Ducking out

When Jonathan Franzen's acclaimed novel, The Corrections, was selected by Oprah Winfrey to appear on her TV book club, he was dragged back to his home town to be filmed, quite literally in his own back yard. The only problem was that the writer had long since left St Louis behind, and was reluctant to revisit the memories of his past. Something had to give. Here he recalls the experience that brought him out in a rash

On a chilly morning in late September, by the side of a truck-damaged road that leads past brownfields to unwholesome-looking wholesalers, a TV producer and his cameraman are telling me how to drive across the Mississippi river towards St Louis. And what, approximately, I should be feeling as I do. "You're coming back for a visit," they say. "You're checking out the skyline and the Arch."

The cameraman, Chris, is a barrel-chested red-faced local with a local accent. The producer, Gregg, is a tall, good-looking cosmopolitan, with fashion-model locks. Through the window of my rental car, Gregg gives me a walkie-talkie with which to communicate with him and the crew, who will be following me in a minivan.

"You'll want to drive slow," Chris says, "in the second lane from the right."

"How slow?"

"Like, thirty-five."

In the distance I can see commuter traffic, still heavy, on the elevated roadways that feed the Poplar Street bridge. There's a hint of illegality in our plotting by the side of a road here, in East St Louis wastelands suitable for dumping bodies, but we're doing nothing more dubious, morally, than making television. Any commuters we might inconvenience won't know this, of course, but I suspect that if they did know - if they heard the word "Oprah" - most of them would mind the inconvenience less.

After I've tested the walkie-talkie, we drive back to a feeder ramp. I've spent the night in St Louis and have come over the bridge for no other reason than to stage this shot. I'm a Midwesterner who's been living in the East for 24 years. I'm a grumpy Manhattanite who, with what feels like a Midwestern eagerness to co-operate, has agreed to pretend to arrive in the Midwestern city of his childhood and re-examine his roots.

The inbound traffic is heavier than the outbound. A tailgater flashes his high beams as I brake to allow the camera van to pull even with me on the left. Its side panel door is open, and Chris is hanging out with a camera on his shoulder. In the far right lane, a truck is coming up to pass me. "We need you to roll down your window," Gregg says on the walkie-talkie. I roll down the window, and my hair begins to fly.

"Slow down, slow down," Chris barks across the blurred pavement.

I ease up on the gas, watching the road empty in front of me. I am slow and the world is fast. The truck has pulled up squarely to my right, obscuring the Gateway Arch and the skyline that I'm supposed to be pretending to check out.

Chris, leaning from the van with his camera, shouts angrily, or desperately, above the automotive roar: "Slow down! Slow down!"

I have a morbid aversion to obstructing traffic - inherited, perhaps, from my father, for whom an evening at the theatre was a torment if somebody short was sitting behind him - but I obey the shouted order, and the truck on my right roars on ahead of me, unblocking our view of the Arch just as we leave the bridge and sail west.

Over the walkie-talkie, as we reconnoitre for a second take, Gregg explains that Chris was shouting, "not at me but at his assistant, who is driving the van. Every time I slowed down, they had to slow down further. I felt sheepish about this, but I'm happy that nobody got killed.

For the second take, I stay in the far right lane and poke along at half the legal speed limit trying to appear - what? writerly? curious? nostalgic? - while the trucker behind me looses blast after blast on his air horn.

In front of St Louis's historic Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott case was tried, Chris and his helper and I wait in suspense while Gregg reviews the new footage on a handheld Sony monitor. Gregg's beautiful hair keeps falling in his face and has to be shaken back. East of the courthouse, the Arch soars above a planted grove of ash trees. I once wrote a novel that was centred on this monitory stainless icon of my childhood, I once invested the Arch and the counties that surround it with mystery and soul, but this morning I have no subjectivity. I feel nothing except a dullish anxiousness to please. I'm a dumb but necessary object, a passive supplier of image, and I get the feeling that I'm failing even at this.

My third book, The Corrections - a family novel about three East Coast urban sophisticates who alternately long for and reject the heartland suburbs where their aged parents live - will soon be announced as Oprah Winfrey's latest selection for her televised Book Club. A week ago, one of Winfrey's producers, a straight shooter named Alice, called me in New York to introduce me to some of the responsibilities of being an Oprah author. "This is a difficult book for us," Alice said. "I don't think we're going to know how to approach it until we start hearing from our readers." But in order to produce a short visual biography of me and an impressionistic summary of The Corrections, the producers would need "B-roll" filler footage to intercut with "A-roll" footage of me speaking. Since my book-tour schedule showed a free day in St Louis the following Monday (I was planning to visit some old friends of my parents), might it be possible to shoot B-roll in my former neighbourhood?

"Certainly," I said. "And what about filming me here in New York?"

"We may want to do that, too," Alice said.

I volunteered that between my apartment and my studio, in Harlem, which I share with a sculptor friend of mine, there was quite a lot of visual interest in New York!

"We'll see what they want to do," Alice said. "But if you can give us a full day in St Louis?"

"That would be fine," I said, "although St Louis doesn't really have anything to do with my life now."

"We may want to take another day later and do some shooting in New York," Alice said, "if there's time after your tour."

One of the reasons I'm a writer is that I have uneasy relations with authority. The only time I've ever worn a uniform was during my sophomore year at high school, when I played the baritone horn for the Marching Statesmen of Webster Groves High School. I was 15 and growing fast; between September and November I got too big for my uniform. After the last home game of the Statesmen's football season, I walked off the field and passed through crowds of girl seniors and juniors in tight jeans and long scarves. Dying of uncoolness, I tugged down my tuxedo pants to try to cover my ridiculous spats. I undid the brass buttons of my orange-and-black tunic and let it hang open rebelliously. I looked, if anything, even less cool this way, and I was spotted almost immediately by the band director, Mr Carson. He strode over and spun me around and shouted in my face. "Franzen, you're a Marching Statesman! Either you wear this uniform with pride or you don't wear it at all. Do you understand me?"

When I accepted Winfrey's endorsement of my book, I took to heart Mr Carson's admonition. I understood that television is propelled by images, the simpler and more vivid the better. If the producers wanted me to be Midwestern, I would try to be Midwestern.

By now, on Monday morning, as I stand in the shadow of an Arch that means nothing to me, the rash has coalesced into a flaming, shingles-like band of pain and itching around the lower right side of my torso. This is an entirely unprecedented category of affliction for me. The itching abated during the excitement of filming on the bridge, but while we wait for Gregg to sign off on the footage I want to claw myself savagely.

Gregg at last looks up from his little monitor. Though visibly dissatisfied with the second take, he announces that a third take won't be necessary. Chris, the cameraman, grins like a hunting dog whose instincts have been vindicated. He's wearing jeans and a corduroy shirt; he looks as if he'd listened to the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd in his youth. Gregg, for his part, seems like a person to whom The Smiths and New Order were important. As he and I drive west out of the city, I wait for him to ask me questions about St Louis or to joke with me about the tedium and artificiality of what we're doing, but he has messages to return on his cell phone. He has an expensive crew, a marginally co-operative actor, and seven hours of daylight left.

To free up Monday for shooting, I did my socialising on Sunday at the home of my parents' old next-door neighbours, Glenn and Irene Patton. The Pattons had foreseen better than I the difficulty of visiting too many people sequentially, and they'd called me in New York to offer to host a small reception.

I pulled into my old street, Webster Woods, at three o'clock, approaching the Pattons' from the direction that didn't take me past my family's house. A light rain of no season, neither summer nor autumn, was coming down; a gang of crows was cawing in some tree. Although Glenn had recently had both of his knees replaced and Irene had just recovered from a genuine case of shingles, the two Pattons looked happy and healthy when they met me at their door.

Through the windows of their kitchen, where I made ineffectual gestures of helping with refreshments, I could see the back of my old house. Irene spoke warmly of the young couple who lived in it now. She told me what she knew of their lives and of their improvements to the house in the two years since my brothers and I had sold it. Our tiny back yard was now a parking lot for a medium-sized boat and a tremendous SUV [sport utility vehicle]. The grass appeared to have been paved over, but I couldn't tell for sure, because I couldn't stand to look for more than a second.

"I told them you were coming," Irene said, "and they said you're more than welcome to come over and see the house, if you'd like."

"I don't want to see it."

"Oh, I know," Irene said. "Ellie Smith, when I called to invite her for today, said she hadn't driven down this street since you boys sold the house. She says it's just too painful for her."

The Pattons' doorbell began to ring. We'd invited four other couples who had known my parents well and whom I hadn't seen since my mother died. There was something of the miracle now in watching them arrive two by two and settle in the Pattons' carpeted living room, in seeing all of them so alive and so much themselves. They were close to my parents' age - in their 70s and 80s - and my memories of some of them were as old as my oldest memories of my parents. If you really get the death of a person you love, as I had finally and reluctantly got the death of my parents, then you know that the first and most fundamental fact of it is that you will never again see the person as a living, smiling, speaking body. This is the mysterious basic substance of the loss. To put my arms around women with whom my mother had played bridge for much of her life, to shake the large hands of men with whom my father had cleared brush or found fault with Ronald Reagan's presidency, was to feel loss and its contrary simultaneously.

Any of these couples could have been my parents, still 100% alive, still making light of their ailments, still accepting from Glenn Patton one of his famously well poured drinks, still loading up small plates with raw vegetables and assorted dessert bars and baked Brie with a sweet tapenade. And yet they were not my parents. There was an altered house next door to prove it. There was a boat and a bloatational SUV in the back yard.

By the time the party ended and I sat down to watch some Rams football in the Pattons' family room, a big autumn wind was picking up outside, drying the street and lightening the sky. I thought of the last page of Swann's Way: The wind that "wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in little wavelets, like a real lake." The great oak trees that helped Marcel "to understand how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses." And his conclusion: "The reality that I had known no longer existed".

This was a lesson I'd absorbed long before my mother died. Visiting her at home, I'd been disappointed again and again by the thinness, the unvividness, of rooms that in my memory were steeped in almost magical significance. And now, I thought, I had even less cause to go seeking the past in that house. If my mother wasn't going to come walking up the driveway in her housecoat with her hands full of the crabgrass she'd pulled or the twigs she'd picked up off the lawn, if she wasn't going to emerge from the basement with an armload of wet sheets that she'd been waiting to hang on the clothes line once the rain stopped (she'd always liked the smell of sheets that had hung outside), then the scene in the Pattons' windows didn't interest me. As I sat watching football and listened to the barren wind, I believed that the reason I couldn't stand to look at my old house was that I was done with it: that I didn't want to feel the inevitable nothing when I went inside it, I didn't want to have to blame an innocent house for still existing after its meaning had been emptied out.

But the show must go on! We shoot four takes of me making a left turn into Webster Woods, Gregg stopping us after each take so that he can examine it on his morning tour. We do multiple takes of me driving very slowly toward my old house. Over the walkie-talkie, one of the men suggests that I look around curiously, as if I hadn't been here in a while. We reshoot the same scene with Chris in the passenger seat, capturing my point of view through the windshield and then wedging himself against the door to capture me looking around curiously, as if I hadn't been here in a while.

By one o'clock, we're parked at the bottom of the little hill on which my old house sits. The new owners have built a retaining wall across the incline up which I used to struggle to push a lawnmower. The wall is pink - the effect is of a Lego fortress - but maybe there's a long-term plan to let ivy grow and cover it. After a moment, I have to look away. The sky and the sun are brilliant, the local trees still green. Three small kids are playing outside the only new house, an ugly stuccoed box, that's been built on the street since I lived here. Gregg is asking the children's mother for permission to film them. I don't know the mother. I used to know everybody in Webster Woods, but now I know only the Pattons.

For half an hour, while the crew films generic American children romping on generic grass, I sit in the sun on a triangular traffic island across the street from the Pattons'. I try not to claw myself where I itch. Behind me is a young oak tree that my family planted after my father died. My father had left no instructions for his burial or cremation - had always refused to discuss the matter - and so we decided to plant a tree on this island where he'd cut grass and raked leaves for nearly 30 years. We scattered some of his ashes around the tree and installed a small marble marker engraved "In Memory of Earl Franzen". I have a feeling that this tree would interest Gregg, and I don't quite understand my resolve not to tell him about it. Certainly, if I'm protecting my privacy it's perverse of me to be annoyed that the crew is lavishing attention on someone else's children.

After Gregg has run to my car to get a release form for the mother to sign, I am summoned to stroll down the street while Chris, shooting, backs away from me. Gregg asks me to say a few words about the street, and I deliver a short paean to the place, my happiness in growing up here, my affection for the schools and the Congregational church.

Gregg is frowning. "Something more specifically about this neighbourhood."

"Well, obviously, it's a suburban neighbourhood."

"Something about what kind of people live here."

My feeling about the people who live here is that they're not the people who used to live here, and that I hate them for this. My feeling is that I would die of rage if I had to live on this street where I once lived so happily. My feeling is that this street, my memory of it, is mine; and yet I patently own none of it, not even the footage being shot in my name.

So I deliver, for the camera, a brief sociology lecture on how the neighbourhood has changed, how the homes have been expanded, how much more money the new families have. The truth content of this lecture is probably near zero. Irene Patton has come out of her house and waves to me from her front yard. I wave back as to a stranger.

"Are you sure we can't shoot you in front of your house?" Gregg says. "Just in front of it, not inside it?"

"I'm really sorry," I say, "but I don't want to." And then, because I don't understand what it is that I'm protecting, I have a spasm of regret for being so difficult. I tell Gregg that I'll give him a picture of the house in winter with snow on it. "You can show the picture," I say.

Gregg tosses his hair back. "And you'll definitely give us that."


But Gregg still seems unhappy with me, and so I find myself offering him the tree. I explain to him about the tree, I tell the story, but the effect isn't what I hoped for. He seems only mildly interested as I lead the crew back to the triangle and point out the marble marker. Irene Patton is still in her yard, but I don't even look at her now.

For another half-hour we shoot me and the tree from many angles and distances. I walk slowly toward the tree, I stand in front of the tree contemplatively, I pretend to contemplate the inscription at the base of the tree. The itching on my torso reminds me of the scene in Alien where the newly hatched alien erupts through the space traveller's chest.

Apparently, I'm failing to emote.

"You're looking up at the tree," Gregg coaches. "You're thinking about your father."

My father is dead, and I, too, am feeling dead. I remember and then make myself forget that some of my mother's ashes were scattered here as well. While Chris zooms and pans, I am mainly registering the configuration of oak twigs on my retina, trying to remember the size of the tree when we planted it, trying to calculate its annual growth rate; but part of me is also watching me. Part of me is imagining how this will play on TV: as schmaltz. Rendering emotion is what I do as a writer, and this tree is my material, and now I'm helping to ruin it. I know I'm ruining it because Gregg is frowning at me the way I might frown at a faulty ballpoint pen. That my belly and back are itching so insanely is almost a relief, because it distracts me from the shame of failing to do justice to my father and his tree. How I wish I hadn't offered Gregg this tree! But how could I not have offered something?

I am failing as an Oprah author, and the team and I are finishing up some final strolling footage, well into our third hour in Webster Woods, when I complete the failure. Five words come bursting from my chest like a hideous juvenile alien. I say, "This is so fundamentally bogus!"

Chris, to my surprise, raises his face from his eyepiece and laughs and nods vigorously. "You're right!" His voice is loud with merriment and something close to anger. "You're right, it is totally bogus!"

Gregg, stone-faced, merely looks at his watch. Time is short, and the author is being difficult.

From Webster Woods we drive out through the western reaches of the county to the Museum of Transportation, a glorified track siding to which rail roads have delivered obsolete rolling stock, perhaps taking charitable tax deductions for their trouble. I have no particular fascination with trains and I've never been to the museum, but a transportation museum makes a cameo in The Corrections, and one of the novel's main characters is a railroad man. So my job is to stand or walk near trains and look contemplative. I do this for an hour.

When it's time for me to leave for the bookstore where I'm reading and signing tonight, I shake Gregg's hand and say I hope he got some footage he can use. In the gloom of his reply I recognise a fellow perfectionist and worrier, whose retakes are the equivalent of my rewrites. "I guess I'll find some way to make it work," he says.

Borders book store in Brentwood is crowded when I arrive. One of my publisher's publicists, a St Louis native named Pete Miller, has just flown in and has brought to the reading his sister, his girlfriend, and a bottle of single-malt scotch for me to drink on my tour. Seeing him now, after a day with strangers, I feel among family again. It's not simply that I've worked with the same smallish publisher for 14 years, or that Pete and his colleagues feel more like friends than like business associates. It's that Pete and his girlfriend have just come from New York, and New York is the city, of all the cities in the world, that feels to me like the home I grew up in. My parents had me late in life, and my most typical experience as a child was to be left to my own devices while adults went to work and had parties. That's what my New York is.

Homesick, I nearly throw my arms around Pete. Only after I've given my reading does the full scope of my connection to this other home, this St Louis, become apparent. In the signing line are scores of acquaintances - former classmates, parents of my friends, friends of my parents, Sunday-school teachers, fellow-actors in school plays, teachers from high school, co-workers of my father's, bridge partners of my mother's, people from church, near and distant old neighbours from Webster Woods. The new owner of my family's house, the man I've been hating all day, has driven over to greet me and to give me a relic from the house: a brass door knocker with my family's name on it. I take the knocker and shake his hand. I shake everybody's hand and drink the scotch that Pete has poured me. I soak up the good will of people who demand nothing from me, who've simply stopped by to say hello, maybe get a book signed, for old times' sake.

From the bookstore I head straight for the airport. I'm due to take the evening's last flight to Chicago, where, in the morning, Alice and I will tape 90 minutes of interview for Oprah. Earlier today, while I was doing my best to look contemplative for the camera, Winfrey publicly announced her selection of my book and praised it in terms that would have made me blush if I'd been lucky enough to hear them. One of my friends will report that Winfrey said the author had poured so much into the book that "he must not have a thought left in his head". This will prove to be an oddly apt description.

Beginning the next night, in Chicago, I'll encounter two kinds of readers in signing lines and in interviews. One kind will say to me, essentially, "I like your book and I think it's wonderful that Oprah picked it"; the other kind will say, "I like your book and I'm so sorry that Oprah picked it." And, because I'm a person who instantly acquires a Texas accent in Texas, I'll respond in kind to each kind of reader. When I talk to admirers of Winfrey, I'll experience a glow of gratitude and good will and agree that it's wonderful to see television expanding the audience for books. When I talk to detractors of Winfrey, I'll experience the bodily discomfort I felt when we were turning my father's oak tree into schmaltz, and I'll complain about the Book Club logo. I'll get in trouble for this. I'll achieve unexpected sympathy for Dan Quayle when, in a moment of exhaustion in Oregon, I conflate "high modern" and "art fiction" and use the term "high art" to describe the importance of Proust and Kafka and Faulkner to my writing. I'll get in trouble for this, too. Winfrey will disinvite me from her show because I seem "conflicted". I'll be reviled from coast to coast by outraged populists. I'll be called a "motherfucker" by an anonymous source in New York magazine, a "pompous prick" in Newsweek, an "ego-blinded snob" in the Boston Globe, and a "spoiled, whiny little brat" in the Chicago Tribune. I'll consider the possibility, and to some extent believe, that I am all of these things. I'll repent and explain and qualify, to little avail. My rash will fade as mysteriously as it blossomed; my sense of dividedness will only deepen.

But this is all still in the future as I speed north on I-170, veering through the underlit lanes, my stomach empty, my head a little woolly with scotch. The brass doorknocker has upset me. I've left it in Pete Miller's care because I don't want to have it. (It will resurface months later in my editor's desk.) I don't want to hold the knocker, don't even want to look at it, for the same reason that I've been averting my eyes from my old house. Not because it reminds me of how empty of meaning the house is now but because the house is perhaps not so empty after all. The distant past may live only in my head, and my memories of it may merely be mocked by the sterile present, but there are much more recent and much more painful memories that I haven't touched at all: memories that I've tried to leave behind me in the house.

For example, there's the little Pyrex dish of canned peas that I found in the refrigerator the last time my mother was in the hospital. She had long ago reconciled herself to staying in the house while her children fled to the coasts. We invited her to move to one of the coasts herself, but the house was her life, it was what she still had, it was not so much the site of her loneliness as the antidote to it. But she was often very alone there, and I was always at pains, in New York, not to remember this aloneness. Generally, I managed to forget it pretty well, but when I flew into town on the day of her last surgery I found unavoidable reminders in the house: a soiled towel soaking in a bucket in the basement, a half finished crossword by her bed. For the week or so before she was hospitalised, my mother couldn't keep any food down, and by the time I arrived her refrigerator was empty of almost everything but ancient condiments and delicacies. On the top shelf there was just a quart of skim milk, a tiny can of green peas with a square of foil on top, and, next to this can, a dish containing a single bite of peas. I was ambushed and nearly destroyed by this dish of peas. I was forced to imagine my mother alone in the house and willing herself to eat a bite of something, anything, a bite of peas, and finding herself unable to. With her usual frugality and optimism, she'd put both the can and the dish in the refrigerator, in case her appetite returned.

The last day I was ever in the house, three months later, I worked with one of my brothers to make last-minute repairs and to box my old belongings. We'd been going at it 12 and 14 hours a day that week, and I was packing furiously up to the moment I went to fetch a rental truck. I didn't have time to feel much of anything but the pleasure of getting the boxes labelled, the truck loaded up; and then suddenly it was time for me to leave. I went looking for my brother to say goodbye to him. I happened to pass my old bedroom, I found myself stopping in the hallway to look inside, and it occurred to me that I would never see this room again ; a wave of grief rose up in me. I ran down the stairs, breathing heavily through my mouth, not seeing well. I clapped my arms around my brother and ran, just ran, from the house and hopped in the truck and drove too fast down the driveway, ripping a branch off a tree in my hurry to get on the road. I think I made myself be done then. I think the implicit promise I gave myself that afternoon, the promise I would have broken if I'd gone back inside the house today, was that I had left for the last time and would never have to leave again. Promises, promises. I'm speeding toward the airport.

© Jonathan Franzen, 2001. Originally published in The New Yorker (

Jonathan Franzen

The GuardianTramp

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