The Book Club

Franzen vs. Updike

Dear Chris,

I liked the book a lot, too, but your sweeping praise arouses the churl in me. Is Franzen better than the run of the mill? Yes. A better writer than Norman Mailer? Sure, but that’s not saying much. A better writer than John Updike? No. Both Updike’s Rabbit series and The Corrections aspire to the status of epics, so it’s actually useful to compare them. Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit at Rest; and Rabbit Remembered, conceived as a single work–which is how I think you have to read them–easily match The Corrections for largeness of ambition and the astonishing range of things and emotions observed with minute precision. I’ll concede that Franzen often elicits more of a belly laugh than Updike does. In that, Franzen is DeLillo-esque: He’s a brilliant skewerer of business jargon and pseudo-scientific hype and his generation’s ironic tics. Updike doesn’t do shtick with half as much brazenness, and more power to Franzen for pulling it off. But when it comes to worldliness and depth of feeling, Updike is a master where Franzen is still an exceedingly talented novice. The Rabbit books don’t make as big a show of being of the moment as The Corrections does, but as you proceed from one novel and decade to the next, from 1960 through 2000, you encounter in each a world and society transformed subtly but definitively, the changes all the more chilling and real because they have taken place in the same neighborhoods of the midsize Pennsylvania city, and in the same people. Updike outfits his characters in the fashions and attitudes and political views and professions of era after era without condescending, allowing anyone to lapse into cliché, or giving short shrift to inner selves. You cannot say the same of Franzen.

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You ask which of Franzen’s characters I like the best. For me the question is, which of the characters do I dislike the least? Denise I developed a powerful aversion to. You cite a scene in which this up-and-coming chef tries to hide her irritation at her mother’s excitement about tall desserts, and though I agree that the timely cultural references and generational and class tensions are rendered with impressive accuracy, there’s too little compassion in Franzen’s description. Denise looks down her Ivy League nose at her Midwestern mother, and so does Franzen. Denise is a hip, trim, beautiful, competent, generous, artistic, self-sacrificing, and lesbian reproach to us all. Updike once remarked of Salinger and his irksome Glass children that he loved them more than God did, and that’s how I think Franzen, another urban sophisticate, feels about Denise. I hate it when male authors fall in love with their female characters. They always turn the girls into pinups. Denise reminds me of the wife in Kurt Andersen’s Turn of the Century: Both are much too obviously the kind of gorgeous, witty, supportive, and low-maintenance female companion all men fantasize about, and both are unconvincing as people. I can’t help wondering what pockets of hypocrisy a really sharp-tongued female writer–a Lorrie Moore–could have exposed in a Denise.

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Chip, the ex-professor, is almost as bad; some critic somewhere pointed out that he’s a David Lodge knockoff, and with the exception that he’s much more amusingly desperate and callow than Lodge ever lets his main characters be, and Franzen is better versed in contemporary postmodernism than Lodge, Chip is a recognizable literary type. Gary the suburban banker is the best character among the three Lambert children because Franzen lets him be comically awful and pathetic at the same time. His horrible wife plays him like a marionette; his clever schemes are self-defeating. He’s as touching as George Babbitt and as secretly nasty as Darren from Bewitched.

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Enid, the mother, I love; she breaks my heart with her defensive naiveté, her annoyingness, and her endless striving. Thank God that, as you say, Franzen finally swings the book around to a modicum of tolerance for her. He sees her quashed capacity for happiness, which is what makes her such a goofball. Alfred, her sadistic quasher, is a masterpiece and the heart of the book. The disease that causes his dementia is actually Parkinson’s, but it’s interesting that you conflated Alfred with Franzen’s own father, Earl, who had Alzheimer’s and whom he wrote about recently in TheNew Yorker. Alfred, like Earl, is a stern, meticulous, honorable, unreachable father, and whenever Franzen turns to him, he writes in a frenzy of love and anguish and insight that ratchets his prose up to tour-de-force levels. We don’t have to speculate that Enid and Alfred are based on Franzen’s parents; he said as much in his New Yorker piece. There’s a passage in the New Yorker in which he describes his mother sending him a copy of the report on the autopsy on his father’s brain in a package that included a couple of Mr. Goodbar candy bars–she was making no point by the juxtaposition, that was just the kind of clueless loopiness his mother was capable of. That’s pure Enid.

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The writing about Alfred–about Parkinson’s, about dementia, about time and space coming apart–is simply great, filled with comedy and philosophy and pathos. I think my favorite scene is the one in which an increasingly disoriented Alfred struggles to make sense of and sit down on his son Chip’s super-modern red chaise lounge. First Alfred crouches as if he’s about to take a crap, then he topples backward, feet up in the air. This bit of slapstick culminates in the most breathtaking passage in the book:

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Denise left the kitchen and took the plate to Alfred, for whom the problem of existence was this: that, in the manner of a wheat seedling thrusting itself out of the earth, the world moved forward in time, by adding cell after cell to its leading edge, piling moment on moment, and that to grasp the world even in its freshest, youngest moment provided no guarantee that you’d be able to grasp it a moment later. By the time he’d established that his daughter, Denise, was handing him a plate of snacks in his son Chip’s living room, the next moment in time was already budding itself into a pristinely ungrasped existence in which he couldn’t absolutely rule out the possibility, for example, that his wife, Enid, was handing him a plate of feces in the parlor of a brothel; and no sooner had he reconfirmed Denise and the snacks and Chip’s living room than the leading edge of time added yet another layer of new cells, so that he faced a new and ungrasped world; which was why, rather than exhaust himself playing catch-up, he preferred more and more to spend his days down among the unchanging historical roots of things.

Pretty damn good, I have to admit.

Best,
Judith

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