Jonathan Franzen Franzen, Jonathan - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jonathan Franzen 1959-

American novelist and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Franzen's career through 2003.

Winner of the 2001 National Book Award for The Corrections (2001), Franzen is regarded as one of the best emerging novelists of the twenty-first century. A strong believer in both the power and necessity of literature, Franzen has produced three novels which have identified him as a growing presence in the literary world and an articulate voice in the ongoing debate over the evolving direction of fiction. The Corrections is often deemed one of the best works of literature written in the last twenty years, as well as the fulfillment of the early promise Franzen demonstrated with his first two books, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992). While Franzen's work is commonly held in high esteem, the author has managed to garner significant controversy in the last ten years for his resolute convictions about publishing, writing, and the direction of American tastes.

Biographical Information

Franzen was born in 1959 in Western Springs, Illinois. His family moved to the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, Missouri, and Franzen grew up there—a locale which later became the setting for two of his novels. He attended Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, earning a bachelor's degree in German in 1981, and spent the following year at the Freie Universität in Berlin as a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. Upon returning home, he married a fellow writer, Valerie Cornell, and took a weekend job at Harvard University. Franzen and Cornell spent the next few years dedicating themselves to the creation and enjoyment of literature, an existence Franzen generally characterizes as nearly idyllic despite their difficult financial situation. In 1987 he submitted an 1,100 page manuscript that, with a great deal of paring, eventually became The Twenty-Seventh City. Hailed by critics as a writer of great promise, Franzen emerged as a literary celebrity due to his young age and lack of credentials, but his marriage began to suffer. Using the royalties from The Twenty-Seventh City, Franzen and Cornell traveled throughout Europe and hoped to mend their relationship. While in Europe, Franzen began work on Strong Motion. The deaths of both of his parents, the eventual breakup of his marriage, and the poor sales of Strong Motion brought Franzen to a crossroads where he considered quitting writing entirely. Ultimately rejecting this idea, he approached The New Yorker with an idea for a journalism piece. The editors accepted his proposal, beginning a long period of collaboration between Franzen and the magazine. The articles from this association would eventually form the core for his collection of essays, How to Be Alone (2002). In 1996 Franzen published a lengthy essay in Harper's titled “Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels,” focusing on the reasons authors write. In this treatise, Franzen laments the power that certain media and entertainment outlets, particularly the Internet and television, have over the minds of the American public, as well as the seeming inability of the “literary” novel to engage the masses. Franzen challenges himself to write a “big, social novel” that would engage the American public enough to motivate them, encourage debate, and open conversations about social issues. Reaction to the article was relatively mild, but earned Franzen a reputation among critics as a high-minded but pretentious writer. While continuing his association with The New Yorker, Franzen retreated to an office to focus attention on minor characters he was creating. After deciding that a scene about an elderly couple on a cruise ship was perhaps the finest writing of his career, he abandoned other work in progress and began laboring in near-seclusion on The Corrections. Franzen dedicated the next six years dedicating himself to these characters, ultimately creating the Lambert family, who form the narrative core of the novel. In 2001 his publisher engineered strong word-of-mouth hype about the book, making its release one of the most anticipated of the season. Receiving extremely positive reviews and a high initial order, Franzen looked forward to achieving his goal of releasing a critically acclaimed work of “high art” that would engage his target audience. However, a series of confluences engulfed the novel in an unexpected debate that nonetheless ultimately dovetailed with his goals.

The Corrections was released on September 15, 2001 in New York City. Several weeks later, Franzen learned that talk show host Oprah Winfrey planned to make it the next selection for her popular “Oprah's Book Club,” an action that virtually ensured that the book would become a bestseller. While he initially accepted the honor, Franzen found himself growing increasingly uncomfortable with certain business details—particularly the presence of the “O” sticker on the book's jacket that indicated it was the latest Oprah selection. In several interviews after the nationally broadcast unveiling, Franzen publicly expressed his discomfort with associating his work with Oprah's “corporate logo,” as well as insinuating that his book might prove to be beyond the comprehension of a typical reader. The ensuing spat prompted Winfrey to withdraw her invitation to him to appear on her show, further spreading the belief among critics that Franzen is a haughty, self-important literary elitist. Franzen apologized for misrepresenting his intent in interviews, claiming that he was unaccustomed to the level of attention that came with being recognized by Winfrey. Franzen's supporters, among them author Don DeLillo, commended his courage in remaining true to his beliefs while refusing to take part in the mass commercialization that the Oprah label would bestow. Others, however, accused him of espousing the notion that literature is intended to appeal solely to literati who are able to appreciate “high art.” Whatever Franzen's true intentions, the lingering controversy gave The Corrections new life and it remained atop the bestseller list for months.

Major Works

The title The Twenty-Seventh City takes root in the fact that St. Louis was once the fourth-largest city in America, later falling to twenty-seventh. The Twenty-Seventh City is an exploration of deep intrigues with myriad plot twists. Hoping to revitalize St. Louis, city leaders hire Susan Jammu, an American-born cousin of Indian leader Indira Gandhi, to head the police force. However, Jammu comes to the job with her own agenda that remains nebulous until the conclusion of the book. She pushes for a proposal to reinvent the city center, a goal she pursues through various dubious methods including surveillance, psychological warfare, and dirty politics. Slowly the city becomes overrun with fellow Indian families as Jammu and her assistant, Singh, push their hidden objective with subtle aggression, particularly against opposition from architect Martin Probst. Employing such strategies as murder of pets, seduction, kidnapping, and other means, Jammu finally succeeds in winning Probst to her side, until the denouement of the novel reveals a final twist that unravels everything Jammu has been working toward. Strong Motion is set in Boston, where the author lived for several years. A series of earthquakes have unexpectedly begun to rattle the normally stable city, a plight again brought about by corporate irresponsibility and greed. Illicit dumping of toxins into the wells below the city has caused the city core to become unsettled. Delving into a myriad of topics including fiscal responsibility and abortion rights, Franzen presents a complex series of interwoven events that prompted some critics to assert that he had tried to tackle too much in a single novel.

The Corrections is a 568-page opus relating the disintegration of the Lambert family. A seriocomic tale, the book details the desire of family matriarch, Enid Lambert, to gather together her three children—Gary, Chip, and Denise—for a final visit before their father is lost to Parkinson's disease. Generally considered the most autobiographical of Franzen's three novels, The Corrections charts the reluctance of the Lambert children to return to their childhood home of St. Jude. Sections of the book focus on the separate lives of the three children, allowing readers to follow and judge the events that have left the siblings in states of personal, professional, and emotional crisis. Beyond this central structure, Franzen includes many of his characteristic tangents, with tongue-in-cheek wittiness. With this work Franzen hoped to create a twenty-first-century novel that, as he stated in “Perchance to Dream,” would be a popular and financially successful effort that nonetheless “engaged the culture,”—a social novel in the age of technology. The Corrections targets, defines, and ultimately indicts America's propensity for easy answers and consumerism, particularly in the dark segments dealing with the Axon Corporation's attempt to market “Correcktall,” a bio-tech drug that claims to rewire the brain and repair the ravages of psychosis and disease.

Critical Reception

While acknowledging the flaws of his early novels, reviewers have consistently recognized Franzen as a master of the story form. Many critics regard him as the current standard-bearer for the “Great American Novel”—a work employing compelling ideas and intense, precise language to inspire thought and debate about the course of American culture. In this regard, critics favorably compare Franzen to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Marked by the shrewd humor for which he is regularly commended, Franzen's novels attempt to tackle significant social ills within contemporary American culture, particularly the excessive level of control Franzen believes certain forces have over American thought. Corporate America and the ruthlessness of the New Economy—which he paints as working against improving the world in order to achieve potentially disastrous shortsighted goals—are frequent targets of Franzen's writings. Critics have agreed that his works also rail against modern American consumerism and ennui. In his three novels, events that would be corrected with relative ease if acted upon early instead swirl out of the control of the participants. While critical reaction to Franzen's novels has been generally positive, vocal dissatisfaction with his style and manner has emerged from some reviewers. The primary fault levied against his writing has been his verbosity. Each of his novels contains over 500 pages, in which the author can explicate a single thought over a dozen pages or more. Reviewers have commented that a good editor willing to cut extraneous material and balance Franzen's tendency toward complex sentences and lengthy thoughts would be a tremendous aid. In his dedication to revitalizing the “high art” of the social novel, Franzen's detractors maintain, he frequently loses the central focus of his novels, veering through an unnecessarily labyrinthine passage of complicated plot twists and unrelated elements. This sentiment shifted with the publication of The Corrections. Reviewers praised Franzen for his complex, movingly honest portrayal of family dynamics, and asserted that he has fulfilled much of the early promise he demonstrated with his first two books.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Twenty-Seventh City (novel) 1988

Strong Motion (novel) 1992

The Corrections (novel) 2001

How to Be Alone (essays) 2002

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Richard Eder (review date 4 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “America's History May Not Be Written by Americans.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (4 September 1988): 3, 7.

[In the following review of The Twenty-Seventh City, Eder lauds the portrayal of the book's Indian characters while expressing disappointment in the one-dimensional natures of Franzen's American characters.]

Jonathan Franzen has written a novel of our times [The Twenty-Seventh City]; so imaginatively and expansively of our times, that it seems ahead of them. The news we get about ourselves is always a little out of date. Anyone able to look very hard at where we are right now edges on prophesy.


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Michele Slung (review date 4 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Slung, Michele. “Meet Them in St. Louis.” Washington Post Book World 18, no. 36 (4 September 1988): 1-2.

[In the following review of The Twenty-Seventh City, Slung praises Franzen's writing, contending that the author has “an original voice.”]

As one plunges into this unsettling and visionary first novel [The Twenty-Seventh City], it's hard not to be infected by the author's own confidence. For much of the book, one simply forgets that Jonathan Franzen is a very young man, that this is a beginner's effort, and that the lifelike setting is, in fact, an alternate reality.

The “twenty-seventh city” is St. Louis,...

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Jonathan Franzen and Michael Coffey (interview date 6 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Franzen, Jonathan, and Michael Coffey. “Jonathan Franzen: A Distinct Turn to More Personal Issues Marks His Second Novel.” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 53 (6 December 1991): 53-4.

[In the following interview, Coffey quizzes Franzen about the differences between the author's first two books, as well as the critical reception for the first.]

It's tough being a first novelist: your book arrives unbidden in the zone of critics and reviewers; you can but watch as it is set upon by presumptions formed in a literary universe of which you were not a part. Trailing hype perhaps, but more often simply the hopes of yourself, your agent, editor, family and friends, the...

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Jonathan Yardley (review date 12 January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Whole Lot of Shakin'.” Washington Post Book World 22, no. 2 (12 January 1992): 3.

[In the following mixed review of Strong Motion, Yardley commends Franzen's talent while arguing that the author's determination to create a message dilutes the plot.]

Jonathan Franzen's second novel [Strong Motion] is populous, ambitious, expansive and long—important and admirable characteristics, all of which are sharply unlike what's to be found in most works of fiction now being published by Franzen's American contemporaries. At a time when too many young writers of “literary” fiction hide away in the tiny nests of their own psyches,...

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Richard Eder (review date 2 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Shaky Town East.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 February 1992): 3, 7.

[In the following review of Strong Motion, Eder calls Franzen the potential successor to the legacy of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.]

Strong Motion seems for a while like a brilliant chaos. Bit by bit, the chaos settles—never completely; there are awkward and unassimilated knots of it—the brilliant things remain, and the connections among them begin to appear.

It is not always easy to read Franzen. He has a teeming and seemingly unreined imagination. He will try for more than he can achieve, but he tries for, and achieves, more than...

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Molly McQuade (interview date July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McQuade, Molly. “Works in Progress: A Nonsmoker's Novel by Jonathan Franzen.” Booklist 94, no. 21 (July 1998): 1865.

[In the following article, McQuade relays Franzen's opinions regarding how his quitting smoking has impacted his as-yet uncompleted novel The Corrections.]

“Cigarettes are the last thing in the world I want to think about,” claimed Jonathan Franzen in the first sentence of his essay, “Sifting the Ashes,” published in the New Yorker in May 1996. “When I see an actress or an actor drag deeply in a movie, I imagine the pyrenes and phenols ravaging the tender epithelial cells and hardworking cilia of their bronchi, the carbon...

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Joanna Smith Rakoff (essay date September/October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rakoff, Joanna Smith. “Making The Corrections: An Interview with Jonathan Franzen.” Poets & Writers 29, no. 5 (September/October 2001): 27-33.

[In the following profile of Franzen, Rakoff investigates the elements of the author's past as well as his current convictions, all of which contributed to the creation of The Corrections.]

“How's America's favorite novelist doing?” shouts Jonathan Franzen's upstairs neighbor.

“Okay,” Franzen says, startled, a little embarrassed, and attempting to lock the door to his apartment. But the neighbor won't let up.

“Yeah? You must be doing a lot of interviews and...

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James Wood (essay date 15 October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, James. “Abhorring a Vacuum.” New Republic 225, no. 16 (15 October 2001): 32-6, 40.

[In the following essay, Wood analyzes the success with which Franzen attempts to forge a new relevance for the social novel in The Corrections.]


If anyone still had a longing for the great American “social novel,” the events of September 11 may have corrected it, merely through the reminder of an asymmetry of their own: that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk smarts—in sum,...

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Max Watman (review date November 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Watman, Max. “On the Hysterical Playground.” New Criterion 20, no. 3 (November 2001): 67-9.

[In the following review of The Corrections, Watman contends the novel is a masterful work of literature despite its small failings such as a tendency toward loquaciousness.]

Why can't you ever write a plain sentence like “He finished his drink, left the pub and went home?”

—Kingsley Amis to Martin Amis

Some very good books have been written by misanthropes. One certainly can't accuse Dawn Powell of being keen on people, or Evelyn Waugh of cutting anybody slack. But their books are...

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Keith Gessen (review date 5 November 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gessen, Keith. “A Literary Correction.” American Prospect 12, no. 19 (5 November 2001): 33-5.

[In the following review of The Corrections, Gessen contrasts Franzen's book with that of other great modern writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Don DeLillo.]

Toward the end of Jonathan Franzen's magnificent new novel The Corrections, Chip Lambert, an associate professor who has lost his job—in the great tradition of fictional associate professors, for sleeping with a student—returns to his parents' midwestern home after three months as a Web-based con artist in Lithuania. “A holly wreath was on the door,” Chip observes.


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Philip Hensher (review date 24 November 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Writing beyond His Means.” Spectator 287, no. 9042 (24 November 2001): 44-5.

[In the following review of The Corrections, Hensher dismisses the novel as long-winded and feels that it lacks the concise construction of other acclaimed contemporary novels.]

Jonathan Franzen, if you haven't heard by now, is the new big thing in American literature, and this novel a huge financial and critical success. He has written two previous novels, which made little impact, but The Corrections has had the sort of success which, in past years, has been attached to Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities or Donna Tartt's The Secret...

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Nicholas Blincoe (review date 10 December 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blincoe, Nicholas. “High Art Lite.” New Statesman 130, no. 4567 (10 December 2001): 52-3.

[In the following review, Blincoe explores whether The Corrections is an extension of Franzen's 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream” and discusses the novel's critique of Western commercialism and pop culture.]

The news about The Corrections, the celebrated novel by Jonathan Franzen, is that it works. Franzen aimed to link mental depression to economic depression, and he does this in poignant, non-trivial ways. Franzen talked of his own struggle with depression, and his hope to connect this private experience with a public context, in an essay entitled...

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Valerie Sayers (review date 21 December 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sayers, Valerie. “Caffeinated Realism.” Commonweal 128, no. 22 (21 December 2001): 23-4.

[In the following review of The Corrections, Sayers asserts that Franzen overcomes the initial detail-oriented weakness of his writing style to present a sympathetic account of a crumbling family.]

This may be the last review in America to chime in on Jonathan Franzen's gangbusters novel, The Corrections. For anyone who was on cultural leave-of-absence this fall, here's the story: after Franzen's novel was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, he disdained her “logo of corporate ownership” and made other swipes. Oprah—no fool she—rescinded her...

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Joseph Epstein (review date January 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “Surfing the Novel.” Commentary 113, no. 1 (January 2002): 32-7.

[In the following review of The Corrections and Richard Russo's Empire Falls, Epstein concludes that Russo's book, while less known, is the better work.]

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...

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Bonnie Greer (review date 7 January 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Greer, Bonnie. “Magnum Oprah: The Great American Novel.” New Statesman 131, no. 4570 (7 January 2002): 30, 32.

[In the following review of The Corrections, Greer discusses the classification of the book as “high literary art” and comments on the tumult over Franzen's rejection of the book as a selection for the Oprah Winfrey book club.]

There is no question that The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is an important book, perhaps even a landmark one. But not for the reasons it is being praised.

Once again, we are being presented with that mythical beast, that holy of holies—“The Great American Novel”. No other country...

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Peter Filkins (review date February 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Filkins, Peter. “All in the Family.” World & I 17, no. 2 (February 2002): 231-39.

[In the following review of The Corrections, Filkins contends that Franzen's book, thanks in part to the Oprah Winfrey controversy, helps define the modern era.]

Once in a while a novel comes along that is as much a part of the cultural moment as it is a commentary on the society from which it springs. With the ill-fated brouhaha set in motion when Oprah Winfrey decided to “uninvite” Jonathan Franzen onto her show after he expressed reservations about being selected for her book club, The Corrections became just such a novel. Even before that, it was bent...

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Alan Davis (review date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Alan. “Family Fictions.” Hudson Review 55, no. 1 (spring 2002): 161-62.

[In the following review, Davis calls The Corrections “the must-read fiction” of 2001.]

The Corrections, a doorstop of a book that Jonathan Franzen published last year, received a good deal of notoriety when he managed, maybe deliberately, to insult Oprah Winfrey, who had selected his new novel for her lucrative but (Franzen feared) middlebrow book club.1 Franzen managed to have it both ways: after he expressed his mixed feelings about her book club, Oprah disinvited him from a dinner meant to celebrate her selection, Franzen apologized (sort of), the...

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Thomas R. Edwards (review date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Edwards, Thomas R. “Oprah's Choice.” Raritan 21, no. 4 (spring 2002): 75-86.

[In the following review, Edwards examines the tumult following The Corrections after being chosen as an Oprah Winfrey book club selection, as well as Franzen's concerns about “high art” and the ability of quality fiction to appeal to a broad audience.]

In 1968, reviewing a book called Gore Vidal, Gore Vidal (yes, it was he) wrote that “it is well known that in any year there is only One Important Novelist worth reading.” In 1932, putting down some pretenders to literary importance, F. R. Leavis wrote that “the Sitwells belong to the history of publicity...

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T. M. McNally (review date April 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McNally, T. M. Review of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. Yale Review 90, no. 2 (April 2002): 161-69.

[In the following review of The Corrections, McNally examines the structural narrative of Franzen's book, exploring the novella-like aspects of certain chapters.]

“Blessalor this foodier use nusta thy service make asair mindful neesa others Jesus Name amen,” Gary said.

I once taught at a university in Kentucky. One of my colleagues, an elder colleague, fancied himself a poet. To this day one line sticks in my head: a narrator, paying attention to a young woman leaning over (I can't...

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Paul Quinn (review date 25 October 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Quinn, Paul. “Walden Revisited.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5195 (25 October 2002): 5.

[In the following review of How to Be Alone, Quinn praises Franzen for balancing self-effacing humor with often-pessimistic subject matter.]

Unlike most collections put together to ride the crest of a rising reputation, Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone impresses with the consistency of its concerns. In his introduction to the volume, Franzen describes his animating preoccupation with “the problems of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone”.

This makes him...

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James Wolcott (review date 2-9 December 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolcott, James. “Advertisements for Himself.” New Republic 227, nos. 23-24 (2-9 December 2002): 36-40.

[In the following review of How to Be Alone, Wolcott remarks on what he believes to be the gratingly self-important stances Franzen takes in many of his essays.]

Noel Coward had a talent to amuse. Jonathan Franzen has the knack to annoy. Is it a conscious gift? Is he aware of how grating his pleaful moans and hopeful sighs have become? (It's like a snore turned inside out.) Or is he intentionally irritating us, passive-aggressively wearing down his readers' resistance until we finally crack and agree with what he thinks and, more importantly, how he...

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Kyle Minor (review date spring 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Minor, Kyle. Review of How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen. Antioch Review 61, no. 2 (spring 2003): 370.

[In the following review of How to Be Alone, Minor focuses on Franzen's rewriting of the essay “Perchance to Dream,” retitled “Why Bother?” in this collection.]

The inevitable centerpiece of this essay collection is the so-called “Harper's essay,” originally titled “Perchance to Dream” and appearing here with substantial revision as “Why Bother?” In the preface to How to Be Alone, Franzen claims that the essay was widely misinterpreted by reviewers as a “promise” that Franzen's third novel, The...

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Stephen Burn (review date 6 June 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burn, Stephen. “Seismology and the City.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5227 (6 June 2003): 23.

[In the following review of The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, Burn asserts that Franzen has refined the focus of his narratives from the broad cityscape of his first work to the narrower personal reflections of The Corrections.]

In Britain, Jonathan Franzen's career seems to be moving in reverse. The first of his works to be published here was his third novel, the National Book Award-winning The Corrections (2001). This was followed by How to Be Alone (2002), a collection of journalism that partly traced the genesis of that...

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Bernice Grohskopf (review date autumn 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grohskopf, Bernice. “Pre-Oprah Franzen.” Virginia Quarterly Review 79, no. 4 (autumn 2003): 768-72.

[In the following review of How to Be Alone, Grohskopf examines each essay individually, concluding that the pieces with less of a negative tone and minimal excessive detail are stronger than the others.]

How to Be Alone is a collection of Jonathan Franzen's essays commenting on contemporary values, manners, tastes, customs and morals. His assessments are often negative, conveying the impression of a man not only critical of, but rejecting the society in which he lives. As he put it: “Nothing more reliably bolsters my faith in humanity than...

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Catherine Toal (essay date December 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Toal, Catherine. “Contemporary American Melancholy.” Journal of European Studies 33, nos. 3-4 (December 2003): 305-22.

[In the following essay, Toal analyzes the representations of melancholy in The Corrections and two other American novels, arguing that the respective authors find problematic the cultural threat to their definitions of masculinity.]

Any discussion of the relationship between ‘melancholy’ and contemporary literature must take account not only of a continuing theoretical and philosophical debate surrounding the category, but of a recent voluminous expansion—encompassing, most notably for literary studies, the genre of the ‘memoir’—in popular discourse on ‘depression’.1 As Abigail Cheever argues, though the development of ‘cures’ for depression might have been expected to dissolve its cultural importance, the resulting separation between the illness and its symptoms established it, with the help of the memoir, as ‘an identity in its own right independent from any particular characteristics or behaviours’.2 In contrast to this empty but fixed diagnostic frame for selfhood, theoretical discussions of melancholy figure a fluid and shifting concept, capable of advancing either a militant or reactionary politics, of describing the obstacles to but also the very possibility of criticism, and of exploring the fractured incompleteness of identity.3 The two terms (the ‘depression’ of the bestselling ‘memoir’, the ‘melancholy’ of theory) represent an opposition between a commodified subjectivity and the promise of critical reinvention and reflection.

In this paper I will examine three narratives which, bridging the ‘literary’ and the ‘popular’, contain the imprints of a broad cultural preoccupation with ‘depression’. The first (Rick Moody's The Black Veil)4 is a ‘depression memoir’ by a novelist; the other two are novels (Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections5 and David Foster Wallace's The Infinite Jest)6 whose language and plots register the impact of therapy, pharmacology and the terminology of clinical psychology. In addition to reflecting the cultural dominion of a ‘therapeutic’ discourse, these texts often highlight the social preconditions both of its classificatory power, and of the inner experiences that it is supposed to characterize. Each writer's landscape contains markedly similar motifs: the grip of narcotic or media stimulation; the collapse of fatherly authority; and the rise of a dislocated, disoriented adult selfhood. However, despite their scrutiny of ‘depression’, all three narratives yield ground to the values and assumptions which drive its ascendancy. Their sustained engagement with the popular lexicons of mental health ultimately formulates an incapacity to claim a robust critical authority—one that might imagine identities which escape the designations of self-help jargon, or resist the malleable, vacant kind of subjectivity confected in the asocial void of ‘entertainment’. The resulting impasse, in these texts by young male authors, also traces the contours of a crisis in masculinity, whose ‘traditional’ and patriarchal forms are seen as being—or are inadvertently revealed to be—under siege both from the reduction of the self to a set of symptoms, and the replacement of social formation with recreation and addiction. Due to their ambivalent relationship with cultural authority, the three writers are inclined to affirm and occasionally exalt the shapeless masculinity generated by the very social ills—and accompanying ‘remedies’—that they resist and criticize.

I would suggest that, in their compromises with the dystopia they confront, the memoir and novels betray the symptoms of a specifically ‘American’ cultural ideology, which takes all processes of formation for mechanisms of control, and any advocacy of particular ones for an illegitimate arrogation of authority. Thus, even as they anatomize an individual and a general debility, the narratives considered here also tend—justifying their surrender to the side-effects of contemporary culture—to create substitute objects of condemnation and blame: chiefly those associated with authority (discipline, the patriarchal father), even though such influences are almost defunct in the environments described. In grappling with the language of pop psychology and therapy, these texts often use ‘melancholy’ as an alternative reference-point, sponsoring a broader or more profound exploration of individual and cultural discontents. But, as I will show, their deployment of ‘melancholy’ in fact conceals a submission to ‘depression’, while the use of both terms, in all three texts, occludes a more determinative, unacknowledged melancholic structure, outlining a dilemma over the problem of formation and the authority of critique. Moody's memoir, focused on an individual psyche, provides the most concrete sketch of this melancholy's form, helping to locate its more abstract emergence in Franzen's and Wallace's work.

The publisher's blurb for Rick Moody's The Black Veil gives a misleadingly factual summary of its subject matter: a chronicle of how ‘while still in his twenties, Moody found that a decade of alcohol, drugs and other indulgences left him stranded in a depression so severe that he feared for his life’.7 The book's reviewers, on the other hand, frequently complain that its concerns expand so extensively beyond its autobiographical material that they slip ‘out of focus’.8 Their irritation indicates the dubious ambitiousness governing Moody's relationship to the ‘depression memoir’ genre: the degree to which his narrative veers away from his life's details in the direction of a precariously broad cultural significance. The vehicle for this journey is nothing other than an immensely capacious idea of melancholy: before mentioning the problem of ‘addiction’—never once regarded as the cause of his psychological difficulties—Moody announces: ‘melancholy isn't about anything. Melancholy has a style or manner but no subject. Melancholy is a way of thinking, a way of thinking about thinking’ (137).

Moody's highly abstract notion of melancholy has pretensions to philosophical profundity, but its elasticity in fact enables and hides a strategy of evasion, whereby certain kinds of social experience, including an experience of ‘depression’, are attributed to things that they may not be ‘about’. The memoir's title already gestures towards a substitute story within Moody's own: the biography of Joseph ‘Handkerchief’ Moody, the probable real-life source for Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil’. Moody becomes interested in the eighteenth-century minister when his father informs him both about Hawthorne's tale and a possible ancestral connection (24); attracted by the idea of a genealogical legacy of morbidity, Moody makes the decision to write about ‘Handkerchief’ during his recovery from a nervous breakdown (205). Placed within this contextual framework, his narrative presents itself not as a study of depression and alcohol-/drug-abuse, but as a reflection on ‘patrimony, with all the characteristics attendant thereupon’ (11). Joseph Moody's life, sporadically interwoven with that of his putative twenty-first-century descendant's, reveals these ‘characteristics’ to be: a complicity with patriarchally driven designs of domination—evoked through references to the exterminatory wars against the Indian population in Handkerchief's New England (151-7)—and an undesired subjection to them, conveyed by the conflict between a guiltily rebellious yet ultimately obedient Handkerchief and his exacting father. For Moody, the suffocating paralysis of Joseph's position in the patriarchal order is encapsulated by the ambiguities surrounding the childhood incident—most probably an accident—in which the future clergyman kills his friend Ebenezer: in this scenario Joseph appears at once ‘guilty’ perpetrator and hapless innocent, forced by his father to take the full burden of culpability, and never completely exonerated by anecdotal record (131-2).

The gradual unfolding of these historical details, however, highlight their jarring incongruity, and not their potential resonance, with Moody's life. Most obviously, the author's interaction with his father, despite frequent, strained comparisons, hardly resembles that between the ‘punitive’, ‘unyielding’ Samuel Moody and the son whom he perpetually dogs with ‘correction’ (129). The narrative's attempts to build up an emphasis on the father's rage appear on the one hand wildly overblown, founded on trivialities, as when the two visit a quarry (on the family ancestral trail) and Moody refuses to get out of the car for fear of ‘security’:

What are you doing in there? That guy is probably asleep! The same tone as in the frequent remark of my childhood: what the hell are you doing in the house on a day like this? And it played just about as well in this venue. What the hell was I doing outside? As Kafka says in his letter to his father. …


Equally strangely, references to such outbursts negate the presence of important contributing factors, as in the description of the father's irritation at not being able to contact his son to tell him of his sister's death:

His voice sounded incredibly irritated, Call me as soon as you get this. Click. As must be clear to you, the sound of my father enraged is a sound to be avoided at all cost … Whole tributaries in the river of my life have gone unnavigated simply because they might engender this sound of my father enraged.


A doubtful claim to representative status constitutes the greatest peculiarity of these moments, since the father depicted in Moody's early years is uncommunicative, occasionally sympathetic and largely absent, not ‘enraged’. The italicized voice of fury therefore seems almost to come, in several senses, from nowhere, lacking determinative or recognizable background. Instead of summarizing a whole relationship, the vignettes of ‘rage’ register the trauma of exposure to a traditional fatherly power that is not a constant or a familiar presence, but the inexplicable, incomprehensible residue of a context in which it might have had some meaningful and viable role.

In addition to misaligning his filial miseries with Handkerchief's, Moody largely ignores the patent differences between his ancestor's environment and the scene of his own growing up: while Joseph Moody ministered to a community dependent for its continued existence on genocide, and was himself a ‘murderer’ of sorts, life in 1970s' Connecticut involved no direct or visible collusion with atrocity, and no trauma of extreme culpability. Puritan disciplinary rigours are wholly absent from the kind of adolescence and young adulthood to which Moody sporadically alludes, usually with a certain parodic nonchalance: he and his friends dread being expelled from school (for using hallucinogenic drugs) because ‘this would make it more difficult to get into a good college, which would make it more difficult to get a good job, which would make it more difficult to make money … to afford good drugs’ (83).9 When contemplating his alcoholism counsellor he concludes: ‘it seemed impossible that she had once been a person in her twenties who stuck needles in her arm or sold her possessions in order to buy cocaine or who simply totaled cars and left friends in wheelchairs’ (178). Pondering Samuel Moody's sermons, he himself sums up, without considering its implications for the framework of his own narrative, the contrast between the constraints of Handkerchief's era and youthful social experience in contemporary America:

How long can you read this stuff? How many pages can you read of the very philosophy from which you, contemporary American, emerged, before you yawn and reach for the antithetical comforts, for the remote control, for the beer in its Styrofoam sleeve, for the joint that goes around?


The stark, unexplored contrasts between the features of Joseph Moody's world, with its gruelling duties, its violence and suffering, and the contemporary condition of prolonged adolescence that The Black Veil intermittently recalls, begs a question about the real function of the historical scaffolding on which the text relies. In the case of the father-son relationship, the blunt parallel serves to figure Moody as an anguished victim of patriarchal oppression; towards the end of the narrative it bestows on him an intractable culpability, a sense of having himself participated in patriarchal crimes. Chapter 15 stages a sustained experiment in (alternate) identification with each position in the dyad of guilt and innocence, which it locates in a wide variety of deadly, violent acts. Moody abruptly shifts from a study of the Littleton High School shootings—when he asks us to consider how much murderers sound ‘just like us’, to William Burroughs' killing of his wife Joan Vollman—occasioning a look at Burroughs' revisions of the incident and a close imaginary alliance with Vollman—to a final, sweeping attack on the whole progress of American (and ‘Western’) history, ending with an exhortation to the reader to ‘cover your face’ (303). The very disparateness of these events, and their undifferentiated amalgamation, as well as the totalizing, monumental nature of Moody's parting indictment, betray the insubstantiality of the guilt he urges on us, and the phantasmal quality in the feeling of victimization dominating his reflections.

A turn away from the imaginary superstructure that Moody creates and back to the details of his life uncovers the purpose of the ‘black veil’ of suffering and persecution woven over his biography. The chimera of guilt and the fantasy of victimization can only be mechanisms for eliding any examination of the effects generated by the state of aimless leisure, addiction, and political and cultural dislocation, noted or laid bare in the narrative's asides. They also work indirectly to validate a kind of subjectivity apparently fostered by such an experience: an ineffectual fearful, introverted masculinity, the persona Moody occupies in every encounter he relates. One incident in particular concretizes the resurrection of historical burdens for the ends of self-justification. Recollecting the day when a Hispanic woman acquaintance who wants to escape her abusive husband asks him for help, Moody is too transfixed by his embodiment of white America's misdeeds to come to her aid (209). His paralysis in this instance resembles that in other portraits of friendships and relationships, which surreptitiously displace responsibility for self-declared inadequacies onto the larger social expectations and perceptions of others (70, 121). The narrative's absorption in the trials of Handkerchief obviates the need for Moody to analyse these involuted dynamics, since it lends his perennial discomfort weighty historical proportions, divorcing it from his own immediate milieu.

Ironically, Moody's self-serving and misleading escape into Handkerchief's biography matches aspects of the minister's own story, and of the literary work he inspired, better than any assertions of historical continuity. The history of the ‘black veil’ contains a series of appropriations and substitutions designed to process a crisis of masculinity. Hawthorne, profoundly ambivalent about intimacy, reconceived the minister's self-concealment as a refusal of marriage and family. Joseph Moody, as Moody observes, memorializes his repentance over his childhood crime when he pens the narrative of Patience Boston, a Native American forced into slavery who murdered her infant son. The fact that the minister used, as the vehicle for his miseries, the life of someone whose afflictions considerably exceeded his own—in American terms, the most unambiguous composite victim imaginable—ought perhaps to have alerted Moody to the suspect underpinnings of the enterprise of memoir—its search for a genuine historical suffering to fill in a desultory suburban emptiness. In making Handkerchief his surrogate, Moody proves himself a worthy heir to his clerical ‘ancestor’ (the more so, paradoxically, in that they are not after all related). His approach also conforms to a structure of ‘melancholy’ more classical and typical than the vague, deliberately open definition offered in his text, while ignoring the nebulous, disorienting indeterminacy of the contemporary environment that may have given rise to it.10

While Moody leaps outside the classification of ‘depression’ (or ‘addiction’ or ‘alcoholism’) deploying a malleable concept of ‘melancholy’ to launch what he takes to be a thoroughgoing exposé of American guilt, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections explicitly theorizes the problem of critique and judgement in the relationship between individual (psychological) and cultural dysfunction. Covering similar terrain to Moody's memoir, the novel poses this problem in terms of its bearing on the status of contemporary masculinity. All three of the central male characters are menaced by a diagnosis of ‘depression’, which undermines their claim to either fatherly authority or analytical independence (or both). Gary, father of three, who wants desperately to forestall the incursions of consumer culture into ‘traditional’ family life, finds his dissatisfactions transformed by his wife into symptoms, making him afraid that he will ‘forfeit the right to his opinions’ (161). Chip, Gary's brother, who early on in the narrative offers a slick précis of the kind of diagnostic blackmail that closes in on Gary—‘the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as “diseased” … when you buy into therapy, you're buying into buying’ (31)—has already been shaken up by a female student's attack on the chauvinism of his ideological analyses. Her objections make him secretly wonder whether he was really ‘criticizing a sick culture’ or somehow damaged himself (45). After a brief affair with the girl, whose unassailable self-complacency saps his dwindling reserves of self-respect, Chip is ready to submit (as Gary finally does) and become one of the ‘depressed’ (77). At the same time, Alfred, Gary and Chip's father, who is struggling with Alzheimer's, is deemed first by Gary and Caroline (Gary's wife) and then by his own wife to be ‘depressed’, a supposition which, rather than recognizing an inevitable side-effect of his disease, implicitly pathologizes his old-fashioned patriarchal values (65).

In the case of the first two characters, Franzen depicts an antagonistic stand-off between masculinity and the language of popular psychology through a series of contorted paradoxes. Chip discovers that the very possibility of ‘depression’, its existence as a potential identity to be inhabited, exerts an alienating influence; concluding that he is ‘behaving like a depressed person’, he simultaneously feels that he ‘lack[s] the ability to lose all volition and connection with reality’, that he is ‘failing even in the miserable task of falling apart’ (77). Gary, on the other hand, finds the jargon of pharmacology encroaching on the parameters of his consciousness to the point of actually reconfiguring them altogether; even as he fends off his wife's assessment, his crumbling resistance is charted in terms of flagging ‘neurofactors’. For both brothers, the workings of ‘depression’ and the possibility of chemical cure for it isolate all abnormality within the individual, dismantling the legitimacy of any claim to authority, whether of critical commentary or fatherly control: The Corrections' delineation of the double-binds they face mounts a comic defence of a certain individual masculine agency against the therapeutic coercion that Chip excoriates.

Yet Franzen complicates and compromises this critique in his portrayal of the third male figure said to be ‘depressed’: Alfred. Counterpoised with Caroline's appraisal of her father-in-law's mental health, is another view of him—as a Schopenhauerean melancholic convinced of the inescapability of suffering and the decline of value and dignity: ‘Alfred believed that the real and the true were a minority the world was bent on exterminating’ (258). Ostensibly less reductive and demeaning than Caroline's, the narrative diagnosis eventually enables a highly strategic historicization of the father's role akin to that which occurs in Moody's memoir. Like the fixation on an ‘ancestor’ in The Black Veil, the historical associations permeating Alfred's depiction succeed in raising the phantasm of a political patriarchal tyranny, and in substituting the validation of a disintegrative masculinity for a critique of the ideological and economic preconditions of ‘therapeutic’ culture. The operation of these effects discloses the debilitating impact of ‘depression’ on the novel's own claims to cultural authority, as well as the extent of its submission to the suppositions governing the category's power and importance. A useful precursor text, the 1996 ‘Harper's Essay’, often seen in the aftermath of The Corrections' popularity as the ground-work for its composition, glosses the dilemmas the novel confronts and prefigures the manner of their resolution.11

As its title, ‘Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels’, suggests, the piece explores the prospects for reading and for literature in a TV-dominated, socially isolating landscape, reviewing literary art's ‘engagement with the culture’ (37-8) and deciding on the best way of justifying the writing process and framing its wider relevance. However, concurrently with its sociological and literary investigations, the article explores Franzen's own psychological position in the environment he evokes, rendering the essay a kind of miniature ‘depression memoir’ as well as an examination of the contemporary role of the novel in America. Franzen places himself in a position comparable to that of the character he later invents, Chip:

Even harder to admit is how depressed I was … It's not just that depression has become fashionable to the point of banality. It's the sense that we live in a reductively binary culture: you're either healthy or you're sick, you either function or you don't. And if that flattening of the field of possibilities is precisely what's depressing you, you're inclined to resist participating in the flattening by calling yourself depressed. You decide that it's the world that's sick … The invitation to leave your depression behind, whether through medication or therapy or effort of will, seems like an invitation to turn your back on all the insights into the corruption and infantilism and self-delusion of the brave new McWorld … Instead of saying I am depressed you want to say I am right!


In addition to foregrounding the paralysis that threatens Chip, the essay prefigures his sense of beleaguered redundancy in the face of the assertive female student's critique. ‘Perchance to Dream’ relates the marginalization it broods over to the uneasy state of white masculinity, whose former cultural dominance has given way to the proliferation of ‘ethnic enclaves’ (40).

Despite the autobiographical elements in the essay, its subject matter and informational researches might lead us to expect a final set of propositions about the future of literature in a high-speed visual culture. As it turns out, the personalized motif overtakes broader cultural reflection, formulating not a theoretical or practical but a therapeutic resolution. Franzen decides that his alienation from the surrounding world should be ascribed to an innate, apparently a-or trans-historical condition, unconnected with the problems he has been considering (the decline of intellectual challenge, artistic struggle, linguistic nuance): ‘depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular. But the realism is surely a mask for depression's actual essence, which is an overwhelming estrangement from humanity’ (50). Franzen uncovers the ‘reasons’ for this estrangement when he confesses:

there was growing inside me a realization that my condition was not a disease but a nature. How could I not feel estranged? I was a reader. My nature had been waiting for me all along and now it welcomed me … How could I have thought that I needed to cure myself in order to fit in to the ‘real’ world? I didn't need curing, and the world didn't either; the only thing that did need curing was my understanding of my place in it.


Franzen's conclusion poses obvious difficulties: he replaces the hypothetical, reluctantly uttered phrase ‘I am depressed’ with a new statement ‘I was a reader’, and in doing so follows the logic of ‘depression’—its power to confer identity and to sanction a release from the burdens of criticism and opposition. In establishing ‘reading’ as an identification, his statement also accepts the organizing authority of the ‘identity politics’ he had questioned elsewhere in the argument. Later revisions (‘corrections’?) of the Harper's essay made after the success of The Corrections reinforce its move towards the autobiographical and away from analysis of the cultural and social circumstances that militate against ‘reading’ and the importance of literature.12 Franzen subtly augments the personal, individual nature of the ‘depression’ to which he succumbed by making several references—rather than just one (47)—to the break-up of his marriage. Furthermore, as if to conceal his chosen complicity with ‘the new politics of identity’, he omits a brief but crucial point about the resonances between this politics and ‘corporate speciality marketing’ (47), and excludes an extended reflection—aided by an energetic letter from David Foster Wallace—on the current predicament of the white male (51).

The Corrections, lodged chronologically between the two essays, gives embodied, characterological form to the compromises they reach. Most importantly, it converts their focus on literature and cultural authority into an exclusive preoccupation with the first version's other major theme: masculinity. Where Franzen in Harper's relinquishes his rights to critique by assuming the identity of ‘reader’ (more appealing than that of ‘depressed person’), the novel, while resisting the threats posed to masculinity by ‘therapeutic’ assumptions, simultaneously makes a hero of the hapless, depleted maleness that they generate, and stigmatizes forces hostile to it, namely the patriarchal rigour traduced by the ideologies of popular psychology. With these tactics The Corrections adopts the position and the method found in Moody's memoir, using an overestimation of patriarchal dominance to accept and validate rather than fully confront the cultural problems it has recorded. In concert with this approach, Franzen's novel also protects its central model of masculinity by recapitulating a key move from the essays: their gradual erasure of an initial critique of identity politics. Attributing Chip's disorientation not only to patriarchal discipline but to the overwhelming institutional power and social confidence of women and minorities, the novel draws on the stereotyping that Franzen had queried in the first Harper's essay.

Even as it mocks a perception of Alfred, the patriarch, as ‘depressed’, The Corrections implicitly condemns his mode of life—his self-denial, strictness, exertion—by giving it a broad historical and political frame, whose connotations resemble those that Moody loads upon his father. Well versed, like all three of the writers discussed here, in ‘theory’, Franzen develops a Foucauldian sketch of American ‘discipline’, moving from the penitentiary and the electric chair to a fantasy of the future promulgated by the Axon Corporation, in which criminality will be ‘cured’ by pharmacological means (209). Alfred, whose patented chemical-engineering discovery will, ironically, aid Axon's plans, is repeatedly associated with the earlier type of ‘correction’: Gary makes a popsicle-stick prison—with an electric chair added by Chip—to impress his father (256); Alfred believes that ‘the only thing wrong with the death penalty was that it wasn't used often enough’ (129). As in Moody's memoir, the historicization enveloping the father identifies him with phenomena that have little to do with his behaviour in practice: Alfred never imposes incarceration on anyone and exhibits in general a ‘distaste for discipline’ (129). The meaning of the alignment between father and prison must therefore be sought in the connotations it creates: a heightening of the sympathetic valences surrounding the character (Chip) least associated with patriarchal and political regimes of correction. Perhaps the clearest indication of such an underlying agenda can be found in the humiliations—more considerable than any inflicted on Gary or Chip—to which the narrative subjects Alfred: the upbraidings of a talking turd (285) and aggressively explicit erotic temptations (28). These degradations insinuate an almost vengeful delight in the father's unravelling, as well as an enjoyment—echoing the narrative's extensive indulgence of Chip's sexual fixations (246-7)—of the excesses to which his life is supposed to be antithetical.

If the text pledges its allegiance to Chip by amplifying his father's coerciveness, it also gives him sympathetic priority from another direction, by presenting him as a victim of the social power of women and minorities. As has been mentioned, Chip's collapse begins when Melissa, a student, attacks his deconstruction of a commercial: ‘things are getting better and better for women and people of color, and gay men and lesbians, more and more integrated and open, and all you can think about is some stupid lame problem with signifiers and signifieds’ (44). The strangest aspect of the role played by this statement of Melissa's—of greater importance than the impression it makes on Chip—lies in the way the novel leaves her claims largely unquestioned. Indeed, forgetting the 1996 essay's perception of the affinities between marketing and identity categories, it transforms their supposed ‘truth’ into a vision of ferocious conspiracy against the white male, replete with the familiar exaggerations of stereotype; Chip is not simply undone by a preternaturally confident female student, but overlooked for tenure in favour of a Hispanic woman without a Ph.D. (who replaces his appropriately terminally ill male patron on the faculty) (83-4), and dumped by an opportunity-seeking beauty with a forceful female mentor (107). As in the portrayal of Alfred, the main effect of these elements is to ratify the position of the disintegrating white male, imputing his problems to the strength of other ‘identities’ and consequently creating, in a move much like the declaration ‘I am a reader’, a discrete, self-enclosed identity for him.

Rick Moody's The Black Veil leaves aside the issue of clinical designations to pursue a phantasmal revival of patriarchal oppression, a device that conforms to a recognizable (psychoanalytic) ‘melancholic’ structure. It might also be said to rest on some of the beliefs driving the supremacy of ‘depression’ as parodied by Franzen: a pathologization of discipline, rigour and all that obstructs the unbounded expansions of the child-like self. But, as we have seen, The Corrections also surrenders to the ideology of ‘depression’ in fashioning and dismantling a monolithically repressive patriarchal melancholia, thereby glorifying, through juxtaposition, an adolescent masculinity. David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, though predating the other texts and addressing the same phenomena, seems dramatically to overskip (and render irrelevant) the compromises they resolve upon.

In contrast to Moody's artificial resuscitation of patriarchal authority, Wallace literalizes its destruction at the hands of an entertainment and drug culture, multiplying instances of parental bodies rupturing due to overloads of stimulation or addictive substances or both.13 The novel's content and its form are pervaded by an element of contemporary life only casually alluded to by Moody, charting the subjectivity of characters almost entirely through the vertiginous grooves of their relationship to drugs (including entertainment). Additionally, Infinite Jest forecasts a supremacy for the culture of depression-speak that is of greater moment and intensity than any painted by Franzen: when not channelled through addiction, characters' emotions are harnessed to a therapeutic jargon which not only mischaracterizes their feelings, but (in one instance of parodic irony which surpasses any in The Corrections) substitutes for them. Hal Incandenza, the main protagonist, treats the ‘grief therapy’ he must undergo after his father's death like an exam, reading up on likely symptoms and ‘vacillat[ing] plausibly between and among them’ (253); when this fails to convince, he stages a fake angry outburst which (paradoxically) expresses his true (absence of) feelings, but amply fulfils the expectations of his therapist (255-6).

Because of its massive escalation of the scale of contemporary cultural ailments, Wallace's text, unlike Franzen's novel and Moody's memoir, leaves itself (one might think) no possible scapegoat for the kinds of captivity he catalogues, content instead merely to anatomize them. Infinite Jest even includes a running commentary on the question of fathers and formation from the mouth of the Quebec terrorist Marathe, who attacks the American prejudice against the shaping of individual subjectivity:

But what of the freedom-to, not just free-from? Not all compulsion comes from without … How to choose any but a child's greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?


Nevertheless, in Wallace's discussions of ‘depression’, an anomaly emerges that reveals a much closer affinity with Franzen and Moody than might at first glance be evident. Though he parodies therapy, Wallace at the same time enthusiastically approves its formulae, arguing that the commanding slogans of AA provide a necessary substitute for the addict's own willpower; that the organization's publicly performed emotional confessions fill in for the addict's own lack of affect; that involvement in its cult-like rituals eventually provides a viable and defensible replacement for addiction itself.14 The contradiction might be taken for another instance of the candidly dualistic affiliations of Wallace's aesthetic: A. O. Scott notes that Wallace at once repudiates and produces metafiction, denounces and deploys irony; ‘Janus faced, he demands to be taken at face value’.15 But the paradoxes concerning ‘depression’ lay bare a more fundamental opposition animating the novel, one that shows Wallace's participation, with Moody and Franzen, in the shared belief—glanced at in Marathe's impassioned speech—that concepts and processes of formation can only be rigidly disciplinary, prescriptively ‘corrective’.

The terms of the opposition become clear in a segment of the text exclusively devoted to ‘depression’, which purports to take up once again the case of Kate Gompert, a suicidal marijuana addict whose state of mind and body has been described (in another therapeutic encounter) 600 pages earlier (68): ‘and re Kate Gompert and this depression issue’ (692) Wallace begins, as if following on from a previous paragraph. Surfacing like a (long) afterthought, the sentence appropriately reflects Gompert's function in the exposition: her case acts as a framing device or a cipher in an anatomy of depression which pertains more directly to the male characters it mentions (Hal, his father, a patient on Kate's ward) along the way. In a book filled with pseudo-information and endlessly re-routed mechanisms of communication, the section is unusual for its unambiguous didacticism: Wallace unpacks, though maintaining a characteristic ludic inflection, the meaning of two distinct kinds of depression: ‘anhedonia or simple melancholy’ (692) and ‘clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria’ (695). His approach shows signs of having exited from the novel's ornate pastiche of the near future to confront concerns of the present moment. We see a rare mention of shared community with the book's readers—‘since we (who are mostly not small children) know’—and a reference to a set of entertainments apparently not included in the book's own exhaustive record of the content of various film-cartridges: ‘the lively arts of the millennial USA’ (694). These elements communicate a certain suasive urgency, alerting us to the embedded presence of an argument that Wallace is eager to get across. His central point emerges, another seeming non sequitur, after he sums up the mental health of the main character Hal, who hasn't had ‘a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny’ (694).

It's of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial USA treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It's maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it's the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip … we are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it's stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naiveté … Hal, who's empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to avoid being human, at least as far as he conceptualizes it, is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal probably is the way he despises what it is he's really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulses and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.


Wallace's account here of the place of ‘depression’ in youth culture, and of the underlying reality of ‘humanness’ that it belies, contains several obvious peculiarities. Firstly, the idea that the overtones of this culture may be a conspiracy of the older against the younger, even if accurate, fails to explain the reasons for the ‘hip ennui’ mode or its appeal. Secondly, the ascription of psychological ills to styles, images, etc. expresses a naïve location of causes in representations, rather than in the wider social environment (or absence thereof).16 Equally dubious is Wallace's condemnation of the ‘lively arts’ for stigmatizing sentiment: whatever arts he is thinking of, it can probably be agreed that ‘sentiment’, far from being a stranger to popular culture in general, constitutes its defining commodity.

These oddities acquire key significance in the light of Infinite Jest's central features and preoccupations. By blaming youth-cultural arts for anhedonia, Wallace makes non-clinical depression a learned affect, a subjection to a rigid regime of instruction. Most of the individual experiences the novel includes—even those it considers useful or beneficial—are figured as an enthralment to some gruelling and brutally simplified regime, whether it be that of athletic training, sexual promiscuity, addiction or cure from addiction (the mantras of AA).17 In the passage on anhedonia, however, the slender, highly codified range of human physical and emotional sensation ceases to confer a coherent, organizing order: depression is initially said to be the result of withdrawal from a regime (that of addiction or high achievement), subjection to a regime (the ideology of the ‘lively arts’) or, in the case of clinical depression (whose strict inevitabilities and tyrannical compulsions Wallace is much more comfortable discussing), a regime in itself (692-7). The evocation of a drooling, anaclitic infant might be understood as a way of coming up with an ‘outside’ to depression, and an antidote to it. But, as I have noted, the nature of this antidote does not really introduce characteristics that oppose those promulgated by contemporary popular culture; instead, what the gooey, drooley child denotes is an ‘outside’ to Infinite Jest's stringent and limited protocols of selfhood. In (supposedly) epitomizing humanness, in having a utopian value, the infant inversely highlights the novel's portrayal of processes of formation as relentlessly narrow and punishing. By exalting formlessness, the mini-essay on depression elides the possibility of criticizing the preconditions for the limited, enclosed modes of subjectivity that the novel as a whole catalogues, and approves a state that, far from being their antithesis, is their raw material and perhaps (as in the case of popular culture and sentimentality) their product.

Wallace's argument thus offers an abstract blueprint of the logic governing Moody's and Franzen's texts: they monumentalize fatherly despotism as the primary source of the sense of inadequacy afflicting youthful male subjectivity, thereby affirming this directionless masculinity, and shifting attention away from its actual social background. Wallace's novel repeatedly dramatizes the redundancy of fatherly authority, but nonetheless conceives of human existence as a constricting grid of disciplines. In counterpoising to this grid an utterly shapeless (and masculine—the gooey inner child is Hal's, not Kate Gompert's) ‘humanness’, he promotes identification with the kind of creature who would in fact be most susceptible to the imposing force of the technologies and dependencies he delineates. In the work of all three writers, solidarity with a crumbling or regressive masculinity represents a deep ambivalence about claiming the authority to criticize the cultural malaise they document, and a consequent entrapment within—sometimes even a compensatory relish for—its corrosions. Rick Moody replaces his contemporary social environs with a historical reconstruction, ignoring (and preserving) its problems of stagnation; Franzen's novel defends male characters from the inroads of ‘depression’ but, in extolling the value of the main protagonist, cedes ground to the ideology that underscores the category's cultural power. Wallace's recourse to the anaclitic infant, meanwhile, enacts a paradoxically aggressive renunciation of critical authority. He avoids advocating a model of formation (one that might be an alternative to all the exhausting technologies of the self found in Infinite Jest) by pressing upon his readers—roundly disparaging all those who would prefer to disown it—an ideal of formlessness.18

The evasive (and defensive) nature of Wallace's strategy is sharply underlined by its proximity to a familiar psychoanalytic structure of melancholia. He links Hal's numbness, his ‘anhedonia’, to a feeling of separateness from his mother: ‘his Moms Avril hears her own echoes inside him and thinks what she hears is him, and this makes Hal feel the one thing he feels to the limit, lately: he is lonely’ (694). According to Kristeva, melancholy results from the father's failure to assist the child's separation from the maternal ‘thing’ by establishing language as an adequate compensation for ‘losing’ the mother, a failure that renders the melancholic subject either incoherent or ‘hyperlucid’.19 The Kristevan schema finds a crude recapitulation in the Incandenza family romance: Hal's father, one of the book's exploding alcohol-and/or entertainment-addicted parents, is ill-fitted to mediate between his children and the maternal powerhouse (whose nickname, ‘the Moms’ pluralizes her into omnipotence) that is Avril Incandenza.20 Judging from the only scene of family gathering, the young Hal has a severe case of ‘hyperlucidity’ (745). When Wallace tells us what Hal is lonely ‘for’—his internal self, the anaclitic infant—he contemplates the hero's reunion with the maternal ‘thing’. Wallace's paean to the uncoordinated creature hints at a homology between Hal's subjective paralysis and the form of the novel itself: on the one hand clinging to the notion of a shapeless, incontinently emotional, infantile self, on the other ‘hyperlucid’, proliferating mechanistic outlines for bodily and affective experience. To observe this contrast is not to treat the novel's linguistic profuseness like a symptom, but to pinpoint its entanglement in the crises it rehearses. Like The Black Veil and The Corrections, Infinite Jest's use and explication of the categories of ‘depression’ and ‘melancholy’ simultaneously trace its own burdens and attachments.


  1. The epilogue to Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation charts this ‘depression outbreak’. Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation, London: Quartet Books, 1996, pp. 298-311.

  2. Abigail Cheever, ‘Prozac Americans: Depression, Identity, Selfhood’, Twentieth-Century Literature 46(3) (2000): 360.

  3. See, for example, the expansive cultural politics claimed for melancholy in David L. Eng and David Kazaijian, eds, Loss: The Politics of Mourning, Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2003, p. 2. For an account of criticism's current relationship to melancholy, see Brian Dillon's review of the work of Giorgio Agamben. Brian Dillon, ‘Work Suspended: Criticism and Melancholia’, Paragraph 23(2) (2000): 222-32.

  4. Rick Moody, The Black Veil, London: Faber, 2002.

  5. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections, London: Fourth Estate, 2002.

  6. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1996.

  7. The Bookmark, 2003.

  8. Andy Battaglia, ‘Review of The Black Veil’, The Onion, 29 January 2003 at: Other widely circulated reviews include, most notoriously, Dale Peck's ‘The Moody Blues’, The New Republic, July 2003, and Paul McLeary's ‘Moody's Dream of Invented History’, PopMatters, 27 June 2002 at:

  9. Benjamin DeMott observes that ‘drug addiction comes across in The Black Veil as a distraction or a peccadillo’. He proposes that this can be read as ‘a sensible reluctance to indulge in simplistic denunciation’. Taken in the context of The Black Veil's strategies as a whole, however, it can also be seen as a refusal on Moody's part to examine the actual character of his social experience. Benjamin DeMott, ‘Guilt Stalker’, The New York Review of Books, 26 September 2002: 74.

  10. The notion of melancholy as attachment to a lost love object or cherished abstract belief is at the heart of Freud's theorization of the phenomenon. Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, London: Penguin, 1991, pp. 245-9. The Black Veil in a sense fabricates this condition of bereavement within its narrative, in order to avoid the vacuous nature of the contemporary social experience it describes.

  11. Jonathan Franzen, ‘Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels’, Harper's, April 1996: 35-54. All parenthetical references to the essay will be to the Harper's version unless otherwise stated.

  12. The revised version, ‘Why Bother’, appears in Jonathan Franzen, How to Be Alone, London: Fourth Estate, 2002, p. 4.

  13. The incidences of this include Hal's alcoholic and filmmaker father's sudden death-by-microwave (248); Lenz's mother's fantastic, fatal obesity (575); Gately's father's expiration in front of an episode of M.A.S.H. (448); and Green's mother's death from shock on receiving a novelty jack-in-the-box gift (579).

  14. These assertions are repeated at many points, but appear, for example, at 349 and 352-3.

  15. A. O. Scott, ‘The Panic of Influence’, The New York Review of Books, February 2000: 4.

  16. A focus on the importance of entertainment over and above the world it feeds into is also the premise of Wallace's article on ‘Television’. He seeks to explain the medium's domination of American leisure time on the basis of its complexities. David Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’, Review of Contemporary Fiction 13(2) (1993): 151-94.

  17. Like the rituals of AA, the programme of training at Enfield Tennis Academy is repeatedly described and theorized. Its status as a regime is pointed out by the coach, DeLint (681). A systematic, codified promiscuity is the preserve of Hal's brother Orin, who has ‘internal addictive-sexuality issues’ (289).

  18. The strained and opportunistic quality of Wallace's antidote to depression is also suggested by its contrast with an essay entitled ‘The Depressed Person’, in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999). In this piece Wallace depicts a helplessly needy female depression sufferer, but figures her condition as selfish and banal. The change of emphasis that accompanies a difference of gender further confirms that the ‘drooling infant’ is a celebration not of ‘humanness as such but of an inchoate masculinity akin to that found in Moody's and Franzen's texts.

  19. Julia Kristeva, Soleil noir: dépression et mélancholie, Paris: Gallimard, 1987, p. 34. I am also drawing here on Susan Gustafson's reformulation of Kristeva's theory in ‘Abject Fathers and Suicidal Sons: G. E. Lessing's Philotas and Kristeva's Black Sun’, Lessing Jahrbuch 29 (1997): 22-4.

  20. N. Katharine Hayles notes the importance of Hal's mother's nickname in her analysis of ‘the dark underside of Avril's policy of trust’. Her argument does not mention, however, Wallace's more extreme departures from the maternal ideal in the construction of Avril: his portrayal of her as a sexual predator (Wallace, Infinite Jest, 552). N. Katharine Hayles, ‘The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment and Infinite Jest’, New Literary History 30 (1999): 690-1.

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Craven, Peter. “Perils of the Popular.” Meanjin 62, no. 1 (2003): 133-45.

Asserts that The Corrections is an endearing and well thought out book, despite being overly full of verbiage.

Additional coverage of Franzen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 129; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 105; and Literature Resource Center.

(The entire section is 58 words.)