The names George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden don't appear once in Jonathan Franzen's novel "The Corrections." And yet the book, which was published on Sept. 1, 2001, anticipates almost eerily the major concerns of the next seven years. Franzen conjures up a nation kept awake at night by nameless dread. The second sentence of the book: "You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen." Something did, of course—but anyone who revisits "The Corrections" now will be reminded how many of the preoccupations we've labeled as "post-9/11," or "Bush era," in fact predate both. In his story of the Lamberts, a Midwestern family with three adult children who resist their mother's hysterical insistence that they make it home for one last Christmas, Franzen lays out many of the themes that would come to dominate the millennium's first decade: global warming, economic recession, HMOs, psychopharmaceuticals, viral marketing, Eastern European instability, even the organic-food movement. (Just one trivial, but spot-on, example: Denise, the daughter, who is a chef, investigates "the Smith Street culinary scene in Brooklyn." Fast-forward seven years, to July 9, 2008, and you'll find an article in The New York Times about "the culinary flowering of Brooklyn," centered on Smith Street.)
Of course, it is impossible to talk about "The Corrections" without noting the dustup that occurred when Oprah Winfrey selected the novel for her book club. After Franzen made some ungracious remarks about being in the company of her past "schmaltzy" selections, he was labeled elitist, and she withdrew the invitation. Even this controversy now feels prophetic, as a strain of anti-intellectualism has become prevalent in the national conversation, as exemplified by Bush's avowed suspicion of "fancy talk." In the presidential election, the term "elitist" functioned as code for anti-American, to the degree that Obama (whom both Oprah and Franzen endorsed) found it necessary to point out during his campaign that he and his wife, Michelle, are not "elitist, pointy-headed intellectual types."
In truth, "The Corrections" is anything but elitist: it is a warm social novel on an epic scale, the sort of cultural temperature-taking that scores of novelists (Don DeLillo, Jay McInerney, Jonathan Safran Foer) tried to pull off in the years that followed. Most have been hamstrung by the 9/11 problem: it's too big to be ignored, but too unwieldy to be tackled head-on. Eventually someone will write a post-9/11 novel that successfully incorporates the attacks with the anxieties that were already simmering in our collective psyche in the summer of 2001. Until then, "The Corrections" serves as an excellent corrective to the idea that our culture can be neatly divided into "before" and "after" the events of seven years ago.