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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

Started 2/23, finished 3/8.

Wow. This could be the longest review of the year. Hell of a read. This will be an Oprah-free review, by the way.

The Corrections follows the disparate stories of the Lambert family through the better part of a year. Each member gets a chance to narrate (albeit in 1st, not 3rd person), allowing the stories to overlap, collide, and culminate in "one last Christmas" at their nuclear Kansas home. As the father succombs to Parkinson's disease, conflicts from the past 40 years bubble to the surface, and the family has to do anything it can to remain a unit. The setup is simple, the characters are anything but. Hijinks don't really ensue... they infuse the air, they wrap around each other, they smother each other the instant they embrace.

Each character has a flavor of metaphor: With Chip, everything is compared to flowers and fruits. Gary uses macro-economics. Alfred uses engineering. Most interesting to me is that the two female characters, Enid and Denise, don't really use metaphors as much as they analyze the minutae of the situation and allow that to drive comparison. The contrast between the heavy imagery of the men and the near anti-imagery of the women would make the subject of a Masters thesis. using these tools to differentiate the character voices, Franzen is able to subdivide the psyches of the major characters, and through them, our entire culture. He clarifies the true nature of family, by emphasizing their traits as both the thing you like and the thing you hate. I think I even grew up a little while reading this book.

My brother is able to delve into the minutae of any topic, to a degree of detail none but an expert could appreciate. One day he commented that he enjoyed watching a Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Two years later the rest of the family had had more G&S than they would ever want in a single lifetime, but my brother was directing plays, not having had a grain of interest in the theater before that first day. He drove us crazy with his attention to detail, his meticulous cataloguing of every single factoid he could find. But there's nobody in my family I'd rather have presiding over my estate if something happened to me. The thing that drives me crazy is the very thing I rely on. Franzen made me understand this.

As I was reading I kept trying to come up with companion pieces to The Corrections. The two I couldn't get out of my head were The Sound and the Fury and Requiem for a Dream. Faulkner for the "portrait of the downfall of a family" aspect, and Selby for the effect it had on me. The night I watched Requiem, K came into the living room and gasped. I thought she was gasping at the movie, but it was at me--on the edge of my couch, back as straight as a 2x4, my legs crossed at the knee and my hands clasped over my mouth. I think I forgot to breathe for 3 minutes. After I finished Gary's section of The Corrections, I lay in bed, on top of the covers, fully clothed, with the book resting on my face. It wasn't like the imagery and the depravity and the violence of Requiem, but the accuracy of the human suffering--in the midst of an economic boom, we're frequently reminded--was like an X-acto knife removing chunks of my flesh.

I was also reminded of American Beauty, Lullaby, and a host of the middle-class-suburban-nightmare pieces out there. Compared to Beauty, this was more subtle and more sophisticated. Compared to Lullaby, well, The Corrections made Palahniuk seem like an angry young amateur.

It's interesting to read reviews from back in the day, from before the various societal corrections settled into our lives. This book hit the NYT bestseller list in September of 2001 - right around the 5th, in fact. Can you even remember what you were thinking back then? Stop and try. I'll bet you're shaking your head right now. We were just getting over the first 20% of equity that was removed from the stock market, and we were about a week away from the terrorist attacks and losing another 30-40% of bubble. Corrections, indeed.

The reviews of the day toy with this book, they pick it up and examine it in perfect naivité, wondering whether great literature is even possible in such rich times. They're also distracted by that other matter. Five years later we're done with the irony of the 90s. Generation X became Generation Equity, then broke, then just plain-old disillusioned, but lacking the ability to ridicule or satirize as painlessly. Those reviews lack a fourth dimension of perspective. I'm not claiming to provide it here, but what I can conclude is that the work itself is probably more relevant now than it was then. The book was meant to be read after the good times were over, and not so we could savor the good times. Franzen intends the opposite: he knows we're going to tend to gloss over the bad stuff. That's where he pulls the miracle. He reminds us about the bad stuff and makes us savor that instead. The bad stuff was where we learned, where we grew, and where we learn to cope with the crap of today. Life is about Corrections. The word means as many different things to us as it does to the characters in the novel, but they are just nuances of the same thing. The universe constantly rebalances itself. Rich with poor, love with hate, memory with forgetfulness, fast versus slow, pretty versus ugly. Going against the law of Corrections is how we got into this mess, and it affected every aspect of our lives.

It's sweet and cruel and teasing and ambitious and warm. It's tidy and messy and disturbing and tragic and wonderful and stressful. It's harrowing. It's clammy. It's weird. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to try to be honest in their lives. I'd assign it to a high school student, who would have almost zero chance of understanding it. I'd assign it as required reading for anyone who wants to move to this country and stay for any length of time, Red State or Blue State.

I've only scratched the surface, and I haven't really talked about anything besides the emotional impressions I took away from it. Did I mention that it's frickin' hilarious? Makes you wonder what taking "Mexican A" would be like? There's a lot more to discuss, but I don't want to make this novel-length. It's time to move on. I'll reserve the right to do a 2.0 review.

Book #9 will be Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, dry analysis of literature or anything that removes us from the raw impact of the work by spending lots of time guessing what the author meant and why he chose certain symbols, etc., is only interesting to me the way sudoku or logic puzzles are - and since I quit smoking, I don't have time for sudoku or logic puzzles. So, that's why I liked your blog, M, because it was emotional and immediate and personal. You make me want to blog - if only because I think it could increase the likelihood that I might remember more about the books I read and the minutae of my existence if I had to write about it.

Mon Mar 20, 03:19:00 PM  

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