Monday, July 11, 2011

Literature: "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which I finished a little over a month ago, was the first work of fiction I'd read in quite some time. Having just completed a BA in history and a lengthy and involved thesis on an esoteric and largely irrelevant topic, I'd taken a considerable amount of time off from "people who make stuff up." I picked up the novel in part out of a certain sense of obligation. Given all the recent hype surrounding his most recent novel Freedom and the Time magazine cover-piece hailing him as the greatest living American writer, I felt guilty for never having read any of his work. He was also incidentally scheduled to be the speaker at my college's graduation; I felt like I should prepare. Apparently unimpressed, my dad, beginning in January, had been mailing me a steady stream of negative reviews of Freedom. I opened The Corrections, then, with a number of apprehensions and not a great deal of excitement. Almost immediately, though, I found myself engrossed in the novel's intertwining storylines, all relating to the elderly and increasingly infirm Lambert couple living in suburban "St. Jude" (a stand-in for St. Louis) and their three children, Midwestern transplants living in the northeast. Ultimately a rewarding book and a page-turner in the best sense, the novel is not, however, an entirely pleasant read.

Reading the book became, almost instantly and unceasingly, an extremely personal and emotional experience. Issues I'd been mulling -- post-graduate anxieties, questions of mental health, unease with prosperity -- all occur and recur throughout the novel. That Franzen and I both come from the same leafy St. Louis suburb, and that the book seems to take on heavily autobiographical aspects (a suspicion confirmed by various comments made by Mr. Franzen, including in a speech this past February at my very recent alma mater, Kenyon College, repeated almost word-for-word (here) heightened my identification with the novel and increased my distress. I say distress because reading The Corrections is not necessarily a comfortable or happy experience. Chapter by chapter, my personal discomforts and anxieties were often exacerbated as Mr. Franzen explored the often messy relations of the Lambert family.

The Corrections also speaks, as a number of reviews have pointed out, to a particular historical moment. Published in 2002, the novel was received with rave reviews, earned Franzen a National Book Award, and was named a semi-finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The first novel Franzen published since 1992's Strong Motion, The Corrections also elevated Franzen to the status of Serious Writer. The novel was written during a period of intense optimism, prosperity, and confidence in technology. Yet the intense sense of anxiety which pervades the novel seemed to speak to a sense of unease. Released shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks and as the economic recession began to settle on the U.S., the novel addressed a nation whose entire self-conception was being radically re-examined. From this vantage, the work can be seen as literary prophecy, suggesting the exuberance of late nineties America only served to mask -- and not allay -- our anxieties. Yet the value of The Corrections extends well beyond its meaning as a historical document or cultural phenomenon. Nearly a decade after it was first published, the novel still retains its vitality in its smaller perceptions. Hailed as a book that spoke to the moment, The Corrections also transcends it.

For the novel's characters, the prosperity and personal material comfort brought by the tech-stock bubble are far more menacing than promising. Chip Lambert, a failed academic with a PhD in English heavy on critical theory, once remarks that everyone but him seems to be getting rich. The rest of the family appears to feel the same way. Having each, to a certain degree, sacrificed promises of wealth for other concerns, each of the Lamberts in turn worries that the things they sacrificed it for are ultimately unworthy. Along the way, concerns that their own fragile mental states drive their desires -- and that these desires are pharmaceutically alterable -- plague the children and their mother, Enid. Only the family patriarch Albert, through a firm resolve and increasing resignation, holds desperately to a sense of his life's moral correctness.

The Corrections is a novel full of anxiety, depression, and fear. In touching on all our own apprehensions, the book raises questions without offering answers. It cracks open the chest of our highly technologized society without suturing up the wound. Yet in laying bare a vision of our private selves, Franzen has done us a great service. However uncomfortable, The Corrections remains a book well worth reading.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Literature: Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende has been one of the most influential Latin American woman writers since her first major publication in 1982. Born in Chile in 1942, her large body of work reflects strong ties to her family, friends and the vibrant, tumultuous and sometimes tragic national history of Chile. By means of her own particular brand of romantic feminism which places women at the very heart of her novels and poetry, Allende stuns us with her narrative grace and precision. The fantastic plays an integral role in Allende's writings, as demonstrated by her well-known novel "The House of the Spirits" in which characters can predict death, communicate with ghosts and spirits and move objects through divination. Overall, Allende strives to illustrate the post-colonial social and political upheavals of the modern period in Chile. Her works, then, represent an artful integration of both her personal history and the history of her homeland. Her characters are intimately real and their lives, although accented by magic, spirits, and gross exaggeration, movingly relatable. In the spring of this year, Isabel Allende herself was nice enough to answer a few of my quesitons. She addresses her motivations, style and literary techniques.

Much of your work has been categorized by readers and academics as belonging to the category of “magical realism,” likening it to the works of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez. Others, however, see your work more as a contribution to the post-Boom literary movement. How would you describe your writing in terms of style and objective?

It’s hard to describe my style because writing for me is a natural process, like talking, I don’t think about it. Some of my books have elements of magic realism, like The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna and a trilogy for young adults, but others are very realistic books. I don’t quite fit among the great writers of the Latin American Boom of Literature, as the movement was called, although sometimes I have been called “the only woman in the Boom”. What is exactly the Post-Boom? To my knowledge, it has not been defined yet.

In the early 1970’s you published two books for children, La Abuela Panchita and Lauchas y Lauchones. As the literary style of your adult novels is characterized by fantastic and whimsical elements, did you find that your creative process was similar in the creation of these two types of stories?

In the early seventies I was not a writer, I worked in Chile as a journalist in the Children’s Department of a publishing house. One day we found in the basement two sets of very lovely drawings that had been forever in that basement without a text. I decided to create a couple of stories for the drawings. That’s how I happened to publish children’s books. The drawings determined the stories, one was for very young kids, simple, almost no text; the other one was for kids 6-8 years old, more whimsical. The process was not even remotely similar to the writing I did later, when I started writing for adults in Venezuela (1981)

Your works are filled with magical powers, superstitions, curses, transformations, and possessions. Aside from the obvious entertainment value of these elements, what do you hope to convey to readers through the use of the fantastic?

I believe that the world is a very mysterious place. We get very uncomfortable when confronted with the fact that we know very little, so we tend to ignore or deny what we can’t explain and control. We can’t explain coincidences, dreams, prophecies, premonitions, the small and larger miracles of daily life, the power of emotions and passions (that often lead us to war), the overwhelming power of nature, religion, superstition, and beliefs. In my life and in my writing I am open to the mysteries. What do I want to convey? Nothing in particular, I just want to share with my readers that openness and a sense of the wonder of the world.

It is abundantly clear that family is an essential theme in your writing. House of the Spirits, for example, originated as a letter written to your dying grandfather. Given the centrality of family in your writing, how is your work intertwined with (or completely separate from) nation and home, specifically Chile?

My work is never too far away from Chile, I tend to go back to my roots. Of Love and Shadows, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, My Invented Country, Paula, The Sum of our Days and my recent novel (not yet published) are either placed in Chile or connected to Chile. It’s easy for me to write about my country, I don’t have to research much, I seem to carry it in my soul. My home is where my husband, my son and my daughter-in-law are. They are the chore of my little tribe, which keeps changing because kids grow up, people marry or divorce, some stay, some go away, new members join our extended Chilean-American family.

In reading your works, it is clear that you intentionally place your female characters in the center of the literary discourse. As Alexandra Alter mentions in her Wall Street Journal article, when working as a romance novel translator in Chile you were even known to occasionally alter the dialogue in those stories in order to paint the female characters in a smarter, more independent light. Given your work with the female subject, in what direction do you think writers of today should be heading in terms of the literary representations of the feminine? In other words, what work still needs to be done?

I don’t think that literature can be directed toward a goal of any kind, nor political, social or cultural. Literature reflects a time and a place, it responds to the collective unconscious, it evolves organically, wildly, secretly. The representation of the feminine in literature has changed since the Women’s Lib Movement and the fact that more women are writing and that more women than men read fiction, and it will keep changing as the world changes. My feminine protagonists are not figments of my imagination or invented role models for female readers, they are inspired in real women. I have worked for women and with women all my life; I have a foundation that helps women and girls in need; I know women very well.

The use of the fantastic has always been a mechanism of subversion for female writers, a technique which allows them to create an alternate status for women by means of their literary contributions. Do you feel that this strategy applies to your works?

If using elements of the fantastic is a strategy for subversion, I am not aware of it. As I explained before, writing for me is a very natural process, I don’t plan my books with a goal or a message in mind, I just want to tell a story that is important for me. Often I can’t explain why I NEED to tell that particular story but I trust that there is a reason and I follow my instinct. Sometimes I get the meaning of my work after reading a review, or because a reader asks me a question, or because in time I see the connection between the novel and something that has happened in my own life. My readers may or may not find out my motivations, that’s not really my problem. The person I am is reflected in my writing; it’s easy for any reader to guess that I am a liberal and a feminist because in all my books there are political, social and feminist elements, but I am careful not preach. I do my social work through my foundation.