Realism as Fantasy: From Jonathan Franzen to Colson Whitehead

By Emily A. Phillips
In his 1996 article, 
“I’ll be Doing More of the Same,” Jonathan Franzen defends his use of
realism as a novelist. He claims “When the times get really, really awful, you
retrench; you reexamine old content in next contexts; you try to preserve; you
seem obsolete…The day comes when the truly subversive literature is in some measure
conservative. Maybe it’s time for us to ask ourselves whether apocalypse might
be self-indulgence” (38).

Franzen’s 2001 novel The
, released just weeks before the attacks on the World Trade
Center and Pentagon, is this kind of re-trenching, not in the face of terror,
poverty, or natural disaster, but rather of mid-western ennui during an
economic boom.
In a post-9/11 world, such a novel seems an act of fantasy
rather than realism, and what’s needed is more akin to horror. In 2011, Colson
Whitehead’s novel Zone One was
released amidst a surge of interest in zombies in pop culture. With the success
of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
and AMC’s The Walking Dead, it would
be easy to dismiss Whitehead’s dystopian work as yet another in a long line of
genre products stretching back to George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy.

Whitehead’s novel, though most certainly a work of genre
fiction that playfully derives from Romero and others, is also a work of
startling realism as it comments on both society and human nature. Because
Franzen’s novel focuses on one white, mid-western, middle-class family, it
lacks the scope and (damning) insight that Whitehead achieves with his zombies,
stragglers, and clean-up units.

When looking at Franzen’s and Whitehead’s novels together,
it becomes clear that as the world has shifted dramatically so too has our
notion of “reality.” Footage of terrorist attacks, the torturing of detainees,
the brutal suppression of uprisings, and the housing market crash (to name only
a few devastations in recent memory) create a reading audience which is less
apt to look at Franzen’s family as that of reality and instead find the truth
of modern existence in Whitehead’s Zone
Ultimately, the realist fiction that Franzen promotes becomes
the “self-indulgence” he admonishes as it allows for an escape from the
violence and terror of the past ten years. Zone
offers no such escape but rather the insight and reflection that Franzen’s
realist society novel seeks to produce. It is easy to believe that one hundred
years from now it will the image of the zombie that reveals life as it was and
how we responded to it rather than the nuclear family gathered at the table.
Emily Phillips, a
contributing writer
for Black Studies @ SIUE, is currently pursuing her PhD
in American Literature at Saint Louis University.