Like Franzen himself at times, in the public arena if not on the page, Russ is so intolerable and so uncool, such an ungainly apparition from an earlier era, that you sense him on the verge of redemption, of coming out the other side. Franzen’s cultural situation these past two decades sometimes reminds me of Orson Welles’s comment to Kenneth Tynan: “My trouble is that I exude affluence. I look successful. Whenever the critics see me, they say to themselves: It’s time he was knocked — he’s had it too good for too long. But I haven’t.”
The Hildebrandt kids are all right, or so they seem at first. But Clem, who’s gone off to college, is returning with news (he’s volunteered to fight in Vietnam) that will gravely wound his pacifist father. Becky is a strait-laced high school social sovereign — everything she does is front-page drive-in news — who discovers the counterculture degradations of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, albeit not in that order. Her younger brother Perry is a high-I.Q. misfit and drug dealer. He’s like a bowling ball spinning, at velocity, toward some unknown target.
Franzen threads these stories, and their tributaries, so adeptly and so calmly that at moments he can seem to be on high-altitude, nearly Updikean autopilot. The character who cracks this novel fully open — she’s one of the glorious characters in recent American fiction — is Marion, Russ’s wife.
When we first meet her, she’s a frump, virtually a nonentity, an overweight pastor’s spouse, invisible except as a “warm cloud of momminess.” Russ, who puts people in mind of Atticus Finch and a young Charlton Heston, is embarrassed by Marion and “her sorry hair, her unavailing makeup, her seemingly self-spiting choice of dress.”
Marion is another of Franzen’s awkward, mortified women, like Enid Lambert and Patty Berglund, who come full circle. Franzen methodically begins to peel back the layers of Marion’s life, layers that are largely unknown to her husband and family: her months in a mental hospital when in her 20s, her doomed affair with a married car dealer out West, an abortion available only at the mercy of a man who rapes her repeatedly over many days.
Marion, in mid-novel, wakes up. “She was a mother of four,” she realizes, “with a 20-year-old’s heart.” She’s not a good person, she tells herself. She lies; she steals jewelry. Later in the novel she punctures whatever is left of Russ’s vanity. Sometimes, only the devil’s logic seems to apply to her. She can resemble a character out of Muriel Spark’s fiction, a thwarted girl of slender means who becomes an unlikely heroine.