The recent brouhaha about the death of realistic fiction may well be put to rest by Franzen’s stunning third novel: a symphonic exploration of family dynamics and social conflict and change that leaps light-years beyond its critically praised predecessors The Twenty-Seventh City (1998) and Strong Motion (1992).
The story’s set in the Midwest, New York City, and Philadelphia, and focused on the tortured interrelationships of the five adult Lamberts. Patriarch Alfred, a retired railroad engineer, drifts in and out of hallucinatory lapses inflicted by Parkinson’s, while stubbornly clinging to passé conservative ideals. His wife Enid, a compulsive peacemaker with just a hint of Edith Bunker in her frazzled “niceness,” nervously subverts Alfred’s stoicism, while lobbying for “one last Christmas” gathering of her scattered family at their home in the placid haven of St. Jude. Eldest son Gary, a Philadelphia banker, is an unhappily married “materialist”; sister Denise is a rapidly aging thirtysomething chef rebounding from a bad marriage and unresolvable relationships with male and female lovers; and younger son Chip—the most abrasively vivid figure here—is an unemployable former teacher and failed writer whose misadventures in Lithuania, where he’s been impulsively hired “to produce a profit-making website” for a financially moribund nation, slyly counterpoint the spectacle back home of an American family, and culture, falling steadily apart. Franzen analyzes these five characters in astonishingly convincing depth, juxtaposing their personal crises and failures against the siren songs of such “corrections” as the useless therapy treatment (based on his own patented invention) that Alfred undergoes, the “uppers” Enid gets from a heartless Doctor Feelgood during a (wonderfully depicted) vacation cruise, and the various panaceas and hustles doled out by the consumer culture Alfred rails against (“Oh, the myths, the childish optimism of the fix”), but is increasingly powerless to oppose.
A wide-angled view of contemporary America and its discontents that deserves comparison with Dos Passos’s U.S.A., if not with Tolstoy. One of the most impressive American novels of recent years.