The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
What did it win?
National Book Award 2002
What’s it all about?
A disintegrating mid-West family drags itself together for one last Christmas.
Was it really any good?
Some of it.
In the beginning there was the hype. That was a story in itself, but it would be unfair to judge the book by its media. On the back of my paperback edition I find a blurb from Elle saying “hype be damned” (and which then goes on to add to the hype). I couldn’t agree more. Let all the controversy over the Oprah (dis)invitation and the huge advance rest. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
And let’s start by taking another look at the blurbs on the back cover. Here is the Vancouver Sun: “You’ll want to start reading all over again, just to feel the energy of a genius at work.” And here is the Toronto Star: “I cannot recall the last time I reached the end of a book thinking I would like to go back to page one and start reading all over again.”
I begin with these quotes because they are both so opposed to what was the strongest impression I had while reading The Corrections: That it was a very easy book to put down. It took me over two months to get through. While reading it I think I completed six other books. At one point (it was during the Denise section) I left it unattended for over a week. And when finished I had no desire to read it “all over again.”
I think this is because Franzen, whatever his strengths (and I hope to say something about them in just a bit), is a lousy storyteller. The novel proceeds in narrative chunks focusing on individual family members which are themselves built out of set-piece episodes that don’t go anywhere. Things that seem as though they might be important are simply dropped. Initially I was surprised to find the thread of Chip’s relationship with Melissa abandoned without explanation part way through his section. Then I noticed the pattern. The impending execution of a murderer named Khellye Withers pops up a few times, but like one of those mechanical gophers at the amusement park it soon ducks back out of site, leaving no indication of why it was mentioned in the first place. What dramatic purpose is served by sending Chip to Lithuania? Aslan comes and goes. Much is made of the Correcktall treatment, but it ends up playing no dramatic role in the novel. Even Alfred Lambert’s dealings with the Axon Corporation are discarded. There may be a thematic point in all of this, that life is without plot or structure and that nothing ever connects or is resolved, but it seems as though Franzen is just constantly coming up with new ideas and then losing interest. And the effect is contagious.
In terms of style Franzen is a self-professed disciple of Don DeLillo, and the influence has not been all good. Right from the prologue we are introduced to a slick imitation of DeLilloese: a discontinuous ironic montage of brand names hurried into long run-on sentence fragments. This is DeLillo as the author of ConsumerLand, but Franzen’s prose simply doesn’t have the same depth or intelligence. His style is ad style. The introduction of the Correcktall process reads like a prospectus, and the fact that it’s a parody prospectus did nothing to allay my fears that this sort of thing is Franzen’s real métier. In the many descriptive riffs he indulges in, especially when describing food or making food analogies, one senses more than a breath of ad-copy. Here is Alfred inspecting a rotting rail-line:
Alfred saw crossties better suited to mulching than to gripping spikes. Rail anchors that had lost their heads to rust, bodies wasting inside a crust of corrosion like shrimps in a shell of deep-fry. Ballast so badly washed out that ties were hanging from the rail rather than supporting it. Girders peeling and corrupted like German chocolate cake, the dark shavings, the miscellaneous crumble.
Ask yourself this after reading such a passage: Do you see the railway or the German chocolate cake? Playing with food is an easy author’s trick and Franzen indulges it far too often. That son Chip becomes a professional ad-writer while daughter Denise becomes a professional chef is, given the bent of Franzen’s style, inevitable. (The same superficiality even infects the sex, leading to such self-indulgent cutesy stuff as “the jismic grunting butt-oink. The jiggling frantic nut-swing.”)
Along with this glossy insert prose goes some pretty unconvincing dialogue. In particular, Franzen’s penchant for building a scene out of cross-purposed, overlapping chatter is quite ineffective. The voices Gary overhears in the elevator or the conversation around the dinner table on board the Gunnar Myrdal (to take only a couple of examples) simply don’t work. They are hard to follow and never develop any kind of rhythm through counterpoint. One has the sense Franzen is trying to do Robert Altman, with what should have been predictable results.
But the main reason the dialogue fails to convince is the fact that so much of it is spoken by cartoon figures. While the individual members of the Lambert family are fully realized stereotypes – and I don’t mean that as a contradiction – they inhabit a fantasy world. Chip’s awareness that if he wants to be a writer he has to “make it ridiculous” only goes so far in practice. Lithuania is all a comic book adventure, ending with those cartoon co-eds Cheryl and Tiffany and their “like”s, “oh my god”s and “duh”s. Denise’s visit to Cindy von Kippel and her arrogant boor of a husband in Vienna is more of the same. And the list goes on.
To summarize: I think that Franzen’s incompetence at narrative, superficial style and clumsy handling of drama and dialogue distinguish The Corrections as the work of a conspicuously second-rate author. Technically, he is a bad writer, and in terms of the book’s intellectual content a downright backward one. That the world of quick fixes, the world of the pitch and the ad, is a lie is no revelation. When Franzen tries to go deep and discursive he comes up with such empty nets as Alfred’s nighttime thoughts at sea: “There was another world below, this was the problem. Another world below that had volume but no form.” Is this meant to signal a discovery of the unconscious? When you compare DeLillo’s concept of the Underworld with Alfred’s simple sexual repression we can hardly see an advance.
And yet . . . I like this book.
I like it mainly because its five main characters are so dislikable. They present the reader with a moral challenge. The Corrections is a book not of thought but of feeling, and its emotional tone skillfully balances the attraction and repulsion, love and resentment, sympathy and exasperation that are part of family life everywhere. Whatever his other faults, Franzen is not, and this is surprising given his apparent values, a sentimental writer. Sentiment, like sympathy, only rears its head in this novel for an ironic comeuppance. What makes the force of characters like Enid, Alfred, Gary, Chip and Denise all the more remarkable is the fact that they move through such a satiric, two-dimensional world and represent such crude stereotypes of repression. Despite their environment there is something of the magic of Dickens in the way they come to life, and stay in life after the book has ended. And for all its quality of just being too much (too much plot, too many words) there are also spots of time in the novel that arrest us with the force of poetry. There is DeLilloesque observation, but also Joycean epiphany in a moment like this:
Chip sat on a freezing guardrail and smoked and took comfort in the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware. The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service. And a 99¢ Big Gulp banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard. And the black sanserif numerals of gasoline prices, the company of so many 9s. And American sedans moving down the access road at nearly stationary speeds like thirty. And orange and yellow plastic pennants shivering overhead on guys.
No, I wouldn’t want to read The Corrections more than once. In both a good and a bad way, once was a lot.