Jonathan Franzen has made a career of putting “typical” American families in uncommon situations to try extract in word form some essence of American life. The Corrections was a smash hit on multiple fronts using this formula and Freedom has done very well commercially as well. I have tried to describe my dissatisfaction with both of those novels. I get the feeling that Franzen believes verisimilitude is too boring, but cannot bring himself to embrace magical realism. Or, as James Wood suggests, perhaps Franzen casts an unwieldily wide net, trying “to put too much in.” According to Woods, The Corrections was “wide rather than deep, and smart rather than subtle.” Franzen’s The Corrections is “a kind of glass-bottomed boat through which one can glimpse most of the various currents of contemporary American fiction.”
While Woods stated that The Corrections was an unintentional demonstration that a certain kind of social novel was not viable, he praised Franzen for the excellence of his characterization. The novel succeeded, he suggested, when it focused on character rather than social issues. I think the same criticisms and observations apply to Franzen’s Freedom. The success of that novel is in exploring the intimate relations of its characters. It fails in the direction of caricature to the extent it tries to engage broad political issues, whether environmentalism, cronyism, politics, or population growth.
A lesson of The Corrections seems to have been that the buying public likes a novel that tries to engage a broad array of American social issues through the lens of a disintegrating American family. Other novels have tried to follow that pattern. Eric Puchner’s Model Home is one of those.
The Zillers consist of a Corrections-like family. Two parents who tolerate each other, an older son, middle daughter, and youngest son. There are millions of these, but it seems almost intentional that this is the makeup Puchner chose for his family. The Ziller children have not fled the nest yet. “College-bound” Dustin is a handsome, popular senior in high school and has a garage band formerly called the Deadbeats, Lyle is sixteen and nerdy, and eleven year-old Jonas is dressed completely in orange. Warren, the father, has lied to the family about the disappearance of his car. He told them the car was stolen. It was repossessed. Camille can tell that Warren has a secret and suspects an affair.
The drama of the high schoolers’ lives revolve around sex. Dustin’s girlfriend is holding out until their one-year anniversary. Lyle begins the novel as a virgin. Under the influence of her teen co-worker Shannon, she starts flirting with Hector the security guard for the upscale housing development where the Zillers live. The flirting turns serious enough that Hector writes poems to her and, before summer is out, they are knocking clocks off the wall.
Each family narrates at least a couple chapters of the book. The perspective shifts irregularly with Jonas bearing the lightest load. This passing of the speaking totem permits a greater sense of family while diluting the individual intensity. We are never with Jonas long enough to really understand what is going on with him. He seems the least real, the least convincing. He is there, in orange, almost as a prop, even when he is the center of the action.
The summer of 1985 gives way to the summer of 1986 which passes into the winter of 1986, which seems weird to me. Winter does start in late December, so I suppose that stretch between Christmas 1986 and New Year’s could be called the winter of 1986. It just seems weird to me.
While the sex lives of Dustin and Lyle burgeon, their parents languish in an ailing relationship. Warren remembers a moment of happiness early in their marriage:
Camille had turned to Warren with a look of such stunning affection that he had actually lost his breath. I will never be happier than I am now, Warren had thought. Seventeen years later, he realized how sadly prescient this was. He did not know how he and Camille had ended up like this, so stranded in their own lives that they could barely wish each other good night, but it was one of the several ways in which love – so persuasive in its innocence – had betrayed him.
This melancholic reminiscence is typical of Warren. When he is not trying to unload his inventory of worthless homes, he revels in the decline and fall of his marriage or latches greedily onto family moments that he will later recall with fondness. Warren’s dreams, slow-tracked when he left the University of Chicago School of Law to take care of his pregnant wife Camille, are being destroyed by his own ineptness and some misfortune.
The sexual piccadilloes of Dustin and Lyle play an important role in the disintegration of the Ziller household. They lead to a pair of otherwise unrelated housebreaks. I have to question whether it is wise for an author to have his novel’s plot pivot on two burglaries. One is a bit outlandish. The second pushes the envelope of the credible.
It is odd that Franzen was writing Freedom while Puchner was writing Model Home. Warren and Camille are so much like Patty and Walter. Both are ostensibly liberal families. Camille’s car has bumper stickers covering everything from abortion to nuclear proliferation. Where Walter’s ambitious pro-environment plans fall through, Warren’s real estate venture has landed the family in financial straits, if not ruin. Both families are stumbling toward minor tragedy. Puchner tries to do for the mid-1980s what Franzen in The Corrections tried to do for the late 1990s and in Freedom tries to do for the 2000s.
The sentiment behind the line that sums up life for Warren would not be out of place in the The Corrections if you substitute a car trip for Christmas or in Freedom if you substitute Walter’s house in the woods for Warren’s family auto.
Perhaps, in the end, it was all you could hope for: to get your family together in one car, once or twice a year now that they were older – now that you were going gray yourself – and feel the precious weight of their presence.
The prose is less than ideally fluid with that superfluous “yourself” and the “precious weight of their presence”. Whether my own aversion to this repetition of sounds precious/presence (to say nothing of the cliched scaffolding it decorates) is meritorious, I am confident that Martin Amis would join me in the pedantry. Generally disliking what I know about Amis, I am ashamed he is the best company I can find on this particular gripe. Such sentences do subtract from the whole, particularly when they are summations of character’s end-of-novel views. This is where Puchner pulls up short of Franzen.
Puchner’s glass-bottomed boat gives glimpses of the 1980s real estate market, the politics of ethnicity, garage bands, disfigurement, toxic landfills, and the door-to-door sales business. The virtues of this book, like the merit Wood found in The Corrections, are those times when Puchner “cleav[es] to the human, when he is laying bare the clogged dynamics of his fictional family.” Puchner seems to be less intent than Franzen on making social statements, though he conspicuously touches on many issues. He seems to have realized the pull of a novel like this is family and character. He provides a number of well-imagined scenes with the color of truth. Puchner rarely invests his character’s actions with broad political or social significance. They remain grounded in a way Franzen’s never are.
Still, Puchner escapes the mundane by using coincidences and unlikely behavior, like the break-ins. He uses these last unlikelihoods to tie all his strands together. I think the book could have been improved by having fewer story lines and delving deeper into the most important ones which would have had the salutary effect of eliminating the need for the twin crimes. Like Franzen’s work, Puchner could have improved his novel by sacrificing some breadth for depth.
If you like Franzen’s work, you might want to try Puchner. Puchner does not have quite the stylistic flair of Franzen and his prose feels a little less crisp. But he covers very similar themes in a very similar way. He is better at maintaining the focus on what is important, namely the Zillers, though he does this in part by subjecting them to a statistically unlikely tragedy. Despite Model Home being a good book, I do not think it either can or should make a serious run at the Rooster.