The Book Club

The Disadvantages of Authors Disengaging With Their Characters

Dear Chris,

Oh dear! I have done a disservice to literature, or at least to Updike. Let me try this again. Franzen has big ambitions, impressive powers of observation and description, and a truly funny satiric streak, but the majority of the characters in his book lack the opacity and volume and stubborn particularity of Updike’s characters, and that to me is the fatal flaw of the book. Rabbit and his family and friends lived for months inside me, unbudgeable. Of the Lambert family, the only members I could remember with any vividness a week after reading the book were Enid and Alfred, and I suspect that’s because they’re infused with the texture and existence of real people, i.e., Franzen’s parents. Not that autobiography is bad, but it’s a problem for the book whenever the autobiographical figures aren’t around. You diagnosed the malaise yourself. Denise is an allegory, though I wouldn’t have said of Greed; I would have said of Hunger: She’s trying to feed herself, through obsessively well-prepared food and sex with much older men and women a lot like her mother, all the love and comfort she couldn’t get in the affection-starved Lambert home. I know, I know, that sounds like something out of an advice column in Mademoiselle. My point is, whenever characters in big, important novels with a lot of social commentary can be reduced to allegories, you know you’ve entered the realm of the obvious.

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Not that obvious, mind you. Franzen is still a good writer. I reread the saga of Denise today (I first read this book weeks ago, and some other stuff has distracted me since) and concluded that my original comments were too schematic. Yes, Franzen’s depiction of Denise has some egregious lapses, all of which err in the direction of making her a textbook case of terminal hipness. I snorted when I read about Denise’s fondness for I.B. Singer and Sholom Aleichem as a high-school student: Please! This Midwestern teen-ager gets to be skinny and beautiful and kind and ethereal, plus she has an inner Jew, too? That’s way too much downtown wish fulfillment for me. Ditto for her gastronomic expertise. Almost everything that passes through her consciousness on the subject of food reads like a pedantic rant on the culinary arts that Franzen the Manhattan restaurant connoisseur has been storing up for years.

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But she’s also more interesting than I remembered her being, mainly because she keeps having affairs with women she obviously can’t stand and who are objectionable in exactly the way her mother is. (Her mother and her two female lovers are all three embarrassingly exuberant women who have shriveled into awful stereotypes of themselves.) Not to be too psychobabbly about it, but Denise presumably does this in an effort to get close to her mother, to find a way to love what she has always found unlovable. And while I found Denise’s simultaneous affairs with her boss and his wife unbelievably slow-going, they did help me figure out an answer to the main problem I was having with the book, which was, why do the Lambert children even exist? Franzen palpably cares less about them than he does the parents, so why devote more than half the book to them? But as soon as Denise started sleeping with both halves of a married couple and playing one off the other, I finally understood: Denise and Chip and Gary are there to give us a viewpoint on, to help us experience, to hate and then slowly develop an ability to appreciate and forgive Enid and Alfred, the heroes of the book. There’s your odi-et-amo eroticism right there.

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I was about to write that Enid and Alfred are the real subjects of the book, but then I realized that they aren’t. They’re just more alive than anyone else. I don’t think any of the characters are fully, totally real to Franzen, though given the number of angles we’re allowed to see Enid and Alfred from, they come tantalizingly close to achieving independent existence. I think the difficulty I’m having with the characters here is that, as you say, Franzen has mastered his temptation to get involved with them. Yeesh! What a lousy thing for an author to master! But you’re right. Franzen is more involved in places and processes and the effects of time and late capitalism upon them than he is in people. Insofar as people are the sites of such processes–of brain decay, of consumerist self-objectification, of globalism–he describes them well; he rhapsodizes them with a very knowing, if slightly show-offy, perspicacity. Alfred’s mental decomposition; Enid’s class-based ratiocinations; Gitanas’ analyses of, and ultimate victimization by, the Lithuanian economy; the history of Midland Orfic. While reading up on Denise I came across this paragraph, more alive by far than anything Franzen wrote about the relatively trite sexual acrobatics he had just spent 60 pages subjecting her to:

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The Philadelphia Electric Company in the seventies had decommissioned its dirty-coal power plants–majestic buildings, like this one south of Center City, that Denise slowed down to admire whenever she drove by. The space was bright and vast. The ceiling was sixty feet up, and Chartres-like banks of high windows punctuated the northern end of southern walls. The concrete wall had been serially repatched and deeply gouged by materials even harder than itself; it was more like a terrain than a floor. In the middle of it were the exoskeletal remains of two boiler-and-turbine units that looked like house-sized crickets stripped of limbs and feelers. Eroded black electromotice oblongs of lost capability.

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Etcetera. Franzen is a man who likes stuff and the history of stuff. He likes words about stuff. He uses those words well. He’s got some big messages to get across, too: About how stuff is important and undervalued in our virtual society; about, as you say, the terrible necessity of Alfred’s bourgeois morality, and how lost his children are without it; about how they wrongly rejected its lessons because it seemed out of step with a overly loving, permissive society, out of touch with the real values of things, and also because, as our editor has pointed out, because Alfred was a mean, withholding schmuck. And all that is great, and important, and needs saying. I just wish that he had a little more genuine feeling for the creations he uses to say it.

Best,
Judith

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