Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Corrections: Or, 1,268 Words, Six Years Too Late

When I moved to New York in September 2000, my love of books was almost completely uninformed by professional experience. It’s difficult to remember exactly what this was like. During my senior year at Trinity University in San Antonio, my older sister called to recommend that I read an essay in Harper’s by David Foster Wallace about time he spent on a cruise ship. Neither of us had heard of him before. (I don’t think many people had.) The essay was hilarious and incisive and voice-driven in a way that made you want to read something else by him right away. Luckily, he had just released Infinite Jest, a novel that represented 1,079 more pages by him. At home over Christmas break that year, I read it down to every last footnote. It was alternately brilliant and infuriating, but my relationship to it was one I don’t think I can have again. And this is not a lament of age. I’m only 33, and I know 50- and 60-somethings who approach books with an innocent joy that, after seven years working in the sausage factory, strikes me as strange. I’m not saying I would even want it back.

I’m sure this would have happened even if I worked for, say, a small press in Minneapolis. But living in Brooklyn, where the people with whom I choose to socialize follow books and writers in the same way that those in other places might follow stocks or stock cars, hasn’t helped. In my circle, thoughts about The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen were calcifying sometime before the novel had even hit the shelves (the bookish are no less shameless than anyone else in airing uninformed opinions; maybe worse). Over the last six years, I moved through several phases in my relationship with the novel. Roughly:

--wanting to read it pretty badly
--resenting it for no good reason
--not caring in the least
--feeling a lingering interest
--forgetting about it completely
--bringing it with me on my recent vacation
--reading the damn thing

In 1996, Franzen wrote a piece for Harper's called "Perchance to Dream," in which he bemoaned the state of serious reading and chronicled his "despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social" in today’s novels. The essay received a good deal of attention, and within a certain subculture, it set expectations for his next book, which would appear five years later, pretty high. The Corrections was published in mid-September 2001, when the world was preoccupied. But the anticipation in literary circles, and the "controversy" surrounding Franzen's rejection of Oprah Winfrey's benediction, helped propel robust sales, and the novel won the National Book Award.

Franzen is a multitalented writer, but I was disappointed. The book concerns the Lambert family, a Midwestern brood whose three children (Chip, Denise, and Gary) have relocated to the Northeast. Alfred, their father, is suffering through increased senility, and Enid, their mother, wants the family to gather at the house for one last Christmas together. The structure, praised by some, was one of the biggest letdowns for me. Franzen breaks the book into sections, each focusing on one of the children in particular, before bringing the Lamberts together for that grand finale. Until that last section, which is moving, the novel's episodes keep the siblings isolated and floating in space, and draws out the smaller details of their lives (including a fight between Gary and his wife that's recounted to the point of stultification) in a way that sacrifices a dynamic sense of the family. For much of the novel, there isn't a portrait of family, in terms of scope and depth of feeling, that isn't equally achieved by, say, "Six Feet Under."

Yes, Franzen does writerly things well that "Six Feet Under" can’t -- but then, a TV show can't attempt some of the high-wire feats that Franzen does, where he falls, most obviously in his strain to marry the family's story with larger social themes. The literary critic James Wood has famously written about the "hysterical realism" of certain contemporary novelists. He applied the term to writers who clearly fit the mold (Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace) and others who seem more of a stretch (Zadie Smith).

Wood wrote:
The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result - in America at least - is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very "brilliant" books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.
(James Wood is really good, in case you didn't know.)

On the evidence of The Corrections, I think Franzen is painfully stuck between domestic drama and hysterical realism -- two genres that I’m unconvinced can peaceably coexist -- and he revealed as much in the aforementioned Harper’s essay, when he wrote of his time producing it:
After Strong Motion was published, I took a year off to gather material. When I got back to writing fiction I thought my problem might be that I hadn’t gathered enough. But the problem manifested itself as just the opposite: an overload. I was torturing the story, stretching it to accommodate ever more of those things-in-the-world that impinge on the enterprise of fiction writing. The work of transparency and beauty and obliqueness that I wanted to write was getting bloated with issues. I’d already worked in contemporary pharmacology and TV and race and prison life and a dozen other vocabularies; how was I going to satirize Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale?
The solution to this would have been to keep the complexities of character and locale, which he occasionally achieves, while ignoring the impulse to satirize every cultural trend and institution that crossed his mind.

Long story short (too late?), Franzen does the domestic quite well, but he’s clumsy when it comes to the larger social canvas. When siblings spar (as in a series of funny e-mails between Chip and Denise), or when parents deal with the pains of aging, The Corrections is as vital as Franzen so desperately intended it to be. But there are several hysterical strands that trip him up. One centers on Chip and his involvement with a Lithuanian politician who wants to promote the country through a web site and bilk money out of potential investors. The manner in which Chip first becomes involved with the project is ridiculous, and his adventures overseas are the most farfetched passages in the novel. Another subplot concerns Enid and her experimentation with a new anti-anxiety drug. She’s first introduced to it when a cruise ship’s doctor strongly recommends it and delivers a labored, unbelievable speech that simply allows Franzen to cram in every possible thought about modern notions of better living through chemistry.

Later in his Harper’s essay, Franzen wrote:
Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society -- to help solve our contemporary problems -- seems to me a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?
It is enough to write such sentences. It is a lot. And Franzen, at his best, delivers them. But too often in The Corrections, he gets distracted, against his own advice, by the urge to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society.



Blogger ANCIANT said...

Dead on, and very smart. I think you're pretty charitable, actually. What do you think of Franzen's prose? (I mean, in the book, not Harpers?) Look, for example, at the first paragraph. I can forgive a lot of flaws in a writer if I enjoy their sentences, but Franzen I do not enjoy. I don't have the book in front of me but I specifically remember, from the opening, the word 'gerontacracy.' Bleh. The word is like the whole book; it has a big, heavy, impressive ring. But when you think about what it means, it falls apart. It's wooden, and pompous, that prose. It's like he's trying to say something BIG and so of course he needs to wield BIG words and BIG sentences. But in fact, he isn't saying anything big and the prose just feels mannered and empty. To me.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said. It's not just too long, it's like Franzen couldn't make up his mind what he wanted to talk about, so he talked about everything.

What keeps me turning pages isn't the commentary on modern life, it's the story. I thought many of the scenes were just excuses to make some irrelevant commentary. The desire to comment on everything overtook the desire to move the story along.

-- Comish

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's been officially crossed off my reading list. (sorry, mr. franzen, but my brother has always steered me right in terms of reading material.) too bad i packed it and hauled it 500 miles away just so it could sit on a shelf and collect dust for 3 years. D'OH!

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed, the book sometime digressess, but in fact alot of these digressions tie into the themes of the book such as globalization and broken family communication It is poor to simply dismiss a book of such depth. Some people simply don't see the depth, but I suggest you reread it carefully because there are alot of subtle messages in it. And MR GUAPO you don't think subruban family life can be describe as "gerontacracy". The book uses percies words 'BIG' words don't mean it's more complex it means being more concise in your writting which is something you fail to do by simply using a the word 'BIG' to describe something. I am writing a 4,000 word essay on this book and would appreciate that others get something from the book. Put maybe it's just too complex (I know I just teased everyone)

6:14 PM  
Anonymous kamagra said...

Franzen is one of those authors who so cleverly paints places and people that the reader feels transported into another world.

9:29 AM  

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