by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $26) University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, 7 p.m. Fri., Oct. 5; Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600, 7:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 6
WHAT EVER HAPPENED to the literary rock star? Sure, we've got the grand old lions (Vidal, Roth) and their younger, press-shy counterparts (Moody, Cunningham, et al.), but along with the end of the Greed Decade, when enfants terribles Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis shared gossip columns with the best starlets of the day, so came the end of writer-as-hot-celebrity. Or so it seemed. If his publisher's massive publicity push is any indication, Jonathan Franzen looks poised to break that dry spell, and fast. The Corrections (which is, in fact, his third novel) has perched the unassuming New Yorker writer atop a mountain of accolades; even Oprah has bestowed the holy stamp of her approval, making the work a Book Club pick. The catch? Unlike so many others, it's nearly all merited. His 568-page tome follows a nuclear family based in the fictional Midwestern burgh of St. Jude from their backwater town to the streets of Philadelphia and Manhattan, and on through the rubble of Eastern Europe. The journey into his protagonists' inner lives goes even further.
Once-omnipotent paterfamilias Alfred is slowly losing his mind, and his motor control, to Parkinson's, while his wife, Enid, struggles to free herself from the immense burden of her husband's vast obstinacy and her children's vast shortcomings. Oldest son Gary is a successful Philadelphia banker with a beautiful wife, wonderful children, and a mammoth case of clinical depression. Completing the do-si-do are Chip, an academic whose logic is no match for an innate moral weakness, and the supremely controlled chef Denise, whose souffl鳠and schnitzels stand far more firmly than her sexuality. The book sounds far grimmer than it is; what could be an endless catalog of neuroses and failures is instead an incredibly absorbing tale of the modern American psyche, writ both large and astonishingly small. Franzen has a knack for "look at me!" cleverness that recalls Dellilo, Vonnegut, and even Amis at both their best and worst, and the writing is certainly a tour de force, even as the plot splays in a million directions like a drunken octopus. A certain ugly misogyny and the niggling unlikability of several characters—not to mention some disturbingly toothy recountings of Alfred's physical deterioration—occasionally rear their heads, marring the The Corrections' other pleasures. But these are quibbles; there are without a doubt few, if any, recent novels that aim as high and reach so far.