- Post-Cold War Paranoia in The Corrections and The Sopranos
This essay proposes that Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections (2001) and David Chase’s television series The Sopranos (1999–2006) offer cultural indices of the contemporary habitus of much of middle-class U.S. society and potential signs of an emergent strain of “late postmodernist” representation. These narratives supersede the demanding experimentalism of Pynchonesque or David Lynch-style “high postmodernism,” and offer instead the accessible and pleasurable incorporation of modernist flourish and postmodern play into traditional realist narrative. Their hybrid mimesis, perhaps unique to our turn-of-the-century moment, has achieved considerable popular appeal among audiences who, long since immersed in the schizophrenic intensities of near-universal commodification, can powerfully “relate to” such narrative farragoes of psychic fragmentation, the “decline” of the family, and the newfound paranoias of globalization. More specifically, these two paradigmatic texts symbolically code the political unconscious of the post-Cold War, professional-managerial class of North America. Such popular entertainments appeal to the (primarily, though not exclusively) white-collar middle class—the “blue” or “metro” demographics—by staging a metonymic realism without the consolations of myth or symbol, without the telos or metaphysics of master metaphor. Firmly established within the “low-mimetic” modes of comedy and realism, even as they are intermittently destabilized by the ironies and self-reflexivity of postmodernism, these narratives might be said to express the contemporary disquietudes and pathologies of “business as usual.
Being lectured by the President on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in the country.
Senator John Kerry, televised presidential debate, 13 October 2004
In the autumn of 2001, novelist Jonathan Franzen said of his burgeoning best-seller, The Corrections, “I feel like I’m solidly in the high-art literary tradition.” The comment, occasioned by Oprah Winfrey’s selection of the novel for her televised book club, sparked a media debate over the appropriateness of such a high-brow attitude in twenty-first-century American culture, whose egalitarian array of market niches would (some alleged) belie any old-fashioned binary between elite and mass cultures.1 It was a popular magazine, I want to suggest, that supplied us later that year with a cognitive map to clarify the debate: the Atlantic Monthly, whose oft-cited David Brooks article, “One Nation, Slightly Divisible,” popularized the notion of “Red America” and “Blue America.” Brooks’s piece torques the status poles of elite v. mass culture with a political wrench; though he does not discuss literature, his investigation of contemporary markers of consumption offers a sociopolitical critique of the judgment of taste, in an analysis we might call “Bourdieu lite” for twenty-first-century U.S. culture. This red-blue trope of national politics has since been refined and elaborated in the popular media, most recently in John Sperling’s widely read The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America (2004), which proposes that “a closer look at this divide reveals that it is not only political but also geographic, economic, religious, cultural, and social” (2). I will not here examine the theoretical viability of this multidimensional schism; instead, I want to propose that if such an admittedly schematic divide does exist, then Franzen’s novel of middle-class angst, together with its pre-eminent television analogue, The Sopranos, offers us a cultural index of the contemporary habitus of much of “blue America.” Indeed, for the eager audiences of the various “blue” demographics, The Corrections and The Sopranos afford parallel experiences—the one in the realm of literary fiction, the other in the realm of visual narrative—of a collective interpellation at once “straight” and ironic. These narratives abjure the formal experimentalism of Pynchonesque or David Lynch-style “high postmodernism” and offer instead a distinctively “accessible” and pleasurable incorporation of modernist flourishes and postmodern play into traditional realist narrative, thereby achieving considerable popular appeal among audiences who, long since immersed in the schizophrenic intensities of near-universal commodification, can powerfully “relate” to the narrative farragoes of psychic fragmentation, the “decline” of the family, and diffuse paranoia now on general offer.
Most especially, I would suggest that this...