In James Wood’s influential review, “Human, All Too Inhuman,” of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, he discussed what he calls “the littleness of the big novel.” His point, put somewhat crudely, was that as the ambition of novelists grows to include encompassing the entire geographical, political, and philosophical spectrum, works of fiction end up losing their humanity. As Smith herself said, “It is not the writer’s job to tell us how somebody felt about something; it’s to tell us how the world works.” As a result, Wood claims, the movement that he termed “hysterical realism” produces work that “knows a thousand things, but does not know a single human being.”
About a year after Wood’s condemnation of contemporary fiction first appeared in The New Republic, The Corrections was published. Jonathan Franzen’s novel certainly does not lack the kind of ambition Wood talks about: The Corrections spans cities, countries, and continents, covers multiple generations, deals with financial disasters and Eastern European political instability, looks at modern academia and middle-class suburbia. In short, the book does seem to know a thousand things.
And yet Franzen’s story remains wholly grounded and deeply personal. At its heart, The Corrections is a story of a Midwestern family, the Lamberts. The Lambert patriarch, Alfred, is a stubborn, straight-laced, intelligent, and principled man who is suffering from early but unmistakable signs of senility as the novel begins. As Franzen puts it: Continue reading