Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Babbitt

Babbitt Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a lot of the time I read this, I found myself thinking of Jonathan Franzen. Is it possible he is the 21st century’s answer to Lewis?

That’s not an insult, even if we have mostly forgotten Lewis and what he meant to American literature. He was, after all, the first U.S. author to win a Nobel Prize in literature, and he created a vocabulary for talking about American culture that lasted until I was a kid in the 1970s. People were still describing someone as an “Elmer Gantry” and, yes, as a “Babbitt.” Each was effective shorthand for describing someone warped by the excesses of American culture, someone who, unknowingly infected by the sorts of desires Theodore Dreiser most famously drew, sets out to infect others with the same ones.

If Franzen isn’t drawing characters as memorable in their essentials as Gantry or Babbitt, he is showing people who are similarly complicit in the same system that plagues them. If Lewis’s characters got casually drunk in the middle of Prohibition, Franzen’s get casually stoned today. If Lewis’s were bewildered by what the dawn of the automobile and telephone age meant for the way we live in it, Franzen’s do the same for the effects of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle.

All of that seems relevant because I can’t quite decide how highly I regard Franzen. At the worst he is just what Lewis was: arguably the foremost chronicler of American dissatisfaction of his age. And yet, that said, Lewis was far from a hack. He made Naturalism relevant at the dawn of the Modern moment. We forget how impressive he was because his work comes out just a few years before Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner rewrite the boundaries of what’s possible in the novel.

There are some impressive technical moves here. For one thing, there really is no plot. It’s episodic, showing us a succession of portraits of George Babbitt, a man with pretensions to individuality who finds he can’t function unless he’s reassured that he’s doing just what everyone else is doing. That’s experimental; it’s pushing the limits of what we think fiction is.

For another, there’s a capacity for mockery that lingers almost 90 years later. To the degree we remember Lewis today, we have him cast as middlebrow, as someone people read if they couldn’t quite handle the cutting edge of Gertrude Stein or Virginia Woolf. That may be true, but there’s also a Modernist bias: we tend to admire novels that excavate the self over those that plumb the nature of the overall city. I share that bias; I like novels rooted in character, especially if the exploration of character takes place from odd angles.

I’ll criticize Babbitt and Elmer Gantry because, in the end, Lewis has no affection for his characters; he holds himself above them, thinks of the “real writer” as exempt from what he sees. And that’s what brings me back to Franzen. There are some today who rank him alongside Foster Wallace and Lethem, just as there were some who saw Lewis as the equal of Dos Passos or Fitzgerald.

So, bottom line, Lewis still has some relevance today for his method and his real if not-so-subtle insight, but he’s also interesting for what he suggests about the literary politics of then and now. Yeah, this drags in spots (but The Corrections doesn’t?). Still, it’s worth a look on its own terms and for its echoes today.

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