The Book Club

Love-Hate Relationships: Franzen’s Idea of Passion

Dear Judith,

Wow, I’ve never heard such praising with faint damnation as your Updike comparison. You’re saying that if you take a universally acknowledged giant of the past half-century of American fiction and stack his four most ambitious novels together, you get a work that “easily matches” The Corrections. It’s hard to imagine that Franzen fans would protest.

When I asked you which characters you liked, I was also curious about which you felt best drawn. You are one of the rare critics I know who’s capable of making that distinction. The two or three reviewers I’ve read on this book have gushed over Denise and mistaken their affection for her (as a person) for an admiration of the way she was drawn (as a character). Part of this is PC: her lesbianism, or bisexuality, creates a no-fly zone for critical inquiry. Part of it is a guy thing–I myself zipped through the Denise sections quicker than I did through the rest of the book, but I’m not terribly proud of the impulses that propelled me. Denise is the least complex of the characters because she’s never focused enough to think morally. She’s always distracted: either quivering before sex or enervated after it. Her story strikes me at times as a sustained piece of erotica (The Sapphic Omnivore Who Can’t Get Enough).

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I nonetheless think she’s a success for Franzen. Denise is as complex as she has to be, which is not very. She’s the most allegorical of the characters, representing Greed in its sensual variety. Much of the book is about a shame and guilt that keeps rising up in characters without their being able to name it or identify its cause. Denise’s lack of moral focus is on a collision course with the moral center of the book, Alfred’s code of honor. The climax of the book (to my mind) comes in the much foreshadowed and surreal encounter on Pages 521-22. (“Bottom on the bottom. Bottom on the bottom of the bench.”) There, a few babbled memories emanating from Alfred’s unconscious make it clear to her that her father’s self-exile from the world’s joys has been at least in part an attempt to protect her virtue–something she doesn’t understand at all and certainly doesn’t value.

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You’re right, by the way, that my confusing Parkinson’s with Alzheimer’s stems from having read Franzen’s New Yorker article about his father’s illness. I think it’s because the fictional Parkinson’s dad gets his best line from Franzen’s nonfictional Alzheimer’s dad: “Better not to leave here,” both say, when returning, after a holiday visit, to their respective nursing homes, “than to have to come back.”

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Once Alfred’s paranoia is shown to have a commonsensical basis, he becomes the moral center of the book. I respect him as a character, but I love him as a person. Now, when you say you love Enid, you mean as a character, right? Because she sure doesn’t break my heart. I find her warped almost to the point of crossing the line into evil. She lies about her son’s working for the Wall Street Journal. She is constantly trying to bully and bad-mouth those around into pleasing her, basically by buying her things: “Dave Schumpert has had ten times more health problems than Dad, he’s had a colostomy for fifteen years, he’s got one lung and a pacemaker, and look at all the things that he and Mary Beth are doing. They just got back from snorkeling in Fiji! And Dave never complains, never complains.” (Beautiful, isn’t it?)

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There is an intergenerational mapping going on here, too. Chip is Alfred transferred to 1990s America. “Postmodern” and “ironic” are generally taken as synonyms–and they often are for Chip, who on hearing Gitanas’ account of his father’s agonizing death under Soviet communism can find no response more elevated than a coolly muttered, “Ouch.” Yet Chip’s po-mo rants about capitalism have no irony in them at all. They can be seen as a search for a kind of a bourgeois morality–and what his student Melissa does wrong, aside from getting him fired for having an affair with her, is figure this out. (Alfred has figured it out, too.)

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Similarly, Gary is Enid transferred to 1990s America. He has the same obsessions about upward mobility and the same horrifying inability to appreciate human variety–but in his case these character failings have broken free of their setting in the homey, cheery, Midwestern worldview that makes Enid if not decent, then at least harmless.

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Franzen’s unwillingness to descend to polemic in drawing these two unattractive people convinces me he has mastered any temptation to get too involved with his characters. In Enid’s case, he makes her very consumerism poignant. She takes a cruise and wants to feel she’s being very elegant. But it turns out to be a geezer cruise, not particularly nobbish, in which saggy old men walk around with T-shirts reading, “Old Urologists Never Die, They Just Peter Out.” Writes Franzen, “Each T-shirt she saw was a specific small trampling of her fantasy.” Then, later, “God had given her the imagination to weep for the sad strivers who booked the most el-cheapo ‘B’ Deck inside staterooms on a luxury cruise ship; but a childhood without money had left her unable to stomach, herself, the $300 per person it cost to jump one category up; and so she wept for herself.” In Gary’s case, he’s both a shit and the victim of a carefully laid plot by his odious, self-help-book-reading wife to convince him that his problem is not being henpecked so much as being mentally ill.

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Jeesh, I’ve gone on and on without broaching the “odi-et-amo eroticism” I promised to mention yesterday. Now I kind of forget what I meant. But I have never read a book in which every passionate relationship (not just the sexual ones) teeters so unpredictably between attraction and repulsion. Chip, as Melissa leaves the hotel after their tryst, “couldn’t figure out if she was immensely well adjusted or seriously messed up.” Gary hears his son Caleb’s tone as “ironic or enthusiastic or, somehow, both.” Enid, fascinated with a Mrs. Roth she meets on the cruise, “sensed immediately that Mrs. Roth would become her great friend on the cruise, or else her great rival.” Denise is moved to abuse her girlfriend Robin once she has captured her as a sex toy, yet at the same time she’s desperate that she can’t be kinder. So “Denise’s brain became a passive screen on which was projected a highlight reel of all that was excellent in the person she’d driven away.”

In fact, for Franzen, this kind of love/hate seems to be what passion is. That’s why Alfred is the hero of the novel. He may have stunted his life by shutting down his emotions, but he’s the only character who takes passion seriously enough to fear it.

Best,
Chris

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