Lit crit: Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s much-hyped stab at the Great American Novel is an exercise in patience and acceptance of quotidian frustration. “The Corrections,” which earned Franzen the National Book Award, is best known not for its prose, but for its newsworthiness as the center of a controversy with a talk show titan.

When Oprah selected “The Corrections” as the 43rd book in her Book Club, Franzen informed the talk show host that he needed time to mull over her offer. In subsequent interviews, the most infamous of which was with The Oregonian, he went on the record calling Oprah’s addition to his book jacket cover “a logo of corporate ownership”—ironically, a principle he denounces viciously over the course of his novel. His argument was that what he had written would stand the test of time, whereas the Book Club markets itself to hundreds of thousands of housewives, whom he implied were not his target audience.

The falling out that ensued between Oprah and Franzen made literary criticism headlines; he was disinvited from Oprah’s show, making him the first Book Club author not to appear on her program. His peers publicly castigated him, calling him arrogant for presuming his literary merit to be above that of fellow Book Club authors Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison and Ernest Gaines, among others. Still, the book has hovered at or near the top of hardcover bestseller lists since its September publishing.

Knowing the novel’s background and being helplessly drawn in by Franzen’s bravado, I picked up “The Corrections” and was sorely disappointed by the first fifty pages. The passages of the first chapter are self-indulgent descriptions of the junk contained in the Lambert family’s house in fictional St. Jude, a vanilla midwestern suburb. The flow was halting and irritatingly parenthetical, written like the first draft of a high schooler’s creative writing homework.

However, once the book got into the meat of the individual characters’ pasts, I realized that I had devoured a hundred pages in a moment. The plot follows the stories of the members of the dysfunctional Lambert family, intertwining the jargon of biochemical technology with excerpts of the works of philosophers and self-help psychologists.

The novel meanders along, dipping back a few decades to reveal the aching loneliness inherent in one of presumably thousands of disastrous dinners. It becomes understood that the characters are heading inexorably toward matriarch Enid Lambert’s dream Christmas in St. Jude, an event that promises only more pain; the family members are destined for more torture at the hands of those who know best how to needle them. In this sense, it is not an enjoyable read. The entire family suffers from various levels of clinical depression, although the oldest son Gary spends the most time preoccupied with that fact. The Lamberts are uniformly selfish, ingratiating and yet painfully real people.

For a realist novel, the book does not fully develop what could otherwise be truly engaging characters. In particular, Chip, the middle child, lives some sort of glamorous yet broken charmed life, likely to be whisked away on a moment’s notice to a feudal lord’s decaying lifestyle in Lithuania. Franzen seems unsure whether he wants this Gen X character to be a tragic hero or merely unlucky, and Chip stagnates for the majority of the novel. Likewise, Alfred, the Parkinson’s-riddled father, ultimately gets thrown aside when it seemed not only obvious, but expected that Franzen could have used him for the purposes of catharsis, not as a scapegoat for the family’s problems.

Still, the dynamics of the Lambert family are only too authentic in their depressing dysfunction. Alfred’s mentally crippling disease wrenches the reader’s heart all the more when flashbacks reveal a once proud if too stern man. Franzen’s style of character writing evolves as an undistorted reflection of the characters themselves — the chapter focusing on Gary is written compulsively under the influence of what feels like severe paranoia, whereas when the spotlight is on Denise, the perfectionist daughter, the words pour gracefully over a surprisingly gritty texture.

Granted, several of Franzen’s plot devices are hackneyed. It’s not groundbreaking storytelling that the mother is a shrew surviving a loveless marriage while clinging to broken dreams, or that one of the three grown children is revealed as a homosexual. Nonetheless, the thrilling anxiety of the penultimate chapter, when the family comes together for a climatic Christmas meal, is transferred with unrelenting energy to the now-hooked reader. However arrogant, Franzen’s presumptuous bid for penning a modern classic is legitimatised by clear writing, unlikable but honestly-contrived characters, and a disturbing sense of the limits of disturbance.