Commentary Magazine

Surfing the Novel

Reading novels has so long been a habit of mine that by now it qualifies as a full-blown addiction. My modus operandi is to alternate between the new and the old; frequently I have bookmarks in both simultaneously, hoping to keep up with the latest offerings while attempting to fill in some of the many gaps in my reading before I depart the planet. To this day, I feel a tug of guilt over never having read Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), though I hope to get around to it presently. Onward and outward.

When it comes to older novels, my principle of selection has been set by the test of time, that soundest of all critics. A much trickier matter is to decide which contemporary fiction merits attention. One can go by the reviews; or by having seen a novelist’s work in a magazine one trusts; or by the general buzz in the weekly supplements or the intellectual journals; or by whim and fancy. But the supply itself seems endless.

As a reader, I am in the position of a man on his couch, remote control in hand, contemplating the hundreds of channels available for viewing. Click—the English novel: Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Banville, Byatt, Drabble, Lanchester. Click—the Asian and third-world novel: Achebe, Ishiguro, Rushdie, Roy, Pamuk. Click—the Latin American novel: Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Fuentes, Paz. Click, click, click—the major American networks: Bellow, Roth, Updike, Mailer, Pynchon, DeLillo, Munro, Lurie, Ozick, Irving. Click—the Discovery channel of younger novelists: Wallace, Goodman, Gurganus, Simpson, Chabon. And on and on into the night.

What am I looking for here? Nothing much, and yet everything: amusement, an expanded knowledge of how other people live—and lived—and, chiefly, those truths of the heart that, for complicated reasons, are otherwise hidden from us and unavailable anywhere else but in literature. In short, a few honorable writers who come close to capturing and conveying life as it really is, who are dans le vrai.

The sheer plenitude of what is on offer, presumably a blessing, can also operate as a discouragement. This phenomenon is not entirely new. In the issues of the London Times Literary Supplement of March 19 and April 2, 1914, under the title “The Younger Generation,” Henry James, then nearing the close of his own career, took up the matter in his characteristically complex manner. He began by bemoaning—most mellifluously—the want of serious criticism and the damaging effect this had on the creation of fiction itself. For criticism, James had no doubt, was at the heart of “the very education of our imaginative life; and thanks to it the general question of how to refine, and of why certain things refine more and most, . . . becomes for us of the last importance.” Yet the sheer number of new books was even then causing criticism to shirk its responsibility. “The flood of ‘production,’ ” James wrote, “has so inordinately exceeded the activity of control that this latter anxious agent, first alarmed but then indifferent, has been forced backwards out of the gate, leaving the contents of the reservoir to boil and evaporate.”

So, too, and a thousand times more, it seems in our day. We have among us acknowledged masters that no one seems to read, along with young geniuses whose achievements, declared daily, weekly, or monthly, go untested by critical minds. Nearly ten years ago, shortly before the inauguration of President Clinton, I was called by the American correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph to comment on the work of Maya Angelou, who was scheduled to read a poem at the ceremony. I said I could not do so, because I had not read her. Then could I supply the name of someone else who had? I confessed I knew no such person. But, queried the correspondent, since I was a literary man, and presumably had literary friends, how did I account for this? I answered by saying that I thought Maya Angelou was not actually for reading, but instead for being assigned to high-school and college students to show that their teachers’ hearts were in the right place.

I wonder if the same is not true of the novels of Toni Morrison, who has won the Pulitzer, Nobel, and just about every other prize, but whose work has scarcely (with one or two notable exceptions) been subjected to serious criticism. I have never met a reader who has derived pleasure from the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, yet she continues to publish novel after novel, at a rate slightly faster than most office temps can type. John Updike has by now published more than 40 books of fiction; some are quite good, some disappointing; but who reads them, and who, besides their graphomaniacal author, needs them all? Meanwhile, more and more novels continue to be written, published, stocked in the major chains, awarded prizes, turned into paperbacks, made into movies. The flood, the boil, the evaporation, in Henry James’s deluvian metaphor, roil on.

Novelists’ reputations today seem to be established largely through the mechanisms of marketing and the buddy system: by their blurbs shall ye know them. Everyone who writes a novel hopes to bang the gong of large-scale success—a huge advance, a movie deal, a high print-run. “A good writer is a rich writer,” Lewis Lapham has ruefully remarked, “and a rich writer a good writer.” The line between serious and unserious, between highbrow and middlebrow, between literary and commercial is increasingly blurred. The downmarket writer Stephen King now publishes in the New Yorker; were Ezra Pound alive, he might, who knows, go on the Late Show with David Letterman, or at least on Larry King Live. Yet this great fluidity has hardly improved the general quality of things. The English literary historian Derwent May put it succinctly in his recent history of the Times Literary Supplement: “No outstanding new poet or novelist appeared on the scene in the 90’s, as far as we can tell.”



Which is not to say that there have been no candidates. Among novelists in this country who emerged in the 1990’s, two at the moment stand out: Jonathan Franzen and Richard Russo. Franzen has published two previous novels, is forty-two and was born in the Midwest; Russo, who has published four previous novels, is fifty-two and was born in upstate New York. Each has lately produced what is called a “breakout” novel: a thick book that comes at the reader with all literary guns firing. This is the book that, if it succeeds, will put its author on the intellectual map, jump him up to the ranks of the established names. In Franzen’s case, it appears to have succeeded.

The Corrections1 has not only been on the bestseller lists for many weeks but has won the National Book Award for fiction. But in a nice illustration of the prevailing confusion, its author is probably best known for his run-in with Oprah Winfrey, the television talk-show hostess and, in a market-dominated scene, the nation’s most powerful literary critic, whose endorsements are said to sell more books than any other source, or combination of sources, in America.

Miss Winfrey put her foot all the way down on the accelerator for The Corrections. “A masterpiece,” she declared. “Funny, familiar, insightful, and disturbingly real all throughout. Not a false note in all 568 pages of the book. When critics refer to ‘The Great American Novel,’ this is it, people.” With this endorsement in hand, Franzen’s publisher immediately ordered a second printing of 500,000 copies, which, once sold, would put roughly another $1.5 million in the novelist’s pocket. The additional copies carried on the front of the dust jacket what is, in effect, the Oprah seal of approval: a largish letter O. All this, at least at first, positively unmanned Jonathan Franzen, who protested that he wished his book to go unadorned into the world and that, having written a work of “high” literary art, he would decline to appear on Oprah’s television show.

An artist can say almost anything he wants these days as long as he manages not to commit the cultural sin of elitism. Instantly the denunciations of Franzen shot forth. To add insult to hypocrisy, they came not from the great unwashed but from many of Franzen’s fellow writers, who promptly derided him as a prig, a snob, a fully stuffed shirt. Franzen immediately climbed down: “Mistake, mistake, mistake to use the word ‘high,’ ” he told a reporter from the New York Times. “Both Oprah and I want the same thing and believe the same thing, that the distinction between high and low is meaningless.” Another rainy day in the Republic of Letters.

Luckily for Franzen, copies of The Corrections do not come with the preface, titled “Perchance to Dream,” that he wrote and published in Harper’s (April 1996) five years before the book’s appearance. In this great clown’s baggy pants of an essay, Franzen pulls out every rubber chicken, toy trumpet, and whoopee cushion of literary snobbery of the past 40 years. He complains about how television and computers have swept away the old audience for novels; about the “technological consumer” economy; about the fast pace of the culture, which makes it impossible for a novelist to bring (in the words of a critic named Sven Birkerts) “meaningful news about what it means to live in the world of the present”; about the disappearance of a serious audience anywhere for serious writing. At no extra charge, he even throws in a perfectly irrelevant swipe at Justice Clarence Thomas.

What he had really set out to create, Franzen tells us in this essay, was a book that would “infiltrate the national imagination” and be challenging, galvanizing, and subversive in the way of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22—which is a clue in itself to Franzen’s literary temper. But after much travail—“exactly how much less novels now matter to the American mainstream than they did when Catch-22 was published is anybody’s guess,” he writes—the recognition finally came that “at the heart of my despair about the novel had been a conflict between my feeling that I should Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream, and my desire to write about the things closest to me, to lose myself in the characters and locales I loved.” Enlightened at last, he chose the latter by jettisoning his “perceived obligation to the chimerical mainstream,” and, lo, his “third book began to move again.”



This third book, The Corrections, is about the fate of a Midwestern family for whom the infelicitous label “dysfunctional” could have been invented. Dysfunctional the Lamberts surely are, in the sense that nothing ever works out for the father, Alfred, the mother, Enid, or their three now-grown children, Gary, Chip, and Denise. But a more precise word for this family than dysfunctional may be grotesque.

Among Enid Lambert’s complaints is that she and her husband are “the only intelligent people of her generation who had managed not to become rich.” Enid is a piece of work, mother of the year in hell. She is a bad cook, near crazed in her financial pettiness, a relentless hounder of her children (her daughter Denise cites her imposition of an “Islamic female dress code” when Denise was in high school), no comfort whatsoever to her husband, in a state of permanent denial about all unpleasant possibilities, a control freak made all the nuttier because in her family she has in fact lost all control. So perfectly does Enid Lambert embody the qualities of the Jewish mother as caricatured in contemporary fiction that The Corrections ought to receive a special award from the Anti-Defamation League—call it the Sophie Portnoy Prize—for having resisted the temptation of making her Jewish.

Each of the three Lambert children represents an emblematic variant of life in the 1990’s—for The Corrections is a highly schematic effort to show what happened to the American middle class during that socially unmoored decade. Gary, the eldest, a graduate of Wharton, works as an investment banker and has married a woman with a generous trust fund. Chip, the middle child, is an untenured academic, a Foucaultian who is writing a screenplay and does “cultural studies” with a specialty in the significance of television commercials in the age of late capitalism. Denise, the youngest, holds one of those approved downward-mobility jobs as a chef in a series of gastronomically with-it restaurants in Philadelphia.

Alongside these professional résumés, the three younger Lamberts sport gaudy psychosocial ones. Gary is an uxorious depressive, verging on the compulsive; Chip has been sex-crazed since childhood and is without the least shred of a sense of responsibility; Denise, once married and immensely attractive to men, discovers that she is happiest as a lesbian. Parents and children are at various times on one or another sort of pill for reasons medical, emotional, or sexual, and these pills are only one of the many “corrections” to human nature that have given Franzen his title. And that, as they say on the studio lot, is a wrap.

The pater familias. Alfred Lambert grew up during the Depression in a harsh rural background, was once employed as an engineer on a major Midwestern railroad, and is now retired, broken in health by Parkinson’s disease, with Alzheimer’s coming up fast on the outside. He is also a man with a strong sense of honor, who keeps his own counsel. Alone among his children, Denise has some notion of his deep reserve, while the elder son feels that his father disapproves of his wheeling and dealing and the younger son, too busy thinking himself misunderstood, does not much go in for troubling to understand others.

The plot of The Corrections, such as it is, hinges on Enid Lambert’s wish to have her children home for one last Christmas before her husband’s health caves in completely. A small and reasonable enough request, one might think, were it not for the distaste the Lambert children feel for their parents and the disabling psychological baggage they have acquired out in the world. On this flimsy clothesline Franzen hangs the story of the lives that Gary, Chip, and Denise have made for themselves, in all their garish detail. Owing to these details, and before I knew I was going to write about it, I had ceased reading The Corrections on page 321—that is, just after having been treated to a scene of Alfred, on a Scandinavian cruise ship with his wife, engaged in a terrifying struggle with his protective diapers and conducting an imaginary conversation with his own feces.



Jonathan Franzen, make no mistake, is a talented writer, with all the many moves of the contemporary novelist. He can do fancy fornication, anarchic humor, different cities (New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis), the police in a thousand voices. He has wide knowledge of how things work in the worlds of upscale restaurants and goofy leftist academic circles, and even knows a thing or two about investment banking. He includes in the novel a jaunt to Lithuania, where Chip helps operate an Internet scam for an entrepreneurial fraud named Gitanas and thereby enables his creator to get in a few shots at American capitalism.

In his Harper’s essay, Franzen mentioned wanting to write about “the things closest to me, to lose myself in the characters and locales I love.” Despite the improbably warm conclusion he supplies for his novel—Alfred having finally been put in a nursing home, the family, in a fashion, rallies ’round—his characters have long since lost their color by having been thoroughly rinsed in contempt. If the contemporaneity of their lives holds one’s interest, one is nevertheless unlikely in the end to care very much for or about them. Missing from this novel is something vital, which literary talent alone cannot supply.

That something was intimated by Matthew Arnold in an 1887 review of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which Arnold had read in French translation and which blew him away. In this novel Matthew Arnold found what millions of readers have found after him: “great sensitiveness, subtlety, and finesse, addressing themselves with entire disinterestedness and simplicity to the representation of human life.” In his essay, Arnold devotes a paragraph to comparing Tolstoy’s treatment of the theme of romantic love and adultery in Anna Karenina with Flaubert’s treatment of the same theme in Madame Bovary. By contrast with Tolstoy’s novel, he judges Flaubert’s to be a work of “petrified feeling,” over which, as Arnold writes, there “hangs an atmosphere of bitterness, irony, impotence; not a personage in the book to rejoice or console us; the springs of freshness and feeling are not there to create such feelings.”

Jonathan Franzen is not Gustave Flaubert, except perhaps in his dreams, and I suspect Richard Russo will forgive me for saying that neither is he Leo Tolstoy. But there is indeed a freshness of feeling to Russo’s Empire Falls2 that is entirely absent from The Corrections and that evokes, in contemporary terms, precisely what Arnold was getting at.

This is all the more impressive since the mise-en-scène of Russo’s novel is itself almost unrelievedly bleak. A town in Maine that sits on a polluted river and has lost its industry and its hope, Empire Falls is not merely in danger of going down the crapper but, at one point late in the novel, is actually compared by Miles Roby, the book’s central character, to the very thing down which it is headed: “This crapper, it occurred to Miles [inspecting broken plumbing], was his hometown in a nutshell. People who lived in Empire Falls were so used to misfortune that they’d become resigned to more of the same.”

The dying town of Empire Falls is controlled by the widow of a dynastic family, the Whitings, whose men have displayed a knack for marrying women they soon learn to despise, to the point of longing to kill them. As for the other townspeople, some of them are still there because staying even after the jobs left “was easier and less scary than leaving,” while some stayed out of pride, because their parents and grandparents had lived in Empire Falls and because they did not want to be driven away by the greed of outsiders. Among them all, the future is the least used tense. “Ambition,” the father of a local cop liked to tell his son: “It’ll kill you every time.”

Miles Roby’s own father is an itinerant and highly inept housepainter (“By the time they’d discover his shoddy work in Boothbay, he’d be painting someone else’s windows shut in Bar Harbor”), a drinking man, and a sponge whose two-word philosophy of life is, “So what?” Miles himself, in his early forties when the novel begins, is about to be divorced and is the father of a talented but psychologically fragile adolescent daughter. He is out of shape, no great sexual athlete, a man who left college to tend to his dying mother and never subsequently escaped the trap of his hometown.

This mother was a saintly woman who believed that we are all put on earth to make things more fair. “We have a duty in this world, Miles. You see that, don’t you?” she told him when he was still young. “We have a moral duty.” Dying of cancer in her forties, she has left Miles with a strong case of terminal decency.

At the heart of the plot of Empire Falls is the mysterious connection between Miles and the wealthy widow Francine Whiting, for whom he runs a bar and grill. She both encourages and taunts him; he lives in simultaneous thrall and contempt of her. What the novel slowly reveals is that Miles’s mother once had a love affair with Mrs. Whiting’s long-dead husband—an act about which his mother feels forever remorseful while the quite remorseless Mrs. Whiting prefers, instead, revenge, served cold and parsimoniously and taken out, decades after the affair, on her husband’s lover’s son.

Empire Falls is an intricately plotted novel, with lots of back story to fill in the earlier lives of the main characters. The intricacy of the plot allows Russo to arrange things so that the unpredictable is made to seem entirely plausible, which is one of the things that good fiction accomplishes. But what gives Empire Falls gravity is its persuasive staging of the struggle of a decent man to do the right thing, which means to put those he loves before himself. “Her heroes may be insipid,” Virginia Woolf once wrote of the novels of Jane Austen, “but think of her fools!” Fools aplenty there are in this novel, but in Miles Roby, Richard Russo has created a hero not in the least insipid. Because of this, Empire Falls possesses the element that is entirely missing from The Corrections: a moral center.

A fine equanimity pervades Empire Falls. This no doubt has much to do with its author’s not having set out to mock his characters or to show the height of his superiority through the depth of his disdain. But it is far from a solemn book. A wry comedy animates plot and characters alike. “You’re kind and patient and forgiving and generous,” Miles is told by a waitress at his restaurant, “and you don’t seem to understand that these qualities can be really annoying in a man, no matter what the ladies’ magazines say.” According to the same waitress, customers tend to tip in proportion to bra cup size. Miles himself remarks that his years in college, away from town, were like being in a witness protection program. But beyond the comedy, Russo is implicated in the lives of these characters in a way that implicates us, his readers: his major effort is to understand them—and to understand that this understanding, too, has its limits.

This is a novel in which God figures. Miles Roby, a former altar boy, still goes to Mass. His manner of tithing is to paint the decaying exterior of the town’s Catholic church for nothing. He believes in God, though prefers to think of Him as all-loving rather than all-knowing. One gathers his position here is shared by Richard Russo. Understanding, in this novel, is in the nature of the human struggle, and, like that struggle itself, is never complete on this earth.



Want to make God smile, an old joke has it, tell him your plans. Life, or so this novel instructs, is immensely complicated for people who wish to live it other than selfishly: an obstacle course in which desire is every day set in an unending match against duty. The power of Empire Falls lies in its capacity to return us to this daily scene of moral conflict in a manner that is genuine, gripping—and entirely believable.

“If making things prettier than they are is a lie,” says Miles Roby’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Tick, “then making them seem uglier is another.” She is speaking about painting, but the same goes for novelists. The point is to get those “things” as nearly right as possible, to get as close as one can to being dans le vrai. This is never easy, but one of the ways a novelist may know he is at least on the right track is when neither Oprah nor the committee of the National Book Awards singles him out for honors.

In a scene in Empire Falls set in one of the town’s working-class bars, a moper at the end of the bar, forced to watch Oprah Winfrey on television, complains: “If we got to listen to a fat woman talk, can’t she at least be a white one?” To which the barkeeper, a Polish woman in her sixties, replies: “Oprah’s smarter than any five white men you can name, Otis.” And more influential, she might have added, than any twenty literary critics you never heard of.



1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 568 pp., $26.00.

2 Knopf, 483 pp., $25.95.


About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

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