Keeping up with the prizewinners

Following up Sunday night’s round of thank-you’s to the Academy, here’s a note of personal appreciation.  To National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen, for his entertaining essay about three of my favorite classics, published it in a favorite magazine:  I liked it; I really liked it.

Not everyone did.  After you access Franzen’s  “A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy” in The New Yorker’s Feb. 20 issue via the library’s print copy or Academic Search Complete, you could find plenty of disagreement online.  Still, readers only acquainted with Wharton via the oft-assigned Ethan Frome may be compelled to pick up The House of Mirth.  (Then, see the wonderful film version starring Gillian Anderson).

Pulitzer winner The Age of Innocence could prove even more tempting.  For someone of her extremely privileged upbringing (the term “keeping up with the Joneses” is thought by many to refer to Edith Newbold Jones Wharton’s father’s clan) Wharton exhibits a sharp eye for class consciousness and a gift for delicately snarky observations.  I also recommend that movie–Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder.

But the Wharton novel you simply can’t miss is The Custom of the CountryWhen “A Rooting Interest” appeared, I’d just finished “reading” (listening to MP3 during walks) it for the third time.  I found myself nodding vigorously at Franzen’s assessment of Custom as “the earliest novel to portray an American I recognize as fully modern, the first fictional rendering of a culture to which the Kardashians…would come as no surprise.”

Custom‘s heroine (?), the dazzlingly beautiful but utterly empathy-challenged Undine Spragg, radiates such persistence (not to mention ruthlessness) in the pursuit of what she imagines to be happiness that Franzen compares her to Wile E. Coyote.  You’d be hard pressed to follow Undine’s adventures without discerning a few over-the-top or reality show vibes from an author you probably imagined to be prim and starchy.

Reinforcing Franzen’s assertion that Wharton is “a vital link” in a literary progression including, among others, Sinclair Lewis, Undine’s character embodies qualities–vitality, ingenuity, self-confidence–highly  valued in American business and political circles.  Undine fails to perceive that entitlement is a bad thing, and if she finds that she has missed a point of complexity, she faults the other party’s failure to promote his/her interests with the dedication Undine applies to her own.

Clearly, Undine can take care of herself, and does.  Yet, readers will inevitably find themselves mentally cheering her on even while aghast at her presumption.   Undine’s charm combines the single-mindedness of Scarlett O’Hara and the fish-out-of-water appeal represented by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. 

If she only had a heart…

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