Like many people, I think, I read Franzen's essay about the state of contemporary literature before I read what is essentially Franzen's effort to confront the limitations of contemporary literature—this book.
How, his "Harpers essay" (and many of his other essays collected in this book) asks, is it possible for a novel capture with any accuracy (not to mention significance) the greatly accelerated pace of life in late-model Western capitalism? I think most people agreed at the time The Corrections came out that Franzen succeeded in doing just that—rendering the worlds of mental health and the stock market, early globalization, and consumerism novelizable in a way that few others could hope to do.
However, I think it is vital to note the ways in which Franzen constructs, or rather is forced to construct or is predisposed to construct, his plot in such a way as to contain the bits of chaos that threaten from the real world, hedging it in with bits of plodding Midwestern zaniness, static familial dramas, and certain hermetic spaces (the ship, Lithuania, memory). The way Franzen constructs his novel on a geographic plane is interesting: there is Lithuania, which exists as a sort of netherworld, and then there are three zones of declining cultural intensity or "hipness" or what have you: New York, Philadelphia, and the Midwest. Philadelphia is an intermediate zone—clearly more desirable for the Lambert children than their home in St. Jude (St. Louis?), but nevertheless ritually excused for a certain lack of... you know, New York-ness. Franzen depicts the Midwest sympathetically, but he never tries to redeem it culturally, allowing all the insults his characters fling against it to stand unaddressed and certainly unredressed. Franzen, I would say, does not mind being slightly ashamed of his own Midwestern origins (not that I blame him). But what is fascinating in this schematic geography is how much it excludes—California and the West for one, not to mention the South (including Florida), or the erstwhile Third World. California's exclusion is fascinating given its prominence in so many critiques of late capitalism; its celebrated ethos seems so antithetical to the personal ethic of Alfred Lambert that one might think Franzen had made a mistake in sending Alfred's children East—if Franzen intends to set up an antithetical binary, it should be the younger generation's California vs. the elders' Midwest. And yet the Midwest never has seemed to be in any ideological relation whatsoever to California; can you think of any novel or even film that plays the two off one another?
At any rate, Franzen's success in dealing with the "problems" of contemporary society is founded, I would argue, on the cohesion of the strategies by which he contains them rather than the extent to which he faces them novelistically. That is not to demean his achievement, but rather to identify it properly and to suggest why certain other novels which also attempt to "deal" with late modern society do so haphazardly and rather poorly. (No names, although Benjamin Kunkel might do well to listen for his next book, and Jonathan Safran Foer.)
Reading about the list of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, I remember someone (I forget who) pointing out how few of them write anything set in America. And that is not just a matter of the rather obvious fact that many of them are first- or second-generation immigrants, for that does not in any way prevent them writing American-set novels, but rather that other places in the world—Russia, Latin America, and West Africa especially—are now easier to distill into a novel's setting, or are when you're writing for an American audience which cares little and knows less about such places.
But if writers are looking to non-American locales to stage their confrontations with America's problems (because while Absurdistan, for one, may say a great deal about post-Soviet Russia, it is just as biting in its critique of America's consumerism, cultural politics, and racial anxieties), what does this mean for America? Have we as a culture become so tentacular a creature that it is far too much work for any writer to try to locate the body among all the writhing appendages? I'm not sure, but I have a hunch the answer is yes.