The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
December 26th, 2010
The Corrections has won so many awards that it makes me doubt my own reading ability.
"Edith? You said [your name is] Edith?"
"Enid. Lambert. L-A-M-B—"
"Enith, what's four times seven with three taken away?"
…aaand the joke drags on for at least 5 more name changes (Elinor, Edna, Elaine, Edwina) …
Enid pulled a scowl. Dr. Hibbard was very handsome and charismatic, and she liked the idea of a pill that would help her enjoy the cruise and take better care of Alfred, but the doctor seemed to her a trifle glib. Also, her name was Enid. E-N-I-D.
OK… so when I read this scene, it came off to me as bad, tired writing. Is there like some meta-something irony-something that's happening here that I just don't understand? Because to me it seemed like a lukewarm attempt to inject humor into a dry patch of the novel. Why wasn't this edited out? Why are people so laudatory over this novel, when it contains scenes like this one?
Well, anyway. Onto the story!
The Corrections is a novel about a dysfunctional American family composed of an old married couple, Enid and Alfred, and their 3 grown kids, Gary, Chip, and Denise. Alfred is a retired railroad engineer who is losing control of his mind and body to dementia and Parkinson's disease. Enid, who obsesses to maintain the visage of a quaint, happy Midwestern family, insists on having her kids over for one "last family Christmas" in St. Jude. The plot of the novel really isn't much more than that — the kids are coming home for Christmas — but the plot is just a framework on top of which Franzen sculpts his vision of the American family.
Franzen tells the story of the family by focusing on each member individually, exploring their coming of age (briefly), their sexuality (perpetually), and the sequence of events leading up to their present situation (grandiloquently).
I mean, there were a lot of things I liked about the novel. I liked the format of the novel: a lot of postmodern novels that attempt to give a "portrait" of something will take that to mean, they will ramble plotlessly and pointlessly about the dull, unglamorous life of some jaded main character and end the book when it feels artistically appropriate. Though modest, the Christmas plot was just solid enough to provide a nice, definite structure without taking away from the real focus of the book, the family itself.
I also liked what Franzen did or tried to do with some of the characters. I liked Chip's saga, for instance. It was unrealistic but intentionally so, since it was less about one character as it was a characterization of the American privilege in its attitude toward the third world: Chip can go to a struggling post-Soviet nation with purely self-serving motivations, enjoy life while it's good, and as soon as the going gets rough, Chip can completely wash his hands of the situation and fly back to the safety of the US, with relatively no harm done.
Oh, another thing I liked: the first chapter is fantastic, and actually, the complaints I am about to list are excepting it.
But overall, the book has two damning qualities: the entire book has one voice (Jonathan Franzen's), and the entire book is painstakingly told to us.
Now the Jonathan-Franzen-voice thing wouldn't be a bad thing at all if he were playing up to his strengths. I think his natural voice comes out when he is making Educated Man Observations. Otherwise, he's not very funny, not great with dialogue, and worst of all! worst worst worst of all! is when Franzen's trying to be all vulgar and edgy. It reminds me of in school, when your awkward teacher with tie and dress shirt drops some slang or curse words to try to connect better with his students. Not fooling anyone, Franzen. It just doesn't mix with the pretentious Educated Man voice that the rest of the novel wants to be in!
And then, all the telling. I'm not sure if there is a single thought or feeling in this novel that *isn't* told to you. "Chip's problem was a loss of confidence." "Finally Jonah became self-conscious about his plans." "Chip couldn't see what everyone around him could: that if there was anybody in the world whom Alfred did love purely for his own sake, it was Chip."
Certainly the bulk of this is stylistic, and it can be effective, but if there's nothing at all about the characters that must be inferred through dialogue or action, then the characters are merely descriptions, and they can never transform from descriptions to human beings. Because of that, even though there are a lot of strange and tragic events in the book, I didn't feel very emotionally involved. All of which makes the book much, much duller to read.
I also thought Franzen was bad at writing women (the only sympathetic female is a very masculine lesbian), sometimes used silly gimmicks (the emails; switching perspectives at inconvenient moments for ~suspense~), and I got the feeling that Franzen often thought he was being more shocking than he was.
It's too bad. I do think Franzen can write very well, and as I alluded to earlier, I thought the first chapter was the highlight of the book: I loved how Franzen communicated the tension and frustration in the house. I loved the details, like the description of the chair being not just comfortable but a "monument" to the need of comfort, and I loved Alfred's stream-of-conscious struggle to finish his sentence:
"Al? What are you doing?"
He turned to the doorway where she'd appeared. He began a sentence: "I am –" but when he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he'd entered, he would realize that the crumbs he'd dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds, silent deft darting things which he couldn't quite see in the darkness but which were so numerous and swarming in their hunger that it seemed as if they were the darkness, as if the darkness weren't uniform, weren't an absense of light but a teaming and corpuscular thing, and indeed when as a studious teenager he'd encountered the word "crepuscular" in McKay's Treasury of English Verse, the corpuscles of biology had bled into his understanding of the word, so that for his entire adult life he'd seen in twilight a corpuscularity, as of the graininess of the high-speed film necessary for photography under conditions of low ambient light, as of a kind of sinister decay; and hence the panic of a man betrayed deep in the woods whose darkness was the darkness of starlings blotting out the sunset or black ants storming a dead opossum, a darkness that didn't just exist but actively consumed the bearings that he'd sensibly established for himself, lest he be lost; but in the instant of realizing he was lost, time became marvelously slow and he discovered hitherto unguessed eternities in the space between one word and the next, or rather he became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him, the thoughtless boyish part of him crashing on out of sight blindly through the woods while he, trapped, the grownup Al, watched in oddly impersonal suspense to see if the panic-stricken little boy might, despite no longer knowing where he was or at what point he'd entered the woods of this sentence, still manage to blunder into the clearing where Enid was waiting for him, unaware of any woods–"packing my suitcase," he heard himself say. This sounded right.
Can't believe that excerpt and the one earlier is from the same novel!
Like what the heck with that Enid joke. Seriously, am I missing something?!