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A healing catharsis

Jonathan Franzen right now must feel he’s king of the world as novelists go. His publisher, Jonathan Galassi – editor and current head of the distinguished house of Farrar, Strauss, Giroux – sent out this spring some 3,500 advance copies of “The Corrections” to booksellers and reviewers with a nice little note informing them that, in his opinion, this was the best book his house had published in 15 years. Add to that a neat little motion picture deal. What with 90,000 copies in print flooding bookstores this very week, Mr. Franzen is now set up with something like a million dollars.

Not bad for a fellow who had published only two earlier novels to respectable enough reviews but no movie deals and no bestseller listings. But right this very same week that Time magazine is giving him a double-page spread and a priceless quote – “One of the great books of the year” – the New York Review of Books has on its cover “John Leonard: Hot New Novel,” and inside devotes three full, very enthusiastic pages by Mr. Leonard plus a cartoon by celebrated artist David Levine on the exact same novel.

And more. Much more. The New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted three pages, including a full-page photograph of the author: “Jonathan Franzen’s Big Book.” The New York Times is really into Mr. Franzen as, this Tuesday, they led the front page of the Arts section with a review by their prime intellectual book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, headed “A Family Portrait as Metaphor for the ’90s.” The publicity is indeed impressive, but does the book – serious, even grim, looking bleakly at an American family through the last half century – merit such ecstatic reviews? It remains to be seen.

Last week’s New York Observer ran on the front page of its second section a full-page excerpt of a passage Ms. Kakutani in her review found “hilarious.” This is a scene where one of the characters, “hard up for cash, tries to steal a paper-wrapped fillet of Norwegian salmon from a designer food boutique by stuffing it down his pants.” Everyone to his own taste as far as humor goes.

And if all these reviews and coverage weren’t dazzling enough, lo and behold the New Yorker ran, in its September 10 issue, 11 pages featured on the cover in very large bold-face type “Memories of Alzheimer’s” with the following subhead: “Jonathan Franzen on what we choose to remember about the life and death of a loved one.” The account – actually titled “My Father’s Brain” – opens with Franzen recollecting receiving a Valentine package from his mother containing “one pinkly romantic greeting card, two four-ounce Mr. Goodbars, one hollow red filigree heart on a loop of thread and one copy of a neuropathologist’s report on my father’s brain autopsy.”

Now, the 568-page much-publicized novel takes an average family – father, mother, two sons, one daughter – set in a Midwest background in the ’50s to Wall Street and Eastern Europe of the present day. The fictional father, Alfred, after some 48 years of marriage to Enid, is slowly wasting away from Parkinson’s. In a moving and graphic scene at the close of the book, in a hospital with a nursing home pending, Alfred tries to articulate to his favorite son, Chip, his desire to be freed of this body, this life.

The author’s description of his own real-life father slowly crumbling from Alzheimer’s quite closely replicates the power and emotion of the fictional scene. Thus can art sometimes play a deeply healing role in life. At least, let us trust Franzen found comfort through the two re-workings of his father’s last days.