It is a rare thing to be able to watch literary history unfold before your eyes. We can only wonder what it would have been like, with the benefit of hindsight, to be present for the worlds reaction to writers such as Charlotte Bronte and James Joyce, to see them being ignored or even damned. There are certain moments in literature that, without exaggeration, define the future of the medium as a whole, and Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 publication of The Corrections exists as a catalyst for such a moment. However, there are several other important names that take equal share in this literary movement. In 1996, David Foster Wallace published his encyclopaedic satire Infinite Jest, which was followed swiftly by his friend Dave Eggers’s book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in 2000. While these three men were contemporary writers and well known to each other (Eggers wrote the forward to 2006 edition of Infinite Jest), these works appear to be the thesis statements in a highly relevant and on-going real-life conversation, perhaps in a café or a bar. Reading these three novels feels like being part of a discussion between friends, one that taps into the core of the stresses and absurdity of modern living.
First, Wallace makes his argument. It is a sprawling and massive theory, funny in some ways and tragic in others, but always showing his intellect and furthering his point. He closes with a hopeless statement, hypothesizing that the world is generally a random and harmful place that has no discernable beginning or end, and that we as a society have become far too focused on personalized entertainment to truly comprehend our bleak situation. Eggers counters, pointing to personal experience and his own life as an example of just how good we can make our situation despite the common concerns of modern living. He looks at his family, and the situations that he has come out of to better himself as a person. He admits the faults are there, but suggests we can overcome them. Finally, Franzen finds a middle ground of sorts in his tale of the unconventional Lambert family. By focusing on these five similar but ultimately different individuals, Franzen shows how every different personality type responds to the philosophical quandary of asking what it means to be a citizen of the western world. Do we cling to the values of the past, as in the case of Alfred, or wrap ourselves in fictions in order to make the present bearable, like Enid? Or do we succeed and function as we are expected while our lives fall apart in the core, like Gary or Denise? There is even an option exhibited in Chip to strike out against the rules set before us and rebel, and make an attempt to change the world for ourselves. Sadly, in Chip’s case, he doesn’t quite make it. These reactions are meant to show that some mentalities will last in the modern era, and some will not be effective at all.
All three novels are family sagas in the 20th and 21st centuries, and discuss the perils and utter confusion of growing up in the modern world, and all three utilize various post-modern techniques such as metafiction and parody to do so. The conversation has been on-going since then, with more books published and certain changes in the direction and dynamic, but at their core the discussion remains the same; how do we remain sane in a world that seems to be immersed in chaos. It is with much eagerness and anticipation then, that I wait for Franzen to continue his half of the conversation next September with his new novel coming out in September, Purity.
Words by Jack Williams
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