Time recently put Jonathan Franzen on its cover calling him if not the best American novelist then certainly the most ambitious. It was high praise and I reluctantly put both his tomes, 'The Corrections' from 2001 and the new 'Freedom' from 2010 on my iBook app and began a journey that took me quite a while to undertake. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the books, I couldn't help but be saddened about their intent.
The Corrections is Franzen's sentencing of the American family in a broad, general sense. Though his excoriation isn't limited just to family. This is the sentencing, in a larger sense, of the America of the 90s, of a Clinton-era, pre 9/11 hedonistic "east" at juxtaposition with a conservative "midwest" and neither deserving of any real love or sympathy. Franzen spews venom broadly covering moden family life, conservatives, liberals, closeted, open, the financial industry, the drug industry, patents, drama of third-world countries, drama of America, romance, lack thereof, and everything else he can make his characters encounter.
Franzen writes beautifully. After a long time I read prose where I had to keep looking up in a dictionary (and the digital book helped) words that meant nothing to me and then once I knew what they were, they lit up the sentence just right. Franzen can come across as contrived but I think he is genuinely trying hard, very hard sometimes, to use the appropriate language for what he is trying to say. However, why try so hard, so long, to write about people that you hate? Why weave a tapestry so bloody that it would scratch the viewer's eyeballs out?
Is Franzen just cruel or is life so un-liberating in the most modern of postmodern worlds? Franzen puts his characters through infinite paper-cuts. His lonely, sad, sorry, conceited, manipulative and generally flawed characters seem unreal only because of the excess of their bleeding. Why, one wonders, did Franzen bother to tell their story?
The Corrections doesn't rally have a plot other than a mother trying to get her family together for one last Christmas. What it has are characters and not too many of them other than the five key Lamberts.
The Corrections is the story of Lamberts from a fictional mid-western town. The father Alfred, an old-school railway man who suffers many diseases of the old age, physical, mental and cultural, starts to fade early on in the novel. His state of physical degeneration and disintegration coupled with a moral disgust for the new world will make you dread aging in all new ways. Alfred in some ways is the moral compass of the story and yet instead of showing a way he generally drags everything, his family, down.
While his kids face the consequences of his disenchantment with the world, the real pain is suffered by his harrowed, harrowing, manipulative little wife, Enid Lambert, who, searching for identity has resorted to a pretend play that wipes most of her sense of wonder and engagement from the world. Their children, her only sense of screen from a husband she cannot stand, reject her completely and repeatedly.
Chip, the middle child, is a disgraced teacher, who is the sort of character very popular in modern literature. A hanger-out, bleeding-heart liberal, without any real plan or prospects, disconnected and discontented and somehow just out there being a man-child. His sole saving grace is his mother's love for him and his ultimate purpose of redeeming some of it by helping her cope and creep out of the oppressive shadow of his father.
Denise, the youngest, is your typical overachiever, modern woman, confused about her sexuality and strongly in pursuit of conformity that she blows apart the first chance she gets. She is the 'nicest' character in the book and since this is a Jonathan Franzen, she is quite a gone case. Poorly married and often single, Denise is straight and then she is not. She is her "father's daughter", the only human her father actually connects to and yet she is the reason for his ultimate disintegration. That is Franzen for you.
Gary, seemingly the most successful and happy of the three Lambert children is of course the unhappiest. Married to a manipulative, crushingly pretty woman, he is borderline depressed and borderline alcoholic. He is his father's worst enemy. His casual moral corruption highlights everything Alfred hates about modernity while Alfred's convictions are everything Gary hates in authority.
Gary's unhappiness may be Franzen's greatest cynicism just like Denise's indiscretions are his greatest despair. Gary, who is imploding daily, cannot stand the "alternate" lifestyles of his siblings or the "adult contemporary" lives of his parents. He is the emblem of a rotted out middle-age in this American life. He is Franzen's admonition to all his readers so much so that Gary is the only one spared from whatever minor redemption Franzen does offer his characters at the end.
The Corrections is required reading for anyone interested in recognizing the power of fiction to portray reality far more vividly than anything real could.