Towards the end of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Chip, one of the central characters, muses about a script he has been trying to write, which is entitled “The Academy Purple” and concerns the sexual shenanigans between a college professor and a female student. His revelation, which comes as he is trudging towards a desolate Baltic border post trying desperately to get home from Lithuania in time for Christmas, is that the script’s problem is a matter of tone: he recalls another character’s comment that the chaotic situation in Eastern Europe was merely “tragedy rewritten as farce. All of a sudden he understood why nobody, including himself, had ever liked his screenplay: he’d written a thriller where he should have written farce” (534).
With this, Franzen indicates his awareness of the problem of tone that afflicts his own novel. In the final analysis, I think, the story we’re reading is intended to be tragedy: it concerns a family with a father who is rapidly slipping into dementia; a mother afflicted by remorse, frustrated desire, and a sense of social inferiority; and three children who are all, in one way or another, a mess, not least the middle child Chip who has been thrown out of his job in a New England college precisely for his sexual shenanigans, but also the elder son Gary who is caught between nostalgia, pity, and contempt for his parents, and the younger sister, Denise, who fiercely guards her privacy only to discover it has long been compromised.
Franzen writes sensitively about the problem of aging–both the increasing helplessness of old age, and the dilemmas of middle age–and the ways in which family relations and roles are forced to shift as time goes on, against the resistance of entrenched habits and prejudices. His first-person-perspective portrayal of dementia is particularly good, catching the disorientation and the uncertain processing of affect into emotion as an old man tries to make sense of sensory stimuli that he can’t immediately interpret. Here, for instance, is the erstwhile patriarch as he tries to eat lunch:
Denise left the kitchen and took the plate to Alfred, for whom the problem of existence was this: that, in the manner of a wheat seedling thrusting itself up out of the earth, the world moved forward in time by adding cell after cell to its leading edge, piling moment on moment, and that to grasp the world even in its freshest, youngest moment provided no guarantee that you’d be able to grasp it again a moment hence. [. . .] which was why, rather than exhaust himself playing catch-up, he preferred more and more to spend his days among the unchanging historical roots of things” (66).
And yet much of the book, especially those sections devoted to Chip and to his mother, Enid, is rewritten as farce and is concerned less with the “historical roots of things” than with a rather superficial (if quite funny) mode of entertainment. Chip’s misadventures at college, for example, come straight from the campus novel genre à la David Lodge, while almost any scene involving Enid soon becomes a comedy of manners for which the character plays simply the rather obvious role of hectoring mother and/or judgemental snob with not quite enough status to carry her snobbery off. Here she is, for example, on a cruise where even the most tragic of episodes are ultimately played for laughs:
She veered to a cushioned bench and slumped and did, now, burst into tears. 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. She felt she and Al were the only intelligent people of her generation who had managed not to become rich. [. . .] But then, through her tears, she saw a sweet thing beneath the bench beside her. It was a ten-dollar bill. Folded once. Very sweet. (309-10)
To put this another way: some characters are given the possibility of self-awareness, and so allowed redemption (this is the case of Denise and even, surprisingly, Chip); others are denied self-awareness, and this is their tragedy (Alfred); but for others, Enid above all, the failure to understand themselves and their world is merely the occasion for humor.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong in a book’s slipping between tragedy and farce. And there are passages of both in The Corrections that are very good indeed: I liked Denise’s story, for instance, whose elements of high bedroom farce (as she has an affair both with her boss and with her boss’s wife) add to rather than detract from its meditations on the role of a younger sister and daughter who is devoted to her work but not so good at connecting with people.
The problem, rather, is that too often the shift between genres, between the two moods in which the book is written, appears almost arbitrary or a matter of indecision rather than discretion. Of course, in this sense the novel accords with the affective dilemma signalled by the phrase “I’m not sure whether to laugh or to cry.” All messed-up families (and no doubt all families are messed up) can be viewed either with amusement or with despair, and when you are involved in them you often have to alternate between these responses in order the better to survive them. And yet here, too often we do know when we’re supposed to be laughing and when to be crying: it is not so much that we can’t resolve the difference between tragedy and farce, as that the way we are led between the two of them is a matter of re-writing, rather than re-reading.
Re-reading tragedy as farce (or vice versa) would be quite a different experience from the repeated exercises in rewriting (however virtuoso) that characterize Franzen’s book. But the novel would have to do better to persuade us, for instance, that the fact that that midwestern town in which Alfred and Enid still live is called St Jude, for the patron saint of hopeless causes, is less of an easy joke than the naming of the “Deepmire” hospice in which Alfred ends up.
It is not that there has to be some hidden depth to the names, some solid substance attached to the signifiers, though this is a book that has much, at times, to say about the real, and the relationships between images or indices and things: “How could people respond to these images,” wonders Enid at one point, “if images didn’t secretly enjoy the same status as real things? Not that images were so powerful, but that the world was so weak” (303). But the mother here is too quickly identified with the image, just at the father is too quickly identified with the “roots of things,” which is after all no more (and no less) than another image.
More generally, too often the names and the images (and even the things) that Franzen conjures up are too one-dimensional, allowing for only one reading or affect at a time, rather than forcing us, as in the best literature they do, to hover uncertainly between many, to realize their multiplicity.