Book Review: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections Jonathan FranzenEnid Lambert, a world-weary, worry-wart matriarch wants her geographically, ideologically, and emotionally disparate family to gather in their hometown for one last Christmas in St. Jude; St. Jude being a fictional Midwestern town named after the patron saint of lost causes. It is a city of artery-clogging home cooked food, abandoned railroad infrastructure, and perennial discontent. The Corrections is a novel about how children grow to adulthood trying to unlive all of the mistakes they believe their parents made.

Enid and Alfred have three children, Gary, Chip, and Denise. Alfred is a retired workaholic railroad engineer with Parkinson’s Syndrome and abysmal emotional intelligence. Enid is tired of the housewife cell into which she has been cloistered, and is finally starting to get back at Alfred in his doddering old age for all of the love he never showed her. Their progeny are each in a different socio-economic holding pattern, showing that anyone can make it – or not – even in America. Gary is rich and self-absorbed, Denise is middle class and seemingly fair-minded, and Chip is broke and irresponsible unless tended.

This book was lent to me by an earnest and lovely friend of mine who was very enthusiastic about it. I took it with me over Christmahanakwanzika and read the 564 page whopper in doses. For it is that kind of book, a book like a jug of cough syrup or a bottle of pills, which it is inadvisable or downright hazardous to consume all at once. During my December travels, I carried it from San Francisco to Nashville to Atlanta to Cape Canaveral and back to San Francisco. By the time I reached baggage claim at SFO, I had read half of the book.

"But I won this award. You should be reading it faster."

Half was an important part of The Corrections for me, because the novel is too long for the story it is telling. The writing is excellent, regardless. Franzen has a knack for physical description, emotional description, metaphor, and entertaining turns of phrases. By the half way mark, I could finally feel the arc of the story growing on me. But the storytelling (aside from the writing) is not 564-pages-great. It’s more like 370-pages-great. This book could have been significantly leaner and the story arc wouldn’t have felt a thing.

Let me reiterate, the writing is great. Despite that, the book feels…I dunno…burdensome. The story is subjugated by the writing style. Franzen studies and builds each of the 5 Lambert household members painstakingly and systematically, as well as a healthy portion of ancillary characters, like the amateur Lithuanian warlord and the cruise line Norwegians. The characters are rich and flawed and vivid and each character is somehow representative of a strata of society. They all seem to be suffering and they all seem to deserve it.

With all of that great writing and setup, all those tasty sentences, I was surprised to note, by the middle of the novel, that I did not have any feelings for the characters. I was getting to know them very well and I remained curious about their fates – especially the impending Last Christmas in St. Jude. At the same time, there was something that made them difficult to care about – and that was Franzen’s great writing. The ornamentation of the writing got in the way of my relationship with the characters.  The writing style fluctuated in random sections of the book, sometimes for dozens of pages at a time (like the segment depicting Gary and Chipper’s childhood – the Dinner of Revenge) suddenly resorting to an abundance of dramatic sentence fragments and one sentence paragraphs, as if Franzen’s lubricated slide of words was finally hitting some squeaky spots. The writing had a kind of density – or intensity – which was its own end, heedless of the story. It was a story arc that didn’t care if it placed its own keystone, as long as all of the other stones were meticulously engraved.

By the halfway point, I was only about 50% still interested in the book, though that felt like enough interest to ride it out. “He still has half a book to go,” I figured, “anything can happen.” I don’t mind what some readers deem the sacrilege of abandoning an uninteresting book. And I did consider not finishing The Corrections, but then how could my friend and I speak about it in any meaningful way? Besides, I believed in Jonathan Franzen. I read the book review blurbs on the covers. This guy was about to dazzle me. He had half a book left to cover Denise’s youth/adulthood study, which he’d done with every other Lambert, so I knew it was coming, then with whatever was left…C’MON Christmas showdown! That’s how the narrative was built, suspense trickling in, and I accepted it. Yet at the same time I was earnestly asking myself, “Do I really want to spend the rest of the week with these characters?” and my answer was … “Eh, I guess, if it’s just this week.”

Franzen’s meaty novel is of the kind called “serious fiction,” or “contemporary literature.” If you know me, you can imagine what kind of counter-bias I bring to discussions of “serious fiction” and “contemporary literature.” Of the book, one reviewer said that they wanted “for it never to be over.” I’ll wager the reviewer felt like that because the ending is a disappointment. I can say that I did want it to be over, and that the ending was underwhelming. Yes, yes, that’s modernity, life is overwhelming while we live it and underwhelming in the end. I went to grad school in America. I studied plenty of history, critical theory, art, literature, and plenty of modern thought, so I already knew that about life. To be more specific, I already knew this was what modern literature said about life. But in the words of William Shakespeare “More matter, with less art” was in order.

By the time I’d gotten 80% through the book, Denise’s plot line was out of the way. It was no surprise that she was suffering and deserved it, like the rest of the Lamberts. Franzen still had not taken me to the last Christmas in St. Jude which everything seemed to be converging toward. It was about this point where I wedged my finger into the book and looked at it, looked at the thickness of pages I had already read (about 430) and looked at the thickness of pages left to read (about 130), which were considerably thinner. I thought to myself, given what I’ve learned about his not-so-lean writing style, “How is he going to pull this together in a hundred or so pages?” The answer was, he doesn’t. It’s one of those books where the joy is in the journey.

The Corrections doesn’t offer any solutions. If you want to take a swim in Jonathan Fanzen sentences, if you want to be as irritated by Enid, or as frustrated by Alfred, as their children are, get yourself a copy of The Corrections, pronto. But if you have more of a proclivity, like myself, for gratifying narrative balance, wait for the movie. (Or better yet, grab a copy of Gretchen McNeil’s Possess) For a novel so long, the characters of The Corrections go through surprisingly little transformation. Certainly, it can be argued that keeping the characters static is a deft commentary on modern life, but I prefer more storytelling convention.

I have mixed feelings about The Corrections. By the end, my 50% opinion of the book stood firm, mostly because it built up to a let down and none of the characters transformed. Not even one character is any different by the end from how they were in the beginning. Part of it may be explained by that old chestnut, the graduate level “plight of modernity,” but part of it is weak storytelling, Franzen’s juicy sentence-slinging at the cost of story.

Thanks for reading. Reading rules!

(There is a little bit more to this review, but I have to warn you that I’m revealing some significant plot points. If you don’t want some details spoiled, stop here.)

If you are interested in the craft of storytelling and want a more detailed spoiler-style analysis of the ending, read on:

Franzen Time cover 8_2010Alfred should have died on the cruise liner when Franzen had the chance, but then the Last Christmas wouldn’t have worked out. So Franzen’s story tossed an old man with Parkinson’s off of a ship into the North Atlantic, only to let him survive so we’d think that some real shit would go down at the Last Christmas in St. Jude. Alfred survived, suspense rose higher. But the Last Christmas in St. Jude dinner didn’t work out anyway, at all. There was not one single whiz-bang, knock-down-drag-out moment of all of the family members in one room at the same time. As soon as Franzen set up a real honesty fest, ready for constructive conflict, he made Gary walk out on it. If you’re gonna end it on such a deflated note, then geeze, go ahead and kill the old Dad when he falls off the ship. That would have been cooler, since the whole Last Christmas In St. Jude thing didn’t happen anyway. The childhood-era Dinner of Revenge happened thoroughly, where Chip refused to eat his rutabagas, but the Last Christmas In St. Jude did not happen. Denise’s tryst with one of Alfred’s co-workers happened, nice and vivid, filled with suspense and resolution, and The Corrections barreled on toward the Last Christmas in St. Jude, which didn’t happen. As much as the author harped on it – through Enid, Gary, Chip, and Denise’s anticipatory conflicts – it didn’t happen. The Lamberts spend 2 in-story days all in the same house together, but always paired up or alone in different rooms, or going out for errands and walks, but barely one in-story hour in the same room together. The oldest son Gary, was packed and ready to depart on Christmas morning back to his vapid, manipulative wife and mixed bag children (whom he deserved). Once Franzen finally put everyone all together, Gary petulantly insisted on selling the old family house (which he’d been insisting all along) and left for the airport. That’s it. The climax of this novel was a totally tangential restatement of an earlier subplot. Then the novel epilogued for about 30 seemingly eternal pages, because by then I was sure that nothing was going to happen, except, of course, Alfred had to die, but I knew that from the outset.

Johnathan Franzen and Michael Chabon on The Simpsons

"...Albert Camus."

Now, I know I’m just the reader, but perhaps some release, some end to, or at least respite from, the years of irritating, suppressed Lambert family discourse was in order. No one said anything to anyone that they hadn’t already spent the rest of the book saying. Franzen deliberately pitted the 5 Lamberts together only once over 564 pages, and they did nothing. Modernity or not, there was supposed to be conflict, real, actual character conflict at that Last Christmas in St. Jude, not just some recycled bickering. Sure, maybe Franzen is illustrating the plight of modernity,  how life is underwhelming and unjust, how interpersonal communication is confounded by anxieties and desires, but it is also weak storytelling, because he did a great job with the Dinner of Revenge segment, and Denise’s deflowering, yet skipped the Last Christmas in St. Jude, only after giving it top billing.

About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
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