Correction takes many forms in Jonathan Franzen’s dazzlingly accomplished third novel, from the nagging reproofs of its Midwestern matriarch Enid Lambert, to chemical therapy and prison, to economic slump. But the first version you encounter, significantly, is the changing of a text: Chip, a sacked academic turned would-be screenwriter, deserts Enid and his father Alfred when they visit him in New York, frantic to correct his first script before a producer sees it.
What he is so desperate to cut says something about Franzen’s own aesthetic. As a girlfriend remarks as she walks out on him, Chip’s screenplay opens with ‘a six-page lecture about the anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama’. Once dumped, he acknowledges that the monologue – although it provides a suitably testing ‘hump’ for the movie-goer to get past – has no place ‘in Act 1 of a commercial script’. It is not hard to see in this Franzen’s own correction of the inherited script of the lengthy, ambitious, populous fin de siècle American novel, the legacy of William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Out go rebarbative passages and forms that have no place in commercial fiction. Out, too, go postmodern self-consciousness, parody, flirting with other arts, offputting academic intellectualising. And Franzen also eliminates macrohistory, the international and national politics of DeLillo’s Underworld and Pynchon’s V and Gravity’s Rainbow.
Boldly installed in the space left by this clear-out of modernist and postmodernist detritus are two fixtures of Victorian fiction: a house and a family. Enid and Alfred, the latter suffering from a devastating combination of tremors, incontinence and incipient dementia, still live in the home in St Jude where