathan Franzen's Corrections, the protagonist is a professor of Textual Artifacts (a send-up of Critical Theory and Cultural Studies). Franzen is almost too clever by half, employing the specialized language of metallurgy, food,railroads, et cetera et cetera et cetera, but not always to apparent purpose. It's also part academic novel updated to a contemporary setting, and sex farce (the obligatory teacher-student affair), but it could be that Franzen is the best of the postmodern novelists who share a kinship with filmmakers such as Alexander Payne, who chart similar satirical territory, often quite funny but verging on The Suburban Grotesque. In retrospect, the Oprah flap--Franzen refused an appearance--seems ridiculous, because Franzen's novel isn't a masterpiece of high modernism at all, but a funny, accessible, playful, even touching Midwestern familial farce in the age of global capitalism (the characters are beset by impersonal market forces). The father's dementia, the mother's class avidity, the children's messed-up lives are all hilariously rendered. But at over 600 pages, the novel is overlong; some of Franzen's inventions such as a talking piece of excrement are merely silly. In addition, for a novel of such epic length, it focuses on an awfully narrow band of class; the mother Enid's envy of the upper class doesn't quite qualify as class warfare. In short, the novel is a snapshot of a certain class at a certain moment--the 1990s in Middle America--but it fails to plumb character in any real depth; perhaps Franzen implies that in our postmodern age character itself is flattened by consumer culture, academic theory, political correctness, market forces, pop artifacts and so on. There is terrific comedy in The Corrections; the question is whether or not such comedy has much of a literary shelf-life.
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