Year’s end found Jonathan Franzen’s third novel and Wes Anderson’s third film occupying the same cultural space, yoked by some overlapping themes and family dynamics: The Lamberts and the Tenenbaums—each comprising two parents, two sons, and a daughter—both manage a final regrouping at the family seat. Time and the Times have already drawn parallels between The Corrections and The Royal Tenenbaums (Rockwellian invocation of family, protracted adolescence), but subtler resonances emerge in the way each work flirts with the other’s form.
The Royal Tenenbaums tips its hat to the colder medium of books and the New Yorker of yore. Current New Yorker writer Jonathan Franzen has turned his long-aborning novel into not just a bestseller but something like a marquee attraction, having created—partly by brilliant writing, partly by putting foot in mouth—a celebrity-grade vortex of fit and retraction.
Anderson’s literary leanings are less a gesture than a pervasive debt, from the calm, almost fairy-tale narration to the preponderance of characters in the paper-blackening racket. What too often seems like chilly metafiction in novels here generates warmth: Middle child Margot has her Three Plays, with its Grove Press-style cover; her husband, Raleigh St. Clair, a belletristic neurologist whose very beard quotes Oliver Sacks, labors on his syndrome-defining Dudley’s World; even Henry Sherman, mother Etheline’s suitor, has penned a handy guide to personal finance. Co-screenwriter Owen Wilson’s character, Eli Cash, steals the show as a Gotham-bred western writer whose purple-sage prose reads hilariously like the end of any Cormac McCarthy book: “Vamonos, amigos, he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddleback. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.”
The centerpiece of the Tenenbaums print ad shows the movie as book, the cast crammed onto a distressed dust jacket; in the film proper, the book covers alone describe a phantom library—objects for attics or the dollar bins at the Strand. Their dead-on design gets a laugh, but not without a pang of promise squandered. Just as the Tenenbaum brood are ex-prodigies, embalmed in their retarded outfits, so too the books encase projects completed and then forgotten, redolent more of mothballs than ars longa. Few recent movies pay such specific attention to the written word, or at least the idea of it; the camera also catches eldest son Chas’s bound copies of Fortune, the bunker of father Royal’s spy novels at the Hotel Lindbergh, a Sports Illustrated cover showing tennist Richie’s center-court collapse. In Anderson’s Rushmore, Max’s plays—scaled-down stagings of adrenalized movies—were of a piece with his own unique energy; here, books silently do the emotional work, each revealed as a faded piece of a lost world. It’s no coincidence that Etheline, doubtless the stablest Tenenbaum, is an archaeologist.
The Corrections is a mighty attempt to make the novel matter in “an age of images,” as Franzen put it in “Perchance to Dream,” his 1996 Harper’s essay. (At once heartfelt and self-serving, that piece now reads like the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the left-field wall, albeit on the five-year plan.) His recent well-publicized anxiety over the role of the literary novel, manifesting as Oprah-phobia, has made The Corrections as omnipresent as anything Winfrey’s ever pitched.
Such analysis would come easy to Chip, the second Lambert son, a disgraced professor of “Textual Artifacts” who moves to New York and tries his hand at a way to make his one skill—writing—pay off: screenwriting, of course. If The Royal Tenenbaums wants to be a book, then The Corrections periodically exhibits a distrust of books (e.g., they’re written by fraudulent colleagues, or are things to be sold for emergency cash) and a doomed drive toward spectacle. Chip’s screenplay is marred by his impractical modernist tactics and unwitting sexism; even his older brother Gary’s task of condensing miles of home video into a “watchable two-hour Greatest Lambert Hits” winds up an exercise in anhedonia. These portraits of failure are all indelibly captured—in words. The novel is dead; long live the novel. (Movie rights, coincidentally, belong to Tenenbaums coproducer Scott Rudin.)
There are myriad other mirrorings between the two works: regal patronymics (Alfred and Royal), investment-savvy (and angry) eldest brothers, the specter of suicide, interior unmooring set at sea (Richie on the Côte d’Ivoire, hopelessly in love with Margot; Enid and a hallucinating Alfred on the Gunnar Myrdal), prologues acknowledging the saint of desperate causes (Tenenbaums‘ original cut had the backstory unfold over “Hey Jude”; The Corrections‘ first section is entitled “St. Jude”). The most intriguing link connects the keenly etched Parkinson’s of Alfred Lambert (Franzen’s own father suffered from Alzheimer’s) with that of Pauline Kael, the late New Yorker movie critic for whom Wes Anderson screened Rushmore in 1998. His account of meeting his ailing idol, and of her sad state of mind, appeared in the Times and as the introduction to his published Rushmore screenplay. Though Royal’s cancer is a ruse and Alfred’s decline all too real, both fatal fathers trigger a last-ditch attempt at understanding; despite its gaiety, The Royal Tenenbaums bears traces of the futility of Anderson’s quest for Kael’s approval, a futility choked with meaning. Anderson’s brave, fascinating sketch of the critic, at once affectionate and somewhat cruel, could read as a variant episode of The Corrections. Family isn’t a word, or a sentence; just a book that can never be closed.