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Zeitgeist Novels for Those Teaching the 1990s

I like to read “period” novels whenever I teach a U.S. history survey course. I unshelf  Howells and Twain when I teach the Gilded Age, dust off Steinbeck for the 1930s, and dive into Angelou and Walker to get an African-American perspective. With the semester winding down, I’ve been reading about the 1990s.

Recent novels are tricky. Books only evolve from “noteworthy” to “classic” in retrospect; lots of heralded works come off as shopworn or silly a decade later. Even good books take on meanings that eluded the first batch of readers. The latter has certainly happened to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) and The Corrections (2001). Both were received in their initial runs­ as if they were sociology as well as literature. So they were, but now each also seems an indictment of Baby Boomers and Generation X excesses. Such generational labels are, of course, media inventions. As a historian, I don’t hold much stock in generational interpretations of the past, so I’ll just call these zeitgeist novels.

A Heartbreaking 3805Work of Staggering Genius was and is a genre-defying work that obliterates the line between fiction and autobiography. Its narrator, Dave Eggers, is both author and principal character. It tells of the travails of the Eggers clan. Paterfamilias John, a nasty drunk, died in 1991, followed the next year by the cancer death of the family rock: Heidi. Her death threw the Eggers children upon their own devices. Eldest son William was already living an independent life in Los Angeles, and soon the remaining children–Beth, Dave, and Christopher–depart Illinois for San Francisco. Challenges arose immediately, as youngest child, “Toph,” was just nine and his primary caretakers were Beth (24) and Dave (22). Both cared deeply for Toph, but neither was prepared to be a parent. (Beth played a larger role than assigned in the book, but she had demons of her own and committed suicide in 2001.)

Anyone who has been to San Francisco knows that it’s a tough town in which to be poor. Dave and Toph eek out a living from their inheritance, Social Security, and whatever work Dave can drum up, but he’s more of a slacker/hipster-wannabe than breadwinner. The book purports to recount his on-the-job-training lessons in responsibility and parenthood, but in retrospect it reads like Eggers’ thinly veiled anger at being robbed of his adolescence. He and Toph trash one cheap rental after  another, as neither is very good at adult basics such as wiping up messes, taking out the garbage, or housekeeping. Dave lands a job, but with a magazine that never made a dime; his real talents include prowess at tossing Frisbees and imagining himself in the sack with sexologist Sari Locker.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius remains a very good read, though a title meant to be ironic now feels solipsistic. Like works such as Running with Scissors, it  has a “look at me” quality whose true irony lies in how badly Gen X mangled attempts to emulate what it lampooned. That is to say, for all the Gen X contempt for Baby Boomers, many of them tried to become hippies and simply weren’t very good at it. Blame the “Dream,” or blame Gen X-fueled MTV, hipster mags, and reality TV. Or, as I prefer to do, read Eggers to gain insight into what confused twenty-somethings were thinking in the 1990s.

heartbreakingJonathan Franzen’s National Book Award-winning The Corrections is the superior novel. Today it seems the ultimate pre-apocalyptic novel as it ends with the Stock Market “correction” of 1999, and was published just months before 9/11/01. The novel tracks the highly dysfunctional Lambert family. Parents Alfred and Enid still live in the prototypical Midwestern town of St. Jude, but their adult children have bolted to the East. Alfred is a retired railroad engineer/inventor who, in his prime, was a tyrant. Parkinson’s and advancing dementia have transformed him from being difficult to being impossible. Enid, his wife of 50 years, realizes time is short, tries to rally Alfred for a few last hurrahs, and harbors the dream of a final family Christmas in St. Jude.

Good luck with that! The kids are to busy making of hash of their lives. Eldest son Gary is a Philadelphia banker obsessed with the Stock Market, all things material, and few things emotional. He has a postcard family, but Gary is either bullied by his equally selfish wife, or is clinically depressed–depending on whose point of view you believe. Middle child Chip, the family intellectual, is a college professor hurtling toward self-destruction by violating the school’s sexual conduct code that he helped write. That avenue leads him to New York, where he fails as a playwright, and to post-Cold War Lithuania, where he falls in with oligarchs. Diane escapes a bad marriage and reinvents herself as a celebrity chef, only to jeopardize it all by having simultaneous affairs with her boss and his wife. Different problems, but each is too mired in imagine a warm-and-fuzzy Christmas in St. Jude.

Franzen’s novel crosses generations—Depression era parents, a Baby Boomer-turned Yuppie eldest son, an idealist-gone-egoist “tweener” middle child, and a Gen X youngest daughter. Each is a metaphor for the hope and greed of the Clinton years. The first brick fell when the dot.com bubble popped in 1999, Nasdaq lost 78% of its value, and its 457 IPOs shrank to just 76 in 18 months. Looming on the horizon: the falling masonry of September 11. Looking back now, The Corrections feels like the warning siren in advance of the tornado.  Rob Weir


1 Comment

  1. Love this, and the course sounds interesting! Franzen’s book is fantastic. Thanks for sharing! If you’re ever interested in some other awesome book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!

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