The modern novel seems to have always been about the self – so often characters are drawn from life, episodes derive from anecdotes, the narrator from the author himself. Modern writers are not slapping together memoirs and changing the names and places. They are much more graceful about it. It is more accurate to say that a certain type of novel is really a set piece constructed to illuminate the world inhabited by its author, as a lantern might shed light upon the interior of a cave, throwing some surfaces into sharp relief while leaving other nooks and crevices shrouded in shadow.
In the interest of full-disclosure, I should mention that I have always been irked by Franzen’s often autobiographical non-fiction (most of it is collected in How to Be Alone). There are several bothersome things about Franzen that are revealed by his non-fiction: his inability to conceal his belief in his own inarguable specialness, a tendency to dwell on his social troubles as an adolescent, a need to divide the world into two camps (typically for him and against him) whenever he discusses anything. All in all, he has the demeanor of someone who had it rough in junior high and has now exacted his revenge by becoming successful. It just doesn’t feel graceful to me. Before I read The Corrections, I knew I would be bothered by whichever of the qualities he employs in his non-fiction were also present in his fiction.
Yet, there is no way around it. Franzen wrote a very successful, very perceptive novel about what it means to be an adult in this day and age. His characters: Chip, bitterly unwilling to see his difficulties as the result of his own mistakes; Denise, sexually confused and professionally driven; Gary, who believes in family but must bully and acquiesce to mean-spirited impulses in order to serve this belief; Enid, a meddler who desperately wants her freedom; and Alfred, a proud man, decimated by disease, are typical people, borderline cliches even, that he has infused with complexity and emotion so that they are real enough to walk and talk among us. They are spectacular in their ordinariness, in the similarity of their problems to our own troubles or the troubles of people close to us.
A glance at the fiction in the New Yorker in any given week will, more often than not, contain these types of characters, though not as fully realized as in The Corrections. There is, now, a tradition of this sort of story, stories about what it means to have been alive in the past fifty years. These stories are full of neuroses and addictions, the small-scale crises of individuals blown up bigger than life size. Any collection of short stories from the 1970s will include a number of stories like this. This tradition perhaps begins in earnest with the stories of Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Carver (see What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). There are many others too, from this time; Ann Beattie is another good one. And the traditions continues up through the present with Dave Eggers, a fervent practitioner of late, and the majority of Pulitzer Prize winners from the last 25 years.
This type of story or novel is adept at focusing intently upon modern life, dissecting its minutiae. These writers provide no escape for the reader, only mastery in wielding the microscope. There should, of course, be no limits on fiction, and this novel of the self should not be abandoned. In fact, it is valuable in its insights, in its pertinence to the readers’ own circumstances. However, why not embrace the limitlessness of the form, why not devote more time and energy to seeking out the stories that are waiting in the ether to be told, that are not so grounded by their concrete relevance to the experiences of the reader? This perhaps sounds like a defense of genre writing, but that too seems limiting to me. The Corrections may be the best “novel of modern life” or “novel of the self” ever written, but we shouldn’t expect excellence from that type of book alone. There are too many senseless barriers to the one thing that lies at the heart of all this fiction: imagination.