Is Jonathan Franzen More Like John Lennon or Paul McCartney?

Author Benjamin Nugent shares the sneakily experimental passage of The Corrections that influenced his new novel, Good Kids.

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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Sometimes a novel's power doesn't fully register the first time through. A first read, after all, should charm one into a willing state of suspended disbelief—reading that's spurred by the simple pleasure of the sentences, the humor and pathos, and a lust to discover what happens next. But it's easy to miss a book's literary merits this way—the wiring and gearwork and sweat that go into compelling literary narrative—until the second read comes in. In a rereading, you can stop being dazzled by the vehicle's sleek curves and take your first look under the hood.

Benjamin Nugent, author of the cultural history American Nerd, told me that he felt this way returning to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, a book he loved on the first go-around. Hailed by many as a classic of modern psychological "realism," it took Nugent a second time through to delve into the book's strange and multilayered symbolic underworld.

In Nugent's complex and wryly funny novel, Good Kids, a young man explores whether a childhood love can act as antidote to the transgressions of his counterculture parents. The author's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, N+1, The Atlantic, and other magazines.

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.