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This American Life

Two novels offer a take on contemporary culture. Salman Rushdie tries to get by with a satire, while Jonathan Franzen's family drama scores all the points.

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On the first page of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, the narrator thinks that "something terrible" is about to happen; on the first page of Salman Rushdie's, the narrator talks of "living in a golden age." Weirdly, both novels are talking about the same historical and cultural moment in contemporary America. Both novels, curiously, aim to shed light on the same complex cultural conundrum: the way in which the material and technological superabundance that characterizes the current culture (this "golden age") has only aggravated its underlying moral and emotional emptiness ("something terrible").

The big surprise here isn't necessarily the answers these authors provide -- there's no aspect of consumerist, materialist, postcolonialist American society that hasn't been scrutinized at this point -- but the books they've written. Rushdie, the revered veteran known for sprawling works like Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses, has penned a slender, cynical, and rather empty black comedy about a grumpy philosophy professor named Solly Solanka who leaves London to find himself in a New York that's being terrorized by a highly metaphorical serial killer. (The "Concrete Killer" wanders the better neighborhoods, bonking paragons of American success -- rich young blondes with hot urban careers -- over the head with chunks of the eponymous building material.) Franzen, a relative newcomer, has crafted a moving epic for our time, a juicy, intricate, witty, tragic saga of a single dysfunctional midwestern family whose ills and anxieties reflect those of the country and culture as a whole.

The Corrections has a shopworn premise -- as the patriarch Al Lambert succumbs to Parkinson's, his ditzy wife Enid tries to gather the family for one last Christmas -- but there's nothing cliché about what ensues. The best way to suggest the richness of this novel's themes and the artistry of its structure is to catalogue the "corrections" its flawed yet appealing characters so desperately try to make. Chip Lambert, a 39-year-old former professor of literary theory who dreams of being a screenwriter and has just submitted his first screenplay, desperately tries to get it backin order to make a "major, quick set of corrections" before a producer can see it. (The juxtaposition of "major" and "quick" in that sentence gives you a sense of Franzen's tart appreciation for his characters' capacity for self-deception, which in this case extends to Chip's thinking that his obscure script will have any appeal.) Chip's older brother, Gary, a banker with lots of money, a beautiful family, and a serious case of depression, realizes that "his entire life was set up as a correction of his father's life." A yellowing patent developed by that same father, the emotionally unavailable Al, holds the key to a neurobiological process that a greedy biotech start-up called Axon has dubbed "Corecktall," which will reverse the effects of Alzheimer's -- and, poignantly, of Parkinson's.

Long ago, when he was an emotionally frozen young father married to a status-obsessed, attention-starved woman, Al had hoped that his youngest child, Denise, would allow him to "make corrections" for his earlier emotional mistakes. Years later, Denise, a brilliant, deeply self-destructive, bisexual chef, grasps the reasons for her unhappiness almost too late, realizing "the extent of the correction she was undergoing "only after her father falls ill. As for Chip, he tries to correct his professional failures by running off to Lithuania to help design a Website intended to enhance that country's appeal for American investment -- a project that begins as a joke and ends upbeing taken seriously. And Enid (like so many fin de siècle Americans, Franzen implies) prefers to turn a blind eye to the profound emotional and psychological corrections taking place at home, worrying instead about the stock market, attending seminars with names like "Surviving the Corrections." (It's typical that she's trying to survive the wrong corrections.)

All of this could have added up to a wistful little family tragedy leavened by gentle satire of midwestern life. What elevates TheCorrections to the level of serious literature is the way in which the author connects the Lambert's world to the world. Al's losing battles with both Axon and Parkinson's -- and, at one point, a desperate Enid's flirtation with an ecstasy-like party drug -- allow Franzen to critique the contemporary obsession with chemical fixes, just as Chip's stint in Vilnius provides a vehicle for some poignantly hilarious send-ups of post-Soviet global politics and the false promise of the Internet, just as Enid's and Gary's manic preoccupation with the market makes room for a stinging critique of the nineties gold rush. Out of these and other richly colored narrative threads, Franzen weaves a tapestry that reveals the ills of the era, one in which quick fixes and slickly convenient narratives of success have proved to be as hollow as they are hard to abandon.

"The structure of the entire culture is flawed," the ineffectual Chip concludes. It's a judgment we've all heard by now, but the scope of Franzen's novel -- the variety and detail of the flaws he's identified, the profundity with which he's explored them -- has earned him the right to make it. In any event, what makes The Corrections so memorable isn't the accuracy of its cultural criticisms but its humanity -- Franzen's affection for its flawed, subtly drawn characters and their cracked dreams. That affection is evident in the final pages, in which Franzen, who acknowledges the seriousness of his subject by refusing to provide a conventionally "happy" ending, nonetheless honors these deeply American characters by offering just the tiniest ray of hope for true and long-lasting"correction." The Lambert family may be in sore need of repair, but the novel they inhabit requires none.

Salman Rushdie is also worried about the state of American culture, but his cynical satire is, if anything, symptomatic of the problems he's lampooning. Like Franzen's book, Rushdie's has more than one target in its crosshairs: celebrity culture, advertising culture, ethnic slaughter, serial killers, Elián, Lewinsky, literary fame, "the eternal confessional booth of Ricki and Oprah and Jerry" -- the whole tired, poor, and huddled mass of cultural ills and obsessions. But as Solly Solanka's search fora new self in the land of opportunity continues (and as the ongoing search for the Concrete Killer points increasingly to the blackout-prone Solly himself), Fury seems increasingly like little more than an excuse for Rushdie to furiously blow offsteam. There's nothing really memorable or fresh about the cultural critiques you find here, from the too-easy en passant sideswipes (Monica is "Minnie Mouth") to the Barcalounger aperçus about commercialism ("everybody, as well as everything, was for sale") or celebrity. "The more he became a Personality, the less like a person he felt," the narrator gravely observes. Given Rushdie's own increasingly precipitous slide into Personality-hood lately, it's hard not to see his latest novel as a case of protesting too much -- filled with sound and fury, but signifying relatively little.

The Corrections
By Jonathan Franzen.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 568 pages; $26.00.
Fury
By Salman Rushdie.
Random House; 264 pages; $24.95.


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