Franzen makes that quotation from Aristotle amidst a series of metaphorical attempts to capture the original malaise of the family portrayed in the book. This raw chapter — raw in feeling as in style — goes back an archaeological generation: not only do we see Chip and Gary’s adult sufferings in the making, but the interactions in that timeframe echo the preceding portrait of Gary’s family, the grandchildren; and there are indications of further root causes yet another generation back. The characters’ very attempts to flee embed them deeper in the authorial amber. It is a psychoanalytic fatality akin to the historical fatality of Adorno or the discursive fatality of Foucault et. al. There is no escape. Franzen ghoulishly captures how patterns of compulsive misbehaviour and senseless, petty cruelty arise from the very attempt to free oneself from the Larkinesque family curse, each member acting out his tragic part, to himself at once blind and most true. In this vision psychoanalysis, like Marxism, can offer understanding, but never hope. The liver-and-rutubaga chapter quotes far more Schopenhauer than Aristotle (it is suggested that the patriarch Alfred was decisively exposed to Schopenhauer as a young man) and it is tempting to think Franzen himself is merely reproducing that pure philosophical despondency in Freudian clothing. He can’t help himself.
Yet the work is not gloomy; it is witty and sporadically amusing. Frequent allusion is made to other, more fashionable determinisms (neurobiological, pharmacological), so Franzen’s irony may also embrace his own psychoanalytic and narrative determinism. I was first drawn to what promised to be a rather middlebrow book by the lightness and rightness of its occasional very long sentences. Then I was hooked by dreary echoes of the texture of family life that artfully escape bathos. Franzen writes without rancour, or not too much, and that allows him to be even-handed when writing about the most painful material, giving depth to the characters on both sides of each wound.