Married With Children

Two new novels measure emotional fallout of the nuclear family

That all families are dysfunctional is a modern truism — the easy coin of cafe conversations and late-night confessionals in college dorms. What this glib truth misses, however, is that there is a range of family dysfunction, stretching from vague neurosis to outright lunacy. Years later, in therapy, children who’ve grown up with the former say things like, “I’d have been a happier person if my father and mother had loved me as much as they loved my brother.” Children who’ve grown up with the latter say, “I’d have been a happier person if my father hadn’t shot my mother and brother.” The first speaks to a personal sorrow, the second to a breakdown in the very fabric of civilization.On the sliding scale of family dysfunction, the characters in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel The Corrections fall squarely in the first camp — the well-populated world of the nutty normal. The characters of Douglas Coupland’s All Families Are Psychotic inhabitant the other, darker end of the spectrum. Both novelists, however, are working in a literary tradition best termed “Social Surrealism” — a tradition that, like social realism before it, seeks to link the personal crises of individual characters to the political and economic crises of the world at large. Like the social realists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social surrealists have a political purpose — or at least a political take on their culture. Yet, at the same time, they are post-political. These writers don’t foresee a political solution to the problems they describe. What they hope to inspire in their readers is not outrage or shame, let alone the urge to man the barricades, but a knowing chuckle or an uncomfortable squirm of recognition. What makes them surrealists rather than realists is their penchant for finding the bizarre in the everyday and their willingness to wander far into the hallucinatory nether reaches of the human mind.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is the big book of the season — a mega-best-seller that has critics (or least publicists) bandying about that old phrase “the Great American Novel.” But guess what? They’re right. The Corrections is indeed a great American novel. A revealing snapshot of Anglo-America at the turn of the millennium, the book is everything a great American novel should be: big, sprawling, fall-down funny, and heart-wrenching. Is it a perfect literary gem with not a word out of place? No. Out of 568 pages, Franzen probably could have cut a least dozen — not a bad percentage as novels go.The Corrections‘ surface theme — adult children dealing with aged parents — is a hot topic for baby boomers. The book centers on the trials of the Lambert Family and the generational divide between the uptight, tradition-bound Midwestern parents and their morally anchorless Eastern émigré children. Alfred, the emotionally distant patriarch of the family, is a retired engineer with Parkinson’s and increasing dementia. Enid, his wife, is an elderly Midwestern housewife — oppressed by her husband in the usual fashion, manipulative of her children in well-worn if amusing ways. The Lamberts have three grown children: Gary, a banker and control-freak in a traditional (and suffocating) marriage; Chip, a ne’er-do-well, skirt-chasing former lit-crit professor, fired for sleeping with a student; and Denise, bisexual chef and serial adulterer. The book’s main plot — mother of a thousand subplots — revolves around Enid’s attempts to gather her scattered brood for one last Christmas in the family home in St. Jude. (St. Jude is patron saint of lost causes, which accurately reflects the author’s view of the nuclear family in the modern world.)

Franzen is a master of character development. Each of his characters is immediately recognizable. You’ve met people like this. You’ve lived with them, perhaps slept with them, and every detail that Franzen provides — from their clothes to the way they cut vegetables — makes them seem more real. Part of the magic here is Franzen’s unerring ear for dialogue. His mastery of midcentury Midwestern vernacular is dead-on, as is his fluency in an array of American dialects, the language of pop-psychology and techno-boosterism, lit-crit speak, and intergenerational needling. (He zeroes in, for example, on one of the main differences between baby boomers and their Depression-era parents: the great gustatory divide that separates Jell-O salad with baby marshmallows from arugula with candied pecans.)

But Franzen doesn’t just get the surface details right. He is equally deft at describing his characters’ interior lives. Alfred’s inner life — from the repressed, strangled sexuality of his youth to his hallucinatory descent into the madness of old age — is particularly well done. In writing as in acting, dementia is hard to do well, but Franzen does it spectacularly — by turns humorous, by turns tragic, always terrifying. Alfred’s angry dialogue with a fast-talking turd is one of the most powerful and horrifying scenes in the book.

Alfred isn’t the only character with a tentative grasp on reality. Most of the characters in this novel travel in a murk of self-deception and self-justification, bumping into one another in their mutual blindness and self-absorption. Enid is constantly trying to convince herself (and her friends) that her younger son Chip is more successful than he is. His unpaid contributions to The Warren Street Journal: A Monthly of the Transgressive Arts get translated by Enid into a job at the Wall Street Journal. His work as a part-time proofreader for a law firm she calls “working in the law.” Chip, meanwhile, is convinced that beginning a screenplay with a seven-page monologue on critical theory is a good and sellable idea. Only Denise, the youngest child, seems to have any self-knowledge at all. She also gets off some of the best lines. “What sort of woman would let her husband go to Paris with a person like me?” she wonders, as she accompanies her new boss, a handsome, young, computer-millionaire-turned-restaurateur, on a business trip. Then she muses: “Let’s get an egg timer and see how long this marriage lasts.”

The least believable character is the eldest son, Gary. He seems to be Franzen’s least favorite as well. On Enid’s Christmas list, her other children rate $100 Christmas presents, while Gary (whose life most replicates his parents’) rates only $60. Gary, a bank vice president, is an unashamed capitalist whose controlling nature knows no bounds. He mercilessly hounds his parents to move out of the family home, all the while scheming to make a killing on one of his father’s old patents. Yet Franzen’s meticulous character development renders even this character strangely sympathetic.

As readers of Franzen’s earlier books The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion can attest, Franzen is no fan of modern capitalism, and it is on this point that The Corrections’ family drama turns to social critique. The book is filled with jabs at the grasping, greedy nature of modern American culture, but one of the funniest sections takes place in far-off Lithuania. It is there that Chip, fired from his university job, goes to work as a free-market consultant for a former government official in Lithuania named Gitanas. After Lithuania’s economic collapse, Gitanas designs a Web site offering up his country as the world’s first “for-profit nation state” and puts the nation’s assets up for sale to the highest bidder (“DEMOCRACY FOR PROFIT: BUY A PIECE OF EUROPEAN HISTORY!”). Gitanas hires Chip to write copy for the Web site and deal with correspondence from America by posing as a satisfied investor. Though Gitanas started the site as a joke, big bucks have been rolling in, and the former government minister, now an Eastern bloc warlord, tries to figure out how he is going to deliver on exotic promises such as this: “For $25,000, the investor would be awarded perpetual title to an eponymous town of no fewer that 5,000 souls and be granted a modern and hygienic form of droit de seigneur that met most of the guidelines established by the Third International Conference on Human Rights.” Gitanas’ moral dilemma is this: Should he actually try to deliver on a such promise (thus remaining an honest businessman), or simply stash the proceeds in a Swiss bank account? This book is filled with queer moral quandaries such as these — quandaries that both generations of Lamberts wrangle with in their own earnest but more limited ways.

like The Corrections, Douglas Coupland’s new book All Families Are Psychotic virtually wriggles with moral dilemmas. Unfortunately, none of the book’s characters quite have the presence of mind to recognize them as such. This ragged bunch of felons and recovering drug addicts is nobody’s idea of a happy family. They’re the flotsam and jetsam left in the wake of the explosion of the nuclear family. All Families Are Psychotic begins when the Drummond family gathers in Florida to witness the launch of the one functional Drummond sibling into space. Sarah, a one-handed NASA scientist and former Thalidomide baby, is the least handicapped member of the Drummond clan. The others are in varying stages of mental or medical disintegration. Almost everyone in this novel is sick. Three of the main characters have AIDS. One has liver cancer. One is clinically depressed and suicidal. The people they meet on their adventures in Florida (adventures involving robbery, theft, kidnapping, and ransom) are no less emotionally maimed.The author seems to blame Florida (America writ large) for their various mental and physical illnesses. A former design student, Coupland has always been exquisitely sensitive to the impact of the physical world on the human psyche. He is deeply offended by the physical ugliness of America’s material culture. His characters drift from dingy motels to sterile suburban houses, from Disney World to swampside strip malls — all lit by the overbright, morally equalizing (thus morally annihilating) Florida sun.

Scenery, alas, isn’t enough to make All Families Are Psychotic into a good novel. The sketchy, poorly motivated characters are too weak to bear the burden of Coupland’s social critique — a critique that often seems purely aesthetic rather than moral. The AIDS cure at the end of the book — a sort of blood-brother exchange of fluids with an Ugandan whore who is HIV positive but immune — is wholly unconvincing. Like Coupland’s earlier books, Generation X, Miss Wyoming, and Girlfriend in a Coma, All Families Are Psychotic has a certain edgy if shallow allure. It is meant to be cool. But it feels cold.

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