Benjamin Nugent: I was a deeply unoriginal 16-year-old; my gods were John Lennon and Paul McCartney. As an equally predictable twentysomething I replaced them with the men who seemed to me their literary counterparts—David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. The hairstyles of the new gods approximated those of the old, and the new story resembled the old story: Two kids started out playing the same kind of music but diverged with age, one becoming a radical visionary, the other a master of traditional forms. The essence of wisdom was to hold both the rebel and the atavist in your heart.
I reread The Corrections this year and realized that while I once needed Franzen to be my Paul, an exemplar of old realist virtues like clarity and psychological complexity, he was always more formally adventurous than either I or most book critics understood. Or maybe the McCartney analogy was dead on; it was Paul who gave us proto-punk on "Helter Skelter," proto-Elliott-Smith on Revolver.
The passage of The Corrections that captures the particular strangeness of the novel's sentences and structure comes on page two of the chapter "At Sea."
Sometimes at dawn in St. Jude, in the long minute it took the clock-radio to flip a digit, the only moving thing in the house was the eye of Enid.
On the morning of Chip's conception she'd merely looked like she was shamming sleep, but on the morning of Denise's, seven years later, she really was pretending. Alfred in middle age had invited such venial deceptions. A decade-plus of marriage had turned him into one of the overly civilized predators you hear about in zoos, the Bengal tiger that forgets how to kill, the lion lazy with depression. To exert attraction, Enid had to be a still, unbloody carcass.
The first sentence plays on the first stanza of Wallace Stevens's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Franzen never makes explicit reference to the poem, but The Corrections is a novel obsessed with looking at a given phenomenon many different ways. We see this tendency at work in the second paragraph excerpted here, as Franzen refracts the lion motif into a multilayered symbol. Alfred Lambert is a lion too mired in depression to have sex with his wife Enid unless she lies as still as processed meat. Aslan, the drug Enid takes on a cruise, is supposed to bestow comfort and protection, like the lionine Christ of the Narnia books their grandson Jonah loves. And when his mind has succumbed to dementia, and his exhausted family has placed him in a home, Alfred fights like "a lion to the end," refusing food; he starves to death the way old lions do when they've become a hindrance to the pride.
When I wrote Good Kids, I hadn't yet noticed the Stevens echo in The Corrections, but I grasped that Franzen held a motif to the light and spun it around, and I made use of the technique. The least insufferable way to pay homage I could think of was to give my protagonist's family the last name Paquette. It's the name of a family that pops up in The Corrections on multiple occasions, each time signifying something new.