Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Dubya Era Novel

Newsweek has proclaimed Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections to be the most characteristic novel of the Dubya era, the work that most captured what it felt like to live through these past eight years. I'm not buying it.

The argument they make is disjointed and self-contradictory, balancing uneasily on the question of chronology. By publication and composition it's really a pre-9/11 novel, and even a pre-Bush novel. Indeed, it's very consciously about the specific moment of 1999/2000. The title comes from the notion of a stock correction, as the epilogue makes abundantly clear if you hadn't been paying attention—"The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle letdown, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor."

The Newsweek writer tries to get out of the unfortunate chronology of the book's publication by making the case that it was miraculously oracular, concerned with the hottest-button issues of the Oughties—"Franzen lays out many of the themes that would come to dominate the millennium's first decade: global warming, economic recession, HMOs, psychopharmaceuticals, viral marketing, Eastern European instability, even the organic-food movement."

I would question whether any of those things are exclusively the property of the 2000s—I mean, come on, does this writer think that nobody talked about global warming in the 90s? I think my first grade class talked about global warming—in 1991! And, umm, the Whole Foods chain was started back in 1978, so I don't think Franzen's really that prophetic calling its eventual Brooklyn takeover. Oh, and then get this, the article acts like anti-intellectualism first jumped out into the mainstream over the past eight years, so the whole Oprah-Franzen contretemps just prophesied what would become a Really Big Deal For the First Time—presidential candidates acting like they're common folks. (No, really, Obama drinks Bud all the time!)

The article then switches gears and calls the novel "cultural temperature-taking," which sounds to me less like divination than description, but is there any point trying to parse words by this point? What this little exercise showed me is that we—or Newsweek at least—are completely incapable of thinking about the past eight years as an experience. The Corrections comes to stand for the era because it ends in the last year we can bear to think about. We would much rather pretend The Corrections still speaks to and for the life we lived. Or, I should probably say, not we, but a lot of people older than... let's say 29 or 30—anybody who was out of college by 2001.

When I read The Corrections in summer 2007, it felt like ancient history. Partly this was because I read it so long after it was published, but it was also partly because it was describing things I was only dimly aware of in high school. Reading it after the great life-changing event that was graduation, the dot-com bust felt about as recent as the Kosovo conflict, which kind of merged in my memory with the Bosnian and Rwandan conflicts, which didn't feel terribly different temporally speaking from the Gulf War, which felt about contemporaneous with the Berlin Wall falling, which is about as far back as I can reach. I've tried to go back and separate these anachronistically clustered memories by reading about these events and learning their history, and to me, The Corrections is one of my routes back into that past, trying to recover what it was like to be an adult in the (late) Clinton years. I can't imagine a kid graduating from college in six or seven years and feeling that it could also give an insight into the Bush era.

But this is more than just a question of chronology. If it were, we could use inadequate excuses like "it's too soon for a novel to capture the past eight years." Or "the best novels about the past eight years don't deal with them directly but use historical parallels to express the rifts in our society or the issues we face (e.g. Pynchon and a bunch of others using 1890s anarchism as a metaphor for 2000s terrorism or Susan Choi and Hari Kunzru and Dana Spiotta and some others using 60s/70s radicalism/Vietnam etc. as a metaphor for red-blue tensions/Iraq)."

These excuses miss two things. First, as I said, most people really don't want to read a novel about the Bush years. We pretend that what we're really missing is a "real" 9/11 novel—or a "real," good one. We like to pretend that not being able to incorporate that day effectively into our fiction is the real problem. We like to pretend that this is what we're waiting for. But who's waiting for the novel that really makes sense of 2003? Of 2005? I'm not even talking about making sense of Iraq or Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib or even Katrina—all of which must be considered and which will naturally work their way into any good fiction that really comes to terms with this decade. But I'm talking about who's really waiting for a novel that just says what it felt like to wake up on May 17, 2006 in, umm, Peoria or Phoenix or Savannah or someplace. Who wants to read a novel that describes how the past eight years have been lived? I don't think anybody does, or no one wants to write one.

The second thing missed is, what do we really mean when we ask for the "one [novel] that... exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush?" Don't we really mean what one novel says what it was like to be white and well-educated in the era of George W. Bush? Because in that sense, the selection of The Corrections is about as good as we probably have from the period 2001-2008, the poor chronology notwithstanding. You've got The Emperor's Children, and Netherland, and I don't know, but really, this is what we mean by this question, right? We want the whitegeist successor to various Johns—Cheever and Updike and Steinbeck. And what kind of answer are we going to get with such a limited question? In a decade where we have, arguably for the first time, a non-white person being able to create and to some extent control the national narrative, I think it's really crucial to be cognizant of what assumptions goes into such a question.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills yet, and I don't know how representative the experiences of its characters are meant to be taken, but seeing as it was published in 2007 but set in 2003 and concerns the build-up to the war, I'd say it must qualify as a genuine Dubya-era novel.

Tom Elrod said...

It's not a novel, but The Wire seems to encapsulate many of the concerns and anxieties of the past 8 years, and certainly not from a "white and well-educated" background, either

Also, I agree about The Corrections. I'd say it's a hard novel to judge right about now, but maybe it'll feel different in 20 years. How relevant did All the King's Men feel when it was published in 1946, or (to follow the same chronology) when Eisenhower was elected? Point begin, I think The Corrections is a good novel, but it's hard to tell because, as you said, 1999/2000 feels like a very long time ago.

Andrew Seal said...

Oh, I definitely agree about The Wire, and I was even more disappointed in Newsweek to see them pick Battlestar Galactica over David Simon's show as the quintessence of Dubya-Era TV.

I guess I came off as fairly anti-Franzen, which wasn't my intention--I actually liked the novel a whole lot.

M. said...

True, Battlestar Galactica was a poor choice on their part. I like the show, but it only bears a passing resemblance to the Bush years if you look at it through a lens of wishful thinking and squint really hard.

As for books, although it's not a novel per se the pessimistic streak in me would like to nominate The Secret as the most evocative of the feel and disappointment of the Bush years. However, that may just be because I can't think of a real novel that does the job all that particularly well.