Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Here is my 62nd, and most likely final, book of the year, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Here is a review of the same book by Brent.

For those of you too lazy to click the link (Carlton), here is a plot summary: The Corrections follows the Lambert family as it deals with the quickly deepening Alzheimer's of its patriarch, Alfred. Five major narratives are weaved together: Alfred's, his wife Enid's, their sons Chip and Gary's, and their daughter Denise's. Chip is a former university professor disgraced by an affair with a student who gets involved with a complex scheme by a Lithuanian politician to defraud American investors. Gary is a wealthy but intensely unsatisfied broker whose family life is like a battlefield. Denise is a restaurant chef dealing with her sexuality.

On the surface The Corrections is very boring; most of the issues at hand are commonplace to the point of being uninspired. But Franzen imbues them with a deep wit and cautiously observed meticulousness that lends them the fullness of realism, tracing each character's life from early childhood. The Corrections has an epic sweep to it; it endeavors to capsulate five lives in five hundred pages and does pretty well.

I liked The Corrections, but I didn't really love it. For one, it reminded me of too many other books--White Noise, Disgrace, Money, Absurdistan--at different points, but each isolated part didn't really measure up to the work that it reminded me of. Furthermore, Franzen's prose is extremely bloated--some sentences ramble on for half a page. Here's a sample:

It was the alarm bell of anxiety... By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of "bell ringing" but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their heads for as long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound.

It isn't that this style doesn't work; to the contrary, the way that it pyramids upon itself accurately reflects, I think, the jagged but connective nature of human thought and experience, which Franzen seeks to capture. But at times it can often be straning. Information in The Corrections comes at an overload pace, and because the phrasing can be so ungainly it seems anything but effortless. It's as if you can hear Franzen typing--as opposed to say, someone like Cormac McCarthy, whose sentences are so carefully composed and minimalist that they seem to exist absolutely and without a creator. Franzen's style works for the purpose; but to me it wears out its welcome.

Still, I enjoyed the book. If I hadn't known how much Brent liked it already, I probably would have recommended it to him because it has that quirky, true-to-life feel that seems to me in Brent's own style.

Postscript: I forgot another thing that bothered me about the book. There are lots of references to modern pop culture, but Franzen seems to be of two minds: at one point, he references a "famous director," but at another point, he namechecks Stephen Malkmus. One style suggests that Franzen wishes to strip temporal reference points from his book in order to give it the tone of timelessness; the other suggest that Franzen wants to act as a testament to his own place and time in the universe. Choose, dammit.

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