For someone who majored in English Literature and—when freed from the shackles of academia—enjoys reading novels for pleasure, I managed to avoid Jonathan Franzen for a pretty long time. Sure, I knew that he was a big mainstream name whose books were adorned with animated, kitschy fonts, but that was about the extent of my Franzen familiarity. When it surfaced this summer that he once considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan so that he could understand young people better, I was mystified that this guy had the capacity to think rationally at all, let alone write a National Book Award winner.
But then his fifth novel Purity was released in September and Franzen was thrust back into the spotlight. As a newly minted bookstore employee, I felt compelled to read at least one thing by the guy who gets brought up in every ‘greatest living American novelist’ discussion. Except rather than being trendy and losing my Franzen virginity to Purity, I opted for the aforementioned award winning work that catapulted him into Oprah’s Book Club levels of fame (or notoriety): The Corrections.
On a superficial level, The Corrections follows a quintessentially American plotline. The matriarch of a small-town Midwestern family is trying desperately to get her descendents—who have opted for East Coast metropolitan lives (and in one case, a stint in Eastern Europe)—to spend one last Christmas together at home. Even though—minus a few grandkids—she gets her wish (this sounds like a major spoiler, but given the intentions of the novel it’s really not), there’s no feel-good payoff. If anything, it’s exactly the opposite. Franzen is trying to disturb us by depicting the grim familial problems that are typical of Modern America, and the idea of taking comfort in the manufactured normalcy of holiday tradition seems almost irresponsible in light of how the Lambert clan has completely broken down while maintaining the illusion of normalcy.
Enid, the aforementioned matriarch, is left alone in the family’s longtime St. Jude (a fictional town) home to deal with her husband Alfred’s dementia and Parkinson’s disease—a physical burden that complements the emotional one he has placed on her through years of spousal distance and repression. Like many a mother, nothing pleases Enid more than having the chance to gush about her children’s accomplishments, which is an opportunity she is regularly afforded by the second-generation Lamberts who give her embellished or incomplete life updates from afar. She knows nothing of Chip’s forced resignation from his college professor post, or that Denise the successful chef is in shambles from ‘shitting where she cooks,’ or that her presumably stable eldest son is actually losing a war at home and on the fast track to becoming Alfred 2.0—not that she would be well-equipped to support them even if they were to confide in her. Everyone is alarmingly unhappy, but rather than having family as a support system, they avoid dealing with their harsh truths together unless absolutely necessary.
Franzen uses the Lamberts not so much as characters, but as exemplars of various conditions. This isn’t to say that he ignores them. In fact, he devotes generous subplots and backstories to each of the five immediate family members. It’s just that, like with Alfred and the people in his household, there’s a distance between us and the characters. We know so much about the situational minutiae of their lives, but very little about them from an informal, personal perspective. I can imagine how the cynical, “Foucoultian” Chip might respond in a discussion about privacy in the Snowden age, but I can’t really picture him having a plain old heart to heart with a high school buddy.
And yet, I wouldn’t say that this is hugely to the book’s detriment. In an interview with the Big Think YouTube Channel, Franzen talks about how deciding on a tone is the first step towards writing a novel. The Corrections is one of the most expansive, tangential stories I’ve ever read but its tone stays remarkably consistent throughout. From the beginning, Franzen’s writing approach is pretty clear. He’s going to use noticeably lofty words to discuss both major plot points and mundanities in great detail, and he’s going to drench it all in heaps of irony. That last sentence probably made his writing sound like the height of pretension—and in some ways it is kind of pretentious—but it’s balanced out by remarkable scope and thoughtful analysis so there’s no cheapness to it. Those who don’t find it entertaining or at least stimulating are probably lying.
What I found most striking was the poignant irony in Franzen’s tone. The voice of his omniscient narrator is highly intellectual and unabashedly brutal in its treatment of the things it describes. It’s a prime example of free and indirect discourse:
And yet, on that October night, as she knelt on the bathroom floor, Enid had the heretical thought that it might after all have been wiser, in her maternal homilies, to have laid less stress on marriage. It occurred to her that Denise’s rash act might even have been prompted, in some tiny part, by her wish to do the moral thing and please her mother. Like a toothbrush in the toilet bowl, like a dead cricket in a salad, like a diaper on the dinner table, this sickening conundrum confronted Enid: that it might actually have been preferable for Denise to go ahead and commit adultery, better to sully herself with a momentary selfish pleasure, better to waste a purity that every decent young man had the right to expect from a prospective bride, than to marry Emile. Except that Denise should never have been married to Emile in the first place!
The narrator moves us along with Enid’s thought process, but does so with a rational superiority and sarcasm that make us feel like we can look down on the characters for their flaws and limitations. Enid’s mental breakthrough in that passage is filtered through an unimpressed voice that mocks her love of normalcy with its three similes (“Like a toothbrush…”) and ironic conviction (“Except that Denise…”). This schtick can grow tiring at times but Franzen has enough well-crafted punchiness to outweigh the stretches of worn-out prose.
As Franzen weaves through the various character explorations and sections of the novel, The Corrections’ vague title becomes an oft cited and multifaceted motif. It’s used in passages where it seems out of place from a conversational perspective but has tons of thematic relevance, like how Gary’s “entire life was set up as a correction of his father’s life.” I admired how Franzen played with the term and used it to shed light on the multitude of ways in which his characters sought out or required corrective solutions. Then again, maybe I’m like Peter Griffin and just a sucker for artistic works that dramatically mention the names of their titles.
As a first time Franzen reader, I definitely came away from The Corrections with a high regard for his writing. The novel’s prose is rich with offbeat description and genuinely thought-provoking ideas that clearly stem from dedicated research and commitment to the writer’s craft. Critics can rightfully pick apart the text for its suspect character development and occasional gratuitousness, but addressing those things would be minor corrections to an overall literary triumph. I swiped my Franzen card, but our relationship certainly won’t be a one book stand.