Doing Time: The Carceral Chronotope in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections
With a famous wording of Michel Foucault,the modern prison system is like“a rather disciplined barracks, a strict school, a dark workshop, but not qualitatively different”. In Surveiller et Punir (1975) Foucault shows how disciplinary techniques and methods of surveillance have shaped all levels of modern society since the 19th century, and thus in Foucault’s optic no qualitative difference remains between the prison, the school, the hospital or any other corrective and normalizing institution. According to Foucault, in modern society, the techniques of power imply a disciplinary supplement that causes a certain carceral continuity in society – a continuity that fully encircles and subjectifies the modern individual.
Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections is in many ways an exemplary literary manifestation of Foucault’s thesis.The novel, which was published in 2001 and immediately hyped as The Great Contemporary American Novel, is a family drama about the Lamberts from the American Midwest. The parents, Enid and the Parkinson’s sufferer Alfred, still live in the big family house in St. Jude, while their three grown kids, Gary, Chip and Denise, have long ago moved to an altogether different America in Philadelphia and New York, respectively. The omnipresent prison imagery in the novel contributes considerably to the glare of dissatisfaction that reigns in the lives of the family members: Homes are frequently referred to as penitentiaries, upbringing mainly implies discipline and punishment, and while the 10-year old kids of the family construct jails and electric chairs out of lolly sticks, electronic surveillance of the home is the latest hobby for the older kids. Apart from these many metaphorical prison scenarios,The Corrections gives a number of references to issues regarding crime and penitentiaries proper: among other things we hear about the old solitary confinement in Philadelphia and about the neurobiological drug, Correcktall, which can supposedly mend the defective “brain of the criminal”.
In America, jails are often designated as Correctional Facilities and as its title also suggests, the concept of “correction” is decisive in Franzen’s story, which critically circles around the desire to correct the individual, the family and society. In a certain way, the story makes the same movement as Foucault, who in Surveiller et Punir tells a complex story about morals, power, discipline and subjects by means of the prison motif. In The Corrections, Foucault’s insights are given literary flesh and blood, so to speak. Here, the prison motif makes it possible for Jonathan Franzen to throw a certain gloomy light on his literary representation of family structures, relationships, work, the American economy and geopolitics. Thus, the prison motif works as a matrix for the novel’s representation of a section of life in contemporary America.
Here, my aim is not first and foremost to follow up on the many striking lines of communication between Surveiller et Punir and The Corrections. I would rather be specifically interested in some of the formal characteristics of Franzen’s story that might illustrate how the prison motif not only has a thematic significance in the novel, but also functions as a structuring model for the narrative. One of these formal characteristics is the novel’s way of tying time and space. In the essay “Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel” (1937-38), Mikhail Bakhtin determines the aesthetic unity of a given novel as the specific way in which the spatial and temporal axes of a literary work intersect. Bakhtin designates this unity of time and space as chronotopic. In his words the chronotope is “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature”:
I suggest that the main chronotope of The Corrections corresponds to the American author, Joseph Brodsky’s description of the essence of prison as ”[a] shortage of space, made up for by the surplus of time”. That is to say a chronotype of imprisonment, in which time is boundless, raised above the limits of space, which is not in turn made flexible. One can say that the novel’s thematic concern with the prison system rests upon the chronotopic form of the work, as the characters’ experience of time and space causes a distinct carcerality in the novel. In other words, the carceral chronotope forms the basis for the multitude of allusions to prisons in The Corrections. I shall try to support this thesis by examining a passage in the chapter titled “At Sea” – a chapter which is particularly rich in coarse variations over the prison theme.
In the Mean Time
It is characteristic of the composition of the novel that the simple frame of the story is disrupted by extensive flashbacks from the younger days of the family. In the following passage we are at the dinner table in one of the historically earliest episodes of the novel. Except for the picky 7-year old Chip, everyone has had dinner and Chip has expressly been told not to leave the table until he has taken a bite of each thing. While the rest of the family busies themselves with various tasks in the basement, Chip is thus left alone in the lighted room:
”One by one the lights of St. Jude were going out. And if you sat at the dinner table long enough, whether in punishment or in refusal or simply in boredom, you never stopped sitting there. Some part of you sat there all your life. As if sustained and too-direct contact with time’s raw passage could scar the nerves permanently, like staring at the sun. As if too-intimate knowledge of any interior were necessarily harmful knowledge. Were knowledge that could never be washed off.
Chipper heard things and saw things but they were all in his head. After three hours, the objects surrounding him were as drained of flavor as old bubble gum. His mental states were strong by comparison and overwhelmed them. It would have taken an effort of will, […] to […] apply the word “furnace” to the rustle in the ducts which in its recurrence had assumed the character of an emotional state […], an Embodiment of Evil Time”.
In line with many romantic confinement narratives that emphasize the ability of consciousness to penetrate prison walls – whether with the means of faith in God or the power of love – Chip apparently succeeds in transcending the confines of his own private prison. Chip’s mental activity represses the reality of the room, whose elements of sounds and shapes are in turn manipulated by his thinking.However, Franzen’s way of representing the relation between Chip’s headspace and the objective facts of the dinning room is ambiguous. On the one hand the imagination is attributed transcending powers, while on the other hand the narrator dramatically stresses those marks left on both body and mind by the materiality of the room. For example, a too-intimate knowledge of interior – which Chip and the inmate have in common – possibly amounts to a harmful knowledge. Moreover, examining the display of time in this space it becomes clear that Chip is in for life, so to speak. Outgrowing the confined space, time assumes an evil shape claiming its victims: ”if you sat at the dinner table long enough, you never stopped sitting there”. To feel the exposed passing of time on one’s body thus constitutes a traumatic experience that lastingly chains Chip to this room.
In this representation of the chronotope ”a shortage of space made up for by the surplus of time” the monstrous, infinite display of time thus plays a paradoxical dual role. The extra-temporal space of time is at the same time a precondition of transcendence and an occasion for trauma. In the light of this episode at the dinner table, we can then supplement Joseph Brodsky’s wording of the essence of prison with the insight that the peculiar chronotope “a shortage of space made up for by the surplus of time” possibly “scars the nerves permanently”, as Franzen puts it. This carceral chronotope thus renders impossible a more lasting transgression of the confining space.
Language plays a decisive part in both the construction and deconstruction of Chip’s confinement. With authoritative words Alfred, the father, institutes the law announcing that Chip cannot leave the table until he has taken a bite of each thing on his plate, and the language of power here possesses an infallible performativity as this legal speech act practically nails Chip to his chair. Shortly after, Enid encourages Chip to eat his dinner so that he can have the evening off. But at this point in time Chip has arrived ”in a place where she couldn’t touch him”, since the words of his mother neither possess the power to constitute the boy’s reality nor apparently give meaning. Chip thinks to himself : “Peculiar how unconstrained he felt to understand the words that were spoken to him. Peculiar his sense of freedom from even that minimal burden of decoding.” Even though Chip cannot have the evening off, by loosening the ties between sentences and their meaning he ostensibly encounters an alternative form of liberty in the midst of his captivity.
As readers we soon acknowledge that this attempted escape is a trap, as time, as we have seen, will invariably catch up with Chip just to stick him the more firmly in space. What Franzen makes apparent, however, is the fact that linguistic practice is a form of spatial practice as well. This insight is metaphorically illustrated by an earlier passage, in which Alfred, suffering from Parkinson, is lost in a sentence. Here, he discovers “unguessed eternities in the space between one word and the next, or rather he became trapped in that space between words…” Alfred is thus incarcerated, trapped in a space whose walls are words, and between these word walls floats an excessive time. With this idea of a spatial linguistics, Franzen invites us to reflect on the role of the representation itself in the construction of the carcerality of the novel.
The Narrator of Panopticism
In a polemic against Mikhail Bakhtin’s suggestion that the novelistic genre in principle is opposed to the hegemony of any official culture, the American literary scholar John Bender likens the narrative strategies of the realistic novel to those of the penitentiary. Within novelistic realism, Bender argues in his bookImagining the Penitentiary (1987), narration does not first and foremost function as a liberator, but rather as a kind of invisible control, containment and authoritative reformation of social life. Just like the essence of the panoptic penitentiary is its impartial and impersonal observatory, the convention of the realistic novel is transparency. According to this convention of transparency, the author is ideally absent from the representation, while its objects are pictured as if their exterior was fully observable and their interior fully accessible; they appear as simultaneously isolated and transparent subjects.
The Panopticon, which is the main figure in both Foucault’s and John Bender’s critical frameworks, plays an ambiguous part as a formal model of The Corrections. While Chip is all by himself in the lighted living room, the rest of the family stays separately absorbed in the basement, each in their respective room – of Alfred it is actually said that he has locked himself in. The family thus organizes itself in cells from where they are unable to see each other. But their respective doings are nevertheless readable from the power grid: ”From the street […] you could see the light in the windows dimming as Gary’s train or Enid’s iron or Alfred’s experiments drained power off the grid” (p. 269). However, the narrator is obviously not out on the street. Rather, the narrator is in a place, from where the individual cells in the basement are fully observable, and even the innermost thoughts and most intimate feelings of the characters are fully accessible. To some extent, the strategies of the novel thus resemble Foucault’s description of the state techniques of surveillance and discipline in the panoptic society: The narrator is in the observation tower, this position enabling a total surveillance of the individual characters in their respective cells.
Formally speaking, Franzen’s novel can in certain ways thus be likened to a penitentiary. The chronotopic unity of the work is distinctly carceral and its narrative strategies are largely panoptic. The reason why the novel does still not come under Bender’s designation of an “aesthetic of isolation” is that the narrator of the novel, unlike the guard in the panoptic prison, is highly visible and present in the representation – not exactly as an individual but rather as subjective experience. The striking thing about narration in The Corrections is therefore that it renders visible, rather than covering up, the panoptic way of seeing. Also in this fundamental respect the novel is thus a counterpart to Foucault’s project in Surveiller et Punir: Rather than being a panoptic construction itself, it performs an observable and thus parodic kind of panopticism that turns out to be an exploration. What Jonathan Franzen draws our attention to through this thematic and formal use of the prison motif is how the doing of time and space forms the basis for various experiences of captivity in contemporary America.