This fall, author Jonathan Franzen has enjoyed a writer’s PR dream.
His big, fat novel, The Corrections was hyped and euphorically reviewed by All The Right People weeks before it ever even appeared at a single bookstore.
And then, to top it off – along came Oprah.
Yes, that Oprah. She chose The Corrections as her October Book Club selection. Surprisingly, some said.
Sure, the family dysfunction fit the OBC profile, but hardly anything else did: the social criticism and satire, the dark tone, and, above all, the book’s highbrow aspirations seemed to place it another category, on another table in the bookstore.
Or so it seemed to the book’s author, Jonathan Franzen, who, upon hearing of the book’s selection, immediately began putting his foot in his mouth, toe by toe, so that within a week, one wondered how the man could walk at all.
He was, he ventured, of mixed emotions about the selection. He was surprised. He was a little distressed because the OBC seal on the cover offended his sense of ownership, and he worried some potential readers – men, perhaps, others undefined and indescribable, at least without giving offense - might be put off by Oprah’s imprimateur.
The subtext was the divide between “literary” and “popular” fiction. Franzen, it seemed, definitely wanted his cake and to eat it, too. He wanted the million dollar advance, the movie rights and the accolades – but only from the “right” people, none of whom apparently would be among the 500,000 extra readers brought to the table by Oprah Winfrey. His street cred as a writer of “literature” instead of just “books” would definitely be threatened if Oprah’s audience could understand his work. He would no longer be too cool for the room, because the room would be on to him.
So what is this book, anyway? Is The Corrections worth reading, regardless of who does and doesn’t bless it?
Sure. But as is the case with all books, your interest in The Corrections will depend on your taste. It’s a dark, piercing look at a highly dysfunctional American family and, Franzen obviously hopes, at American culture as well. He manages the first far better than the second.
Enid and Alfred Lambert live in the fictional Midwestern town of St. Jude. Their three children have scattered to the east, each living a life that is both consciously and unconsciously a “correction” of their parents. Gary, the oldest, is career-oriented like his dad, but not (he thinks) at the expense of his family. Chip, the younger son, corrects his tightly self-controlled father, by letting his instincts control him instead. The daughter, Denise, in her independence and ambiguous sexuality, is an intense correction of her mother.
The point, of course, is that all of our attempts at correction are for naught. Perhaps the “faults” of the parents were not really so terrible, and perhaps something important – stability and sacrifice – get lost in the correction.
When Franzen concentrates on the Lamberts and their struggles, most painfully Alfred’s steadily worsening Parkinson’s – he writes strongly and perceptively. As an example, take a long passage in the middle of the book, a recollection of a hideous meal of liver, rutabagas and beet greens that Enid prepares as revenge for Alfred’s mistreatment of her. Caught in this is then 7-year old Chip, who cannot and will not stomach this meal:
His eyes went around and around his plate, but he had not been provident and there was nothing on the plate but woe.
He is told to sit until he eats, and is at last left alone in the dining room, forgotten by all, and he eventually collapses in sleep, “…the weave of the place mat engraved on his one cheek.” A painful scene, but a truthful telling of the collateral damage children endure as their parents battle.
The main weakness of the book, though, is Franzen’s cultural riffs, : on corporations, biotech industries, deconstructionism, food and (yes) Lithuanian politics, offer little except self-conscious showboating, and could have been sliced off and left us with a far better book.
It is, in the end, a rather sad tale and not just because of the natural course of things, which is decomposition and death. We are not looking for magical happy endings here, in which Parkinson’s is cured and all wounds are healed. No, the Lamberts’ lives are suffused with sadness because neither they nor their narrator have any hope. Their yearnings are unconnected from anything transcendent.
One of Franzen’s critiques throughout The Corrections concerns the modern inclination to render human problems in purely physiological terms and solve them using medical means – all of the characters are tempted to deal with their emotional limitations with medication at one time or another, and Gary even fancies he’ll be getting rich off of a miraculous mind-fixing biotechnology.
In this concern, Franzen is reminiscent of Walker Percy, the Catholic-psychiatrist-philosopher-novelist who wrote often of the same temptation. The differences between Franzen and Percy run deep though – as deep as the soul.
For Percy, the crime of such medicalization lie in the fact that it threatens the core of the human person: a soul, fallen but free, loved by, reflective of and destined for God.
Reading Franzen, one sees no such contrast. The medicalization is bad…but why? He drops hints that it violates something important, but we’re never sure what, and that’s probably because he doesn’t know himself. He has no working definition of the human person apart from an organism unduly influenced by its upbringing, and where’s the resonance in that?
The Corrections may be a big book, but in the end, it’s a small story because its characters exist only to react to each other. The only way they know how to define themselves is in reference to their parents, which leaves them at once imprisoned and adrift, another set of casualties of life in the spiritual vacuum we call modernity.