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The Great American Novel - Bonnie Greer sees the <em>The Corrections</em> as part of the Bush projec

There is no question that The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is an important book, perhaps even a landmark one. But not for the reasons it is being praised.

Once again, we are being presented with that mythical beast, that holy of holies - "The Great American Novel". No other country on earth gives its writers the challenge of setting its nationhood down in words. On one level, this is a noble task, the testament of a democracy that takes pride in its ability to reinvent itself constantly. On another level, it is the literary equivalent of "go west, young man", a trek into uncharted wilderness. It mirrors America's push forward; and somehow, if no one attempts to make that trek at any given time, American literature lies moribund, waiting for its true adventure, its real purpose. That there are many bodies littered on the road to this particular Mecca is all part of the quest.

Franzen, in a kind of manifesto, laid out just what the components of this most important of novels should be. He then embarked on his vision quest, alone, armed only with his intelligence and courage. He entombed himself in a Harlem garret for 1,460 days (or 1,825 days, depending upon which chronicle you prefer). At times, he kept himself blind and dumb, walled in against the teeming life around him. Like some lone chevalier for high European art, he hid himself away, deep within the capital of black America. There he wrote his parable of the Lambert family, who live in a town named after the patron saint of lost causes. The literary establishment, hostage to political correctness and imprisoned by those afflicted with what Harold Bloom called "the anxiety of influence", lit candles to the king over the water, praying that he would set them free. Finally, Franzen, blinking in the sunlight, his fragile ears ringing, climbed down from the heights of Harlem into the valley of midtown Manhattan, armed with his quarter-million-word opus, his statement to the world made flesh. Not only had he written a novel called The Corrections, he was the correction, the man to return things to the way they should be.

The author has called himself "a male writer". By this, he does not mean a tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking writer, the sort of the Hemingway school, two-fisted and hard-drinking. Besides, the Hemingway school has been discredited, blown away by feminism and self-parody. His is not the Tom Wolfe, Man in Full version, a kind of bastard Zola. Franzen's statement is about reclamation. It is about men like him taking back their rightful place in the scheme of things - on the front line and giving orders. Naturally, Franzen is much too subtle to say this, but essentially his novel is about order, about the way things should be.

When Chip, Franzen's best character, sneers at a female student who drops the name of Walter Benjamin, the great Jewish-German philosopher, he is dismissive of her because she is filled simply with information, not knowledge. She doesn't know that only Chip, a refugee from order yet yearning for it, can explain Benjamin to her.

The double game that Franzen plays throughout his novel is to use the naming of objects, the description of their use and the dropping of the names of great thinkers such as Benjamin as a way of signalling his high literary intent. But using Benjamin's name backfires on him. For example, in his Arcade Project, Benjamin piled on objects as a way of illuminating the culture. Franzen does this, too, but while Benjamin's approach is fresh and enlightening, the author of The Corrections has all the air of a clever but pedantic teacher of English lit at an Ivy League university. Besides, F Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain, to name just two, managed to write great American novels a quarter the length of Franzen's.

Any book that aspires to the rank of "great American novel" must, by definition, have an air of melancholy about it, a lament for broken promises. The United States of America aborted at take-off. Its marginals know this. That Franzen has delivered The Brady Bunch in a faux John Updike style renders it simply the latest in a series of attempts by the Big Daddies of literature to arrest the relentless onward march of a new day. Like their counterparts in the White House and on Capitol Hill, these western canonistas feel that they have the divine right to dictate taste and erudition.

Never mind that political correctness is itself a correction against those who say that the west is best. A battle has been joined against what they consider the "feminisation" of America. Franzen, their general, has taken on the Boudicca of "feel-good" - Oprah Winfrey. Oprah made The Corrections her Book Club choice for September, but when, the following month, Franzen expressed doubts about the value of being associated with the club, she withdrew her invitation to him to appear on her TV show.

That any woman, let alone a black, middle-aged, overweight billionairess, could control the publishing world, in effect, with something as pedestrian as a book club has had the old-boy network in a five-year-long hissy fit. Oprah may not always be good for what it considers to be literature, but she is a brilliant champion of literacy. She has got the nation reading, and not just what the academy dictates, but what she chooses. That housewives and secretaries have discovered Toni Morrison and will discover Rohinton Mistry, Oprah's next choice, boosts not only those authors, but publishing in general.

That Franzen holds up the all-American family as a metaphor for a complex society and completes his book with an ending worthy of a "movie of the week" makes it a perfect candidate for a date with Oprah. Her reading of it was correct. Yet to sup with her, to become a millionaire through the placing of her big, bright stickers on his dust jacket, to find his work among the women and ethnic minorities whom Oprah has championed, was to betray all his years of toil and those who did not have the courage to do their own dirty work.

"Oprah's Book Club represents the triumph of vulgarity," one publisher said - anonymously. Franzen himself hastily apologised for refusing to be chosen by the talk-show host. But instead of having to face career meltdown, he has been given a National Book Award. It won't stop there. As America wages its war against terrorism, it will also attempt to revert to "core values", to go back to what the Bush family represents: Pop at work and Mom at home. The Corrections is the last of its kind (a novel about failed males and triumphant women) and the first of its kind - a backlash against the wasted years, when certain men, those who believe that their masculinity gives them some sort of innate right to rule, felt "useless" and "empty" and "dumb".

Franzen has done us all a favour by bringing out into the open the simmering resentment, the animosity, the anger at loss of place, that so much of the establishment experienced during the Clinton years.

The Corrections is the first Bush-era novel. But it is the last gasp. The clock cannot be turned back, no further correction made. The publisher who implied Oprah was a vulgarian was actually not wrong. Vulgarian and vulgarity come from the Latin vulgaris - belonging to the ordinary people.

Bonnie Greer is the author of Hanging By Her Teeth (Serpent's Tail, £7.99)

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.