Book Review of The
Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Copyright © by Dan
Having read Jonathan Franzen’s melodramatic 2001 novel, The Corrections, after having recently read Postmodern tripe by William Vollmann, Thomas Pynchon, and so-called Postmodern-cum-classic prose by Don DeLillo, I wondered how in the hell anyone could think that this book was good, much less great. Yes, Franzen can hold a narrative, unlike Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, or that ilk, but it is wholly shorn of depth, gets worse as it goes- being a merely competently written melodrama, larded with stereotypes of WASPs and their WASPy pseudo-problems that morphs into a cliché-ridden sub-soap opera that is almost as bad, in its subgenre, as anything put forth by the writers named above. Franzen is wholly in the T.C Boyle and Joyce Carol Oates camp of being able to craft a narrative structure, but not one of any depth, novelty, nor interest. The book’s main characters are a Midwestern, suburban, WASP clan whose father suffers from Parkinson’s disease and dementia; a mother who hates her marriage and wishes her husband dead; an oldest son ‘bravely’ admitting his manic depression; a middle son whose career is ruined by screwing a student, then cuckolding a Lithuanian politician; and a youngest daughter coming to terms with newfound lesbian feelings; and ending with the middle son refusing daddy's request to be killed and put out of his misery.
And this is NOT an Oprah book: how?
More irony abounds in that last sentence than in any sentence in the book. Go ahead, read those character arcs. In doing so you will see that Jonathan Franzen, indeed, is writing Chick Lit with a slightly shriveled penis occasionally dangling forth so he can recoup his manhood. In a sense, this book is the micron’s length slightly better cousin to that other male Chick Lit writer of renown: Richard Russo, whose own bad soap opera, Empire Falls, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the same year as Franzen’s book copped the National Book Award, thus meaning, to the general public, that these two testosteronic-leached soap operas ware the two best published works of American fiction in 2001.
Yet, let’s look at its opening paragraphs, with my unindented comments interpolated:
The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could
feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor
light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures
falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in
the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks
and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows
shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer,
the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper
bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the
paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.
The first sentence is not
trite, but it is melodramatic. I lived a dozen years in the Midwest, far north
of St. Louis (where the novel is mostly set in a fictive suburb). The second
sentence is melodramatic AND trite. The third sentence ends with a cliché. We
then get descriptions that are not bad, but not good, anyway, and veer near or
into cliché at least once- go test yourself!, as they really do not elaborate
on anything, nor give the reader any grounding. This is MFA writing mill 101,
and basically just designed to add to a novel’s word count. It is the literary
equivalent of ‘empty calories’- aka ‘descriptive padding.’ Sentence 9 is
also trite, as well as a Gothic cliché, but one not recontextualized to remove
its triteness. The rest is more of the same. Not exactly a grabber, and any
editor of worth would have red penned it to this, cutting clichés and making
the paragraph more immediate:
An autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it. The sun
low in the sky, a minor light. Gusts of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures
falling, the whole northern religion of things. No children in the yards.
Shadows on yellowing zoysia. Oaks rain acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm
windows shudder. The drone of a clothes dryer, a leaf blower, apples in a paper
bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the
paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.
We get all the
needed information, none of the extraneous information, and are drawn closer to
the scene with the present tense heightened. It really is funny how so many
literary agents claim to want prose that ‘grabs’ them, yet when confronted
with the lethargy of such wordly logy, are enthralled by poor and pointless
description, as if description itself is good writing.
Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in which he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there would be no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections, bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid.
Not as bad as the opening paragraph, but gerontocratic could have been phrased better and the metaphor of time and a sinus really clunks because it’s not a comparison of two remotely like things, and even when conjoined, an average reader will have difficulty in reckoning the two. And, a search of this metaphor from the book reveals just that level of confusion. This is not an example of a great writer writing over the heads of Joe Average, but a pretentious writer reaching for strained metaphors and modifiers.
Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety. It was like one of those big cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that send schoolchildren into the street in fire drills. 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 so 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. Which consciousness was particularly acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood. Then Enid and Alfred -- she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table -- each felt near to exploding with anxiety.
Here, Franzen tries to plumb psychological depths by having an internal sound, only a married couple could hear, as a metaphor for their shared emptiness with life and each other. Not a bad idea, but the point is lost in the obfuscation of a 263 word paragraph. At a tenth the length the point could have been well made by a great writer at least twice, maybe thrice. More word count padding, a sure sign of pretension in a writer who equates length with depth.
The anxiety of coupons, in a drawer containing candles in designer autumn colors. The coupons were bundled in a rubber band, and Enid was realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntily circled in red by the manufacturer) lay months and even years in the past: that these hundred-odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded sixty dollars (potentially one hundred twenty dollars at the Chiltsville supermarket that doubled coupons), had all gone bad. Tilex, sixty cents off. Excedrin PM, a dollar off. The dates were not even close. The dates were historical. The alarm bell had been ringing for years.
Paragraph four introduces more recurring problems with Franzen’s prose. We get the manifestation of the prior paragraph’s overwriting in the form of outdated coupons that, like the prior paragraph are explained in words several times the needed length to be effective. Then we get the ceaseless product placement. Franzen, like many bad writers, thinks that such offers realism, and it can be a token of such if not done in such an obvious manner- ‘Bill sipped his Coke as Harry droned on about his wife’s obsession with The Sopranos,’ is a sentence that concerns bourgeois themes but, even set apart from any other prose, flows naturally. A reader in the future, of the next few centuries, will likely still have Coke, and recognize the television show as, at least, some work of art of fiction, which, in general, is a more important and relevant fact in the sentence than the specific work of art referenced. Similarly, had the words ‘bathroom cleaner,’ been used for Tilex, and ‘aspirin’ or ‘acetaminophen,’ for Excedrin, and PM, no less, there would be nothing lost, realistically, and the stain of precious product placement advertising would be alleviated. But this occurs throughout the book, so clearly Franzen felt this important, as well a way to get sponsorship for film or television adaptations of the book. Viva capitalism!
She pushed the coupons back in among the candles and shut the drawer. She was looking for a letter that had come by Registered mail some days ago. Alfred had heard the mailman knock on the door and had shouted, "Enid! Enid!" so loudly that he couldn't hear her shouting back, "Al, I'm getting it!" He'd continued to shout her name, coming closer and closer, and because the sender of the letter was the Axon Corporation, 24 East Industrial Serpentine, Schwenksville, PA, and because there were aspects of the Axon situation that Enid knew about and hoped that Alfred didn't, she'd quickly stashed the letter somewhere within fifteen feet of the front door. Alfred had emerged from the basement bellowing like a piece of earth-moving equipment, "There's somebody at the door!" and she'd fairly screamed, "The mailman! The mailman!" and he'd shaken his head at the complexity of it all.
Probably the best paragraph so far, but really, a merely competent one. For someone laying claim to being the Great American Novelist, this should not be a highpoint, even this early in.
Enid felt sure that her own head would clear if only she didn't have to wonder, every five minutes, what Alfred was up to. But, try as she might, she couldn't get him interested in life. When she encouraged him to take up his metallurgy again, he looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. When she asked whether there wasn't some yard work he could do, he said his legs hurt. When she reminded him that the husbands of her friends all had hobbies (Dave Schumpert his stained glass, Kirby Root his intricate chalets for nesting purple finches, Chuck Meisner his hourly monitoring of his investment portfolio), Alfred acted as if she were trying to distract him from some great labor of his. And what was that labor? Repainting the porch furniture? He'd been repainting the love seat since Labor Day. She seemed to recall that the last time he'd painted the furniture he'd done the love seat in two hours. Now he went to his workshop morning after morning, and after a month she ventured in to see how he was doing and found that all he'd painted of the love seat was the legs.
Ok, a slight improvement on the last- we get some indication of the actual relationship, but still in just the solid range. There is yet to have appeared a great phrasing, a great metaphor, a great idea, a great characterization, or a great piece of dialogue.
He seemed to wish that she would go away. He said that the brush had got dried out, that that was what was taking so long. He said that scraping wicker was like trying to peel a blueberry. He said that there were crickets. She felt a shortness of breath then, but perhaps it was only the smell of gasoline and of the dampness of the workshop that smelled like urine (but could not possibly be urine). She fled upstairs to look for the letter from Axon.
More mere solidity.
Six days a week several pounds of mail came through the slot in the front door, and since nothing incidental was allowed to pile up downstairs -- since the fiction of living in this house was that no one lived here -- Enid faced a substantial tactical challenge. She didn't think of herself as a guerrilla, but a guerrilla was what she was. By day she ferried matériel from depot to depot, often just a step ahead of the governing force. By night, beneath a charming but too-dim sconce at a too-small table in the breakfast nook, she staged various actions: paid bills, balanced checkbooks, attempted to decipher Medicare copayment records and make sense of a threatening Third Notice from a medical lab that demanded immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneously showing an account balance of $0.00 carried forward and thus indicating that she owed nothing and in any case offering no address to which remittance might be made. It would happen that the First and Second Notices were underground somewhere, and because of the constraints under which Enid waged her campaign she had only the dimmest sense of where those other Notices might be on any given evening. She might suspect, perhaps, the family-room closet, but the governing force, in the person of Alfred, would be watching a network newsmagazine at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, and he had every light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligible possibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade of catalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch statements would come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred's wrath. There was also the possibility that the Notices would not be there, since the governing force staged random raids on her depots, threatening to "pitch" the whole lot of it if she didn't take care of it, but she was too busy dodging these raids to ever quite take care of it, and in the succession of forced migrations and deportations any lingering semblance of order was lost, and so the random Nordstrom shopping bag that was camped behind a dust ruffle with one of its plastic handles semi-detached would contain the whole shuffled pathos of a refugee existence -- non-consecutive issues of Good Housekeeping, black-and-white snapshots of Enid in the 1940s, brown recipes on high-acid paper that called for wilted lettuce, the current month's telephone and gas bills, the detailed First Notice from the medical lab instructing co-payers to ignore subsequent billings for less than fifty cents, a complimentary cruise ship photo of Enid and Alfred wearing leis and sipping beverages from hollow coconuts, and the only extant copies of two of their children's birth certificates, for example.
This far in to my critique, you should be able to point out the handful of problems in this paragraph. On to the next:
Although Enid's ostensible foe was Alfred, what made her a guerrilla was the house that occupied them both. Its furnishings were of the kind that brooked no clutter. There were chairs and tables by Ethan Allen. Spode and Waterford in the breakfront. Obligatory ficuses, obligatory Norfolk pines. Fanned copies of Architectural Digest on a glass-topped coffee table. Touristic plunder -- enamelware from China, a Viennese music box that Enid out of a sense of duty and mercy every so often wound up and raised the lid of. The tune was "Strangers in the Night."
This whole paragraph could be clipped to the first sentence and moved into the paragraph above it, after trimming some of its excesses, as well.
Unfortunately, Enid lacked the temperament to manage such a house, and Alfred lacked the neurological wherewithal. Alfred's cries of rage on discovering evidence of guerrilla actions -- a Nordstrom bag surprised in broad daylight on the basement stairs, nearly precipitating a tumble -- were the cries of a government that could no longer govern. He'd lately developed a knack for making his printing calculator spit columns of meaningless eight-digit figures. After he devoted the better part of an afternoon to figuring the cleaning woman's social security payments five different times and came up with four different numbers and finally just accepted the one number ($635.78) that he'd managed to come up with twice (the correct figure was $70.00), Enid staged a nighttime raid on his filing cabinet and relieved it of all tax files, which might have improved household efficiency had the files not found their way into a Nordstrom bag with some misleadingly ancient Good Housekeepings concealing the more germane documents underneath, which casualty of war led to the cleaning woman's filling out the forms herself, with Enid merely writing the checks and Alfred shaking his head at the complexity of it all.
Still more overwriting, although this paragraph does set off the Lamberts as wealthy WASPs, despite the book’s later attempts to portray them as financially wanting, to make them more palatable to the book’s presumed readership.
It's the fate of most Ping-Pong tables in home basements eventually to serve the ends of other, more desperate games. After Alfred retired he appropriated the eastern end of the table for his banking and correspondence. At the western end was the portable color TV on which he'd intended to watch the local news while sitting in his great blue chair but which was now fully engulfed by Good Housekeepings and the seasonal candy tins and baroque but cheaply made candle holders that Enid never quite found time to transport to the Nearly New consignment shop. The Ping-Pong table was the one field on which the civil war raged openly. At the eastern end Alfred's calculator was ambushed by floral print pot-holders and souvenir coasters from the Epcot Center and a device for pitting cherries which Enid had owned for thirty years and never used, while he, in turn, at the western end, for absolutely no reason that Enid could ever fathom, ripped to pieces a wreath made of pinecones and spray-painted filberts and brazil nuts.
Now, while this paints an image, it is, as to now be expected, overwritten aesthetically and needlessly verbose. But, so much of this goes on that some critics have tried to reckon all this bad writing as being, in some way, evidence of satire or parody.
Ok, let’s plumb that line of reasoning. Here are the relevant definitions, from Webster’s online dictionary:
1: a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn
2: trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly
1 : a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule
2 : a feeble or ridiculous imitation
Ok, clearly parody is out, since The Corrections is not explicitly modeled on any one work. Yes, it is broadly in the range of ‘family dramas,’ but that still does not lift it into parody, as the claimants of this were obviously confusing the term with satire. But is Franzen enacting satire? If we take definition 1, then clearly Franzen is not holding up his characters to ridicule nor scorn. In fact, he is doing the exact opposite, and he does it through the book- he tries to get the reader to empathize with them, and empathy is as antithetical to satire as can be, and it evinces itself in the very floridity of the prose. Satire is sharp, incisive, and cutting, whereas floridity, by its nature, is dull and excessive. But, maybe definition 2 meets the target. Note that the first word linked to is trenchant, which means sharp, incisive, distinct, articulate. Again, this does not gibe with the florid prose on display in the book’s opening. And there is no sarcasm, writ large in the work, much less exposure nor discreditation. The book, in fact, is almost a modern attempt at soap opera crossed with Norman Rockwell. So, it is easy to see that the attempts to rescue the book’s immanent literary poverty is almost solely based on a lack of understanding of what basic words mean- a common error in most criticism and dialectic. The only question, then, is whether or not lack of understanding was symptomatic of the deliterazation of the common reader or the willful obfuscation of the publicity machine the book engendered in its quest to win awards and elevate its author. Occam’s Razor would come down in favor of both, with slightly more weight accorded the latter option. The Corrections takes itself far too seriously to be satire, and is so lacking in any insights that it cuts off any hope of being even an unwitting satire. There is no social criticism, merely social indulgence and romp; hence making it a soap opera, purely.
Here is a typical attempt at showing ‘real’ problems, by Franzen. But, note how utterly inconsequential it is, and is wrought (from page 207):
Denise at thirty-two was still beautiful, but long hours at the stove had begun to cook her youthful skin into a kind of terra-cotta mask that made Gary a little more anxious each time he saw her. She was his baby sister, after all. Her years of fertility and marriageability were passing with a swiftness to which he was attuned and she, he suspected, was not. Her career seemed to him an evil spell under the influence of which she worked sixteen-hour days and had no social life. Gary was afraid- he claimed, as her oldest brother, the right to be afraid- that by the time Denise awakened from this spell she would be too old to start a family.
Or, when trying to show the importance of small things, Franzen goes with the American version of the Jhumpa Lahiri spice listing gambit (from page 253):
In the kitchen Enid dredge the Promethean meat in flour and laid it in a Westinghouse electric pan large enough to fry nine eggs in ticktacktoe formation. A cast aluminum lid clattered as rutabaga water came abruptly to a boil. Earlier in the day a half package of bacon in the refrigerator had suggested liver to her, the drab liver ad suggested a complement of bright yellow, and so the Dinner had taken shape. Unfortunately, when she went to cook the bacon she discovered there were only three strips, not the six or eight she imagined. She was now struggling to believe that three strips would suffice for the entire family.
Well, well; heaven forfend that such problems should inflict! Of course, many of these dull narrative bridges would not be so bad, in and of themselves, were they actually surrounded by lyrical, memorable, deep, and well written passages. But they’re not. They are surrounded by, well, look above, writing that could easily be mistaken for that of the far more derided Dan Brown, whose own bestseller came two years after Franzen’s. And, no, he’s not this century’s answer to Steinbeck; ok, well, maybe Thomas Steinbeck, but not his daddy.
Before I dive back into the novel’s narrative, let me end this digression where I started, with another critical claim for the book; that it is epic. Let’s go back to Webster’s:
1: of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an epic <an epic poem>
2 a : extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope <his genius was epic — Times Literary Supplement> b : heroic
The Corrections is not that long a book, nor does it deal with outsized characters and problems. It is, in almost every aspect, the opposite of heroic, which would be mundane.
The novel is broken into 7 long chapters. The first is St. Jude, the name of the fictive suburb Enid and Alfred Lambert live in, and from which I excerpted above. Alfred is a retired railroad engineer slowly senescencing, with Parkinson’s Disease, while his wife- a classic harridan- struggles with a love/hate relationship toward him, as he is not the man he once was, although she is still the same flighty woman she always was. Enid’s greatest problem in life is that she constantly wants to redecorate her house, then chastise her husband for his health problems, and their growing medical bills. Not exactly earth-shaking dilemmas. Theirs is a sadly typical take on modern marriage- a man who is past his prime is accosted by accusations of bad behavior and ill will that he never actually shows but which the wife does, and does throughout the whole book. On page 279, Enid fellates Alfred, to persuade him to invest in a scheme she favors. Now, aside from the absurdity of this set up (and bear in mind how this book is hailed as a ‘family saga’:
She’d even been known, when a room was very dark, to take a real risk or two, and she took one now. Rolled over and tickled his thigh with breasts that a certain neighbor had admired. Rested her cheek on her husband’s ribs. She could feel him waiting for her to go away, but first she had to stroke the plain of his muscled belly, hover-gliding, touching hair but no skin. To her mild surprise she felt his his his (sic?) coming to life at the approach of her fingers. His groin tried to dodge her but the fingers were more nimble. She could feel him growing to manhood through the fly of his pajamas, and in access of pent-up hunger she did a thing he’d never let her do before. She bent sideways and took it into her mouth. It: the rapidly growing boy, the faintly urinary dumpling. In the skill of her hands and the swelling of her breasts she felt desirable and capable of anything.
In what universe is this even passable, much less good or great, writing? It’s total soap opera level scenario, and utter Jackie Collins or Nora Roberts level tripe, from the nimble fingers to the skill of her hands to the silly euphemisms for ‘penis’ to her breasts, which can be nothing but ‘swelling.’ Again, seriously- no great writer would ever let a paragraph like this appear in a book, and The Corrections has man of them, as I shall soon show.
The second chapter is called The Failure, and chronicles middle son, Chip. Yes, that’s his name. Only Biff could have been worse. He’s a thirtysomething professor at a small liberal arts college in Connecticut, and awaiting tenure. His affairs with students- once de rigueur, now come back to haunt him, as one student, Melissa, files harassment and stalking charges against him, after their fling ends badly. He is then forced to resign, and takes up with a Bohemian friend of his sister, who is married to a Lithuanian politician. Their affair starts when he writes a bad screenplay patterned on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, then goes after another woman who can get the screenplay greenlighted. He lies to his parents that he left Academia to work for the Wall Street Journal, when he works part time gigs for an arts newsweekly and a legal firm. When he meets his lover’s Lithuanian husband, later in the novel, he is offered a gig to design a website to scam investors.
Here is a typical bit of what Chip offers the narrative, from page 31:
‘No, but listen,’ he said, ‘she’s using the word ‘health’ like it has some kind of absolute timeless meaning.’
‘This is Julia?’
‘She takes pills for three months, the pills make her unbelievably obtuse, and the obtuseness then defines itself as mental health! It’s like blindness defining itself as vision. ‘Now that I’m blind I can see that there’s nothing to see.’’
Denise sighed and let her cone of flowers droop to the sidewalk. “What are you saying? You want to follow her and take away her medicine?’
‘I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed,’ Chip said. ‘I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as ‘diseased.’ A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of a disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroys the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental ‘health’ is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you’re buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.’
Denise closed one eye and opened the other very wide. Her open eye was like nearly black balsamic vinegar beading on white china. ‘If I grant that these are interesting issues,’ she said, ‘will you stop talking about them and come upstairs with me?’
Chip shook his head. ‘There’s a poached salmon in the fridge. A crème frâiche with sorrel. A salad with green beans and hazelnuts. You’ll see the wine and baguette and the butter. It’s good, fresh butter from Vermont.’
This is not only a good example of the poor development of Chip, the character, but of Franzen’s attempting to be deep (italics necessitated). Here, the situation is Chip meeting up with his sister, after having maybe broken up with his girlfriend, and Franzen is attempting to show Chip so focused on himself that he is indifferent to Denise, and the siblings thus ‘talk past each other.’ This is meant to show how the Lamberts are, and have always been dysfunctional- that great ‘non-term’ from the 1990s. But, when real people talk past each other they focus on their own problems, and do so after, at least, a show of feigned interest in the other. In this situation, we get Chip ready to rip off an Oprah Winfrey Show level spiel on pharmacological excess at the drop of a hat, when the real reason is simply that Franzen wants to show depth and social awareness in the character. But, it’s totally forced, and the tip off to this- in case it was not obvious, is the rather flip way Denise blows her brother of and he swiftly accepts it. This is the sine qua non of clunky pretension, and there are many examples of it in the book, such as on page 58, where Chip rebukes his student lover Melissa for liking her parents, to show how ‘uncool’ and ‘ill’ she is. On the positive side, it is not larded with clichés, but there are many sorts of bad writing, and this falls under bad characterization.
But he’d always loved how tough she was, how unlike a Lambert, how fundamentally unsympathetic to his family. Over the years he’d collected certain remarks of hers into a kind of personal Decalogue, an All-Time Caroline Ten to which he privately referred for strength and sustenance:
1. You’re nothing at all like your father.
2. You don’t have to apologize for buying the BMW.
3. Your dad emotionally abuses your mom.
4. I love the taste of your come.
5. Work was the drug that ruined your father’s life.
6. Let’s buy both!
7. Your family has a diseased relationship with food.
8. You’re an incredibly good-looking man.
9. Denise is jealous of what you have.
10. There’s absolutely nothing useful about suffering.
The next chapter is called At Sea, and we follow Alfred on a cruise in the North Atlantic, where a flashback occurs to a time when Alfred could have gotten rich by buying stock in a rival railroad his company was to acquire, but does not, on the grounds that it would be insider trading. To try and convince him, Enid fellates Alfred, but to no avail. Instead, Alfred advises some neighbors, who get rich and retire. Later, he falls overboard, and is rescued, and hospitalized, where he slowly chugs toward death. The chapter ends with a really bad, and trite, description of the fall, wherein Franzen tries to return to Pynchonian PoMo by reducing his character’s plunge to tired formulae, in an attempt to gain humor from PoMo’s supposed indifference in contrast to the ‘realistic’ idea of a man likely falling to his doom:
Discounting the minimal effects of wind drag at low velocities, something "plummeting" (a thing of value "plunging" in a "free fall") experienced an acceleration due to gravity at 32 feet per second squared, and, acceleration being the second-order derivative of distance, the analyst could integrate once over the distance the object had fallen (roughly 30 feet) to calculate its velocity (42 feet per second) as it passed the center of a window 8 feet tall, and assuming a 6-foot long object, and also assuming for simplicity's sake a constant velocity over the interval, derive a figure of approximately four-tenths of a second of full or partial visibility. Four-tenths of a second wasn’t much.
What is not much is this sort of prose. Not only nakedly aloft, but especially in the context of a book that, by this time, is well over 300 pages into its tale.
Chapter Five is The Generator, and follows youngest daughter
Denise, a divorcee, in her newfound forays into lesbianism. Her soon to be lover
is Robin Passafaro,
daughter of Mobsters who run Philadelphia’s Teamsters union. Robin is also a
divorcee whose ex-husband hires Denise to be chef at his new restaurant. We
learn that Denise had been part of a blackmail scheme, after she slept with her
father’s co-worker, but nothing of depth comes of this revelation. We get no
agonal moments, no insight into the whys and wherefores. It’s just a factoid
heaped into the character’s past to give the illusion that the character has
depth. But, since this character is in her early 30s, that can be assumed, sans
such tortured and recounted melodrama. When the ex, who has also ‘had’
Denise, discovers her munching his former wife he fires Denise, who is now able
to go to Gary’s Christmas reunion- the only thing of value the oldest brother
seems able to do.
Of all the characters that Franzen, well- shall I say butchers or rapes?- the worst drawn is youngest child Denise. Earlier, I gave an example of Franzen’s utter incompetence in writing of heterosexual sex, but he butchers homosexual sex and desires even worse. Let me give you some examples. On pages 413-414 we get this bookend to older brother Gary’s ‘startling’ revelation over his coming to terms with manic depression, as Denise has a ‘shocking’ insight:
And part of Denise was thinking, as the tea went cold: Shit, she’s really into me now. This part of her considered, as if it was an actual threat of harm, the exhausting circumstance: She wants sex every day. This same part of her was thinking also: My God, the way she eats. And: I am not a ‘lesbian.’
In this next selection, from pages 505-506, we see that Franzen’s idea of characterization includes infantilization of a character that, earlier, is claimed to be the most normal and well adjusted in the family. Of course, this is all relative, as there are NO normal people in suburbia (per soap opera dictates):
Robin had had a month to cool off and conclude that if sleeping with Brian was a sin then she was guilty of it also. Brian had rented a loft for himself in Olde City, and Robin, as Denise had suspected, was dead set on keeping custody of Sinead and Erin. To strengthen her case, she stayed put in the big house on Panama Street and rededicated herself to motherhood. But she was free during school hours and all day on Saturday when Brian took the girls out, and on mature reflection she decided that these free hours might best be spent in Denise’s bed.
Denise still couldn’t say no to the drug of Robin. She still wanted Robin’s hands on her and at her and around her and inside her, that prepositional smorgasbord. But there was something in Robin, probably her propensity to blame herself for harms that other people inflicted on her, that invited betrayal and abuse. Denise went out of her way to smoke in bed now. Because cigarette smoke irritated Robin’s eyes. She dressed to the hilt when she met Robin for lunch , she did her best to highlight Robin’s dowdiness, and she held the gaze of anyone, female or male, who turned to look at her. She visibly winced at the volume of Robin’s voice. She behaved like an adolescent with a parent except that an adolescent couldn’t help rolling her eyes whereas Denise’s contempt was a deliberate, calculated form of cruelty. She shushed Robin angrily when they were in bed and Robin began to hoot self-consciously. She said, ‘Keep your voice down. Please. Please.’ Exhilarated by her own cruelty, she stared at Robin’s Gore-Tex raingear until Robin was provoked to ask why. Denise said, ‘I’m just wondering if you’re ever tempted to be slightly less uncool.’ Robin replied that she was never going to be cool and so she might as well be comfortable. Denise allowed her lip to curl.
Ok, now onto Franzen’s take on lesbianism, which shows that a) Franzen has never really had a conversation with a lesbian (at least as of 2001), b) Franzen has never even really talked with a woman, regardless of sexual preference, and c) Franzen just loves to name brand drop, for what follows, from page 507, makes Penthouse Letters read like Chekhov, in comparison.
By now most people would have got the message; most people would have cleared out and never come back. But Robin, it transpired, had a taste for cruel treatment. Robin said, and Denise believed her, that she would never have left Brian if Brian hadn’t left her. Robin liked to be licked and stroked within a micron of coming and then abandoned and made to beg. And Denise liked to do this to her. Denise liked to get out of bed and get dressed and go downstairs while Robin waited for sexual release, because she wouldn’t cheat and touch herself. Denise sat in the kitchen and read a book and smoked until Robin, humiliated, trembling, came down and begged. Denise’s contempt then was so pure and so strong, it was almost better than sex.
Note that Franzen ends the paragraph of sex description- almost
hilariously, with an egregious cliché. The best counterpart to these scenes,
and others involving Denise and Robin, is the almost inverse situation, in E.
Annie Proulx’s short story collection, Close
Range, in the horrific short story, Brokeback Mountain, made into
an even worse film,
because there a female writer demonstrated that she never had a real
conversation with a real male homosexual. The difference is that Proulx actually
has, outside of that nadir, demonstrated she can write competently, even well.
Franzen, in this book, demonstrates nothing of the sort. But, notice how
schizoid Franzen’s prose is. The last quoted paragraph again attempts depth,
right up to the point we get to ‘Robin liked to be licked….’ The change in
tone and intent is so abrupt that one wonders if Franzen had some interpolated
prose that was accidentally erased and never spotted by proofreaders as being
awkward- and the same goes with that triple his, from the fellatio scene
on page 279. In fact, while The Corrections is not the worst edited book
I’ve ever read, it is a sloppily proofread and badly edited one. But, the
point is that Franzen’s writing of sex and, especially, lesbians, is 100% male
fantasy, and the writing, sexual or not, just gets worse and worse as the book
continues, its cumulative effect narcotizing all interest and making a dour
chore of merely reading this piffle. It starts off as a declassé Woody Allen
film (a 10th rate Interiors) or wannabe Ingmar Bergman and
achieves that by book’s end, except it’s not Winter
Light nor Scenes
From A Marriage, but Saraband.
No, correction, it even undershoots Saraband, Bergman’s final, and
The sixth chapter is One Last Christmas. This follows
the obtuse and shallow peregrinations of the character toward each other,
admixed with the requisite clichés on how little the characters really believe
in Christmas nor anything. Gary muses on his father and himself committing
suicide, and when Chip finally arrives he feels schadenfreude at being the least
miserable of the Lamberts. Yet, when his father begs to be put out of his
misery, Chip has his Gary moment of soap opera closeup, as he refuses to help
the man he claims to love.
The final chapter, The Corrections, and utterly unneeded. Not that the penultimate chapter’s end is good- it’s not, and, as phrased, as bad or worse than this one’s end, but that does not mean this ending is good. Alfred dies of starving himself to death, Enid rejoices, Gary gets killed in a stock investment, Denise gets another job as a chef, and Chip marries a rich woman and is free to write. The chapter’s and book’s title comes from the economic corrections of the period writ large on the family. Here is how the book ends, from page 568:
He’d been living at the Deepmire Home for two years when he stopped
accepting food. Chip took time away from parenthood and his new teaching job at
a private high school and his eighth revision of the screenplay to visit from
Chicago and say goodbye. Alfred lasted longer after that than anyone expected.
He was a lion to the end. His blood pressure was barely measurable when Denise
and Gary flew into town, and still he lived another week. He lay curled up on
the bed and barely breathed. He moved for nothing and responded to nothing
except to shake his head emphatically, once, if Enid tried to put an ice chip in
his mouth. The one thing he never forgot was how to refuse. All of her
correction had been for naught. He was as stubborn as the day she met him. And
yet when he was dead, when she’d pressed her lips to his forehead and walked
out with Denise and Gary into the warm spring night, she felt that nothing could
kill her hope now, nothing. She was seventy-five and she was going to make some
changes in her life.
This end comes after Enid gets in a few more pages of
berating and abusing Alfred, as she has for years. Now look at the declassé
Rilkean ending. The book opens and closes with two trite clichés, and all
that’s between hangs on a firm narrative- unlike many a bad PoMo poseur’s
novel, but that firmness is just as bad as the infirmities of PoMo, for it is
built on triteness of plot and character- and often phrasing, just as PoMo
novels are awash in nakedly phrased clichés.
But, despite what I have demonstrably shown, it’s worth looking at the contemporaneous reception the book got on its release, over a decade ago. The back of the book has cover blurbs by Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Pat Conroy, and Michael Cunningham, yet this means little, as DeLillo is a very hit and miss writer (mostly miss), David Foster Wallace was an atrocious writer and literary fraud, Pat Conroy is virtually the definition of the term hack (I once read his own badsoap operatic novel, Beach Music, given to me as a gift- a book so bad that its original manuscript was 2100 pages long, before being trimmed to 640), and Michael Cunningham- well, he’s the guy that gifted the world with The Hours; ‘nuff said! However, someone named David Gates got a gig with the New York Times to write a review of The Corrections, and unleashed these gems of insight:
You could read ''The Corrections'' as a conventional realist saga of multigenerational family dynamics -- that's how the publisher spins it -- and love's mutating mysteries, with just enough novel-of-paranoia touches so Oprah won't assign it and ruin Franzen's street cred. Or you could read it as a trickier and trendier sort of work, which flawlessly mimics old-school plottiness, readability and character development in order to seduce you into realms of bottomless geopolitical-spiritual disquiet. Damned if I know. But I know what made me decide to stick with the thing long enough to tell I liked it.
First, melodrama is not ‘real,’ in any sense of the term, for melodrama is exaggerated drama, wherein plots are built on clichés and characterization is mere stereotyping, wherein ‘high’ points are easily detected before they happen. And that describes Franzen’s novel to the letter, literally. It therefore is not realism nor naturalism. The characters, as shown in just a few excerpts, are not only tritely portrayed, but in phrasing that, no matter how doggedly parsed, are banal, which is conventionality at its lowest level. And, clearly the critic did not anticipate Oprah’s love of this book, even though it is clearly in the vein of all the contemporary books Oprah picked. In fact, save for the pretensions, what really differentiates Franzen from male romance writer Nicholas Sparks? There cliché per thousand word ratio is almost a dead heat? And go reread those sex scenes, and then skim a Sparks book the next time you’re at Barnes & Noble (if there are any left).
''The Corrections'' turns on a single, definingly American question: Will Mom be able to get the whole family home for one last Christmas? Franzen tucks the more momentous questions into a branching system of subplots, starring each of the main characters in turn and making each one equally sympathetic. Will Alfred (a) be put in a nursing home, (b) enter a radical new treatment plan that proposes to restructure his brain or (c) deliver himself with that Hemingway-evoking shotgun in the basement? Will Denise, who cooks at a nouveller-than-thou restaurant, end up in bed with (a) her financial backer, (b) his wife or (c) both? Will Chip get (a) rich off that screenplay, (b) his married girlfriend back or (c) himself killed during a coup in Lithuania, where he goes as an aide to a politician turned con man? Will Gary, the banker who's the oldest of the Lamberts' offspring, (a) make a killing in biotech stocks, (b) stand up to his crafty wife and mocking children or (c) just keep drinking? Finally, will Enid, the materfamilias, ever get a grip?
Now, seriously, does Gates really believe the question he elevates to a defining American question really is? Despite it being key to dozens, if not hundreds, of films, plays, stories, and other novels? And, all the other questions- seriously, if you have ever watched a 1930s movie serial, or an afternoon soap opera, is there a single question there that deals with depth, the human condition, or anything that could be construed as being something essential to the workings of the cosmos? Of course not.
Well, no one seems to have informed the Times reviewer:
The end of the novel has the same ambivalence Kafka achieves at the end of ''The Metamorphosis'': we're glad that one character has been released from an oppressive bond, yet we also suspect that a nobler soul has been undervalued. If you don't end up liking each one of Franzen's people, you probably just don't like people. And by the way, assuming the book really does speak to our condition, it doesn't pretend to know more about it than we do.
Now, reread that. Is Gates seriously trying to compare The Corrections to The Metamorphosis? Hell, I doubt that the guy who wrote that review is even referring to Alfred Lambert when he names the ‘nobler soul.’ But, since he brought it up, let’s compare the end paragraphs of the two books. In case you have forgotten (and who could blame you?), here’s the end of Franzen’s book:
He’d been living at the Deepmire Home for two years when he stopped accepting food. Chip took time away from parenthood and his new teaching job at a private high school and his eighth revision of the screenplay to visit from Chicago and say goodbye. Alfred lasted longer after that than anyone expected. He was a lion to the end. His blood pressure was barely measurable when Denise and Gary flew into town, and still he lived another week. He lay curled up on the bed and barely breathed. He moved for nothing and responded to nothing except to shake his head emphatically, once, if Enid tried to put an ice chip in his mouth. The one thing he never forgot was how to refuse. All of her correction had been for naught. He was as stubborn as the day she met him. And yet when he was dead, when she’d pressed her lips to his forehead and walked out with Denise and Gary into the warm spring night, she felt that nothing could kill her hope now, nothing. She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.
Now, let’s gander at Franz Kafka’s end to The Metamorphosis, from a 1995 translation by Stanley Appelbaum:
Then all three of them left the apartment together, something they hadn’t done for months, and took the trolley out to the country on the edge of town. The car, in which they were the only passengers, was brightly lit by the warm sun. Leaning back comfortably on their seats, they discussed their prospects for the future, and it proved that, on closer examination, these were not all that bad, because the jobs that all three had, but which they hadn’t really asked one another about before, were thoroughly advantageous and particularly promising for later on. Naturally the greatest immediate improvement in their situation would result easily from a change of apartment; now they would take a smaller and cheaper, but better located and in general more practical, apartment than their present one, which Gregor had found for them. While they were conversing in this way, Mr. And Mrs. Samsa, looking at their daughter, who was becoming more lively all the time, realized at almost the very same moment that recently, in spite of all the cares that had made her cheeks pale, she had blossomed out into a beautiful, well-built girl. Becoming more silent and almost unconsciously communicating with each other by looks, they thought it was now time to find a good husband for her. And they took it as confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when, at the end of their ride, their daughter stood up first and stretched her young body.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Kafka is one of the more overrated writers around. He had basically one tale, the social outsider coming to terms with his alienation. But, he did craft three excellent takes on that with the named novella, The Castle, and his masterpiece, The Trial. But, he was capable of greatness; a thing Franzen simply is not. Now, if you know Kafka’s tale, it involves a character named Gregor Samsa who awakens to find he had transformed into a giant bug, of some sort. The whole tale follows his adjustment to non-human existence, as well as that of his family’s. He eventually dies, and we get the above end paragraph. Now, bear in mind that Appelbaum’s translation may be more trite than the original, and likely is. Nonetheless, the last paragraph has no nail-biting clichés- the worst offender is ‘warm sun,’ but there is a ‘cool sun,’ such as in apricity, so we are really getting a straight on description, such as when someone writes ‘he loved her deeply.’ This, also, is not so much cliché as a straight on telling. Had it more floral attachments, then cliché it would be.
Let’s compare this to The Corrections, a novel that, if you are not now convinced of its banal sub-mediocrity, at best, there is no helping you. The ideation and execution of the two stories simply are not comparable. The only possible reason for the misguided Times reviewer to compare the two is that Alfred Lambert, like Gregor Samsa, dies, and Enid Lambert, like Gregor’s sister, moves on with her life. But Alfred is a cliché, unlike Gregor, and so is Enid (as well as being a despicable person), whereas Gregor’s sister is not (on both counts). So this is where the two tales share an ambivalence? In fact, neither tale ends ambivalently. Although Kafka’s is the far more superior, and makes you possibly wonder at what becomes of his survivors, there is no ambivalence. Even Franzen’s tale has no ambivalence, for Enid is glad to be rid of her husband, whom she viewed as an appendage weighing her down.
A much better comparison for The Corrections, both in terms of its ending, and in terms of the overall tone and theme of the book, would be to compare it to a far greater novel dealing with the same themes: a loveless marriage whos eparticipants go through the motions as their children decay anomically. And, guess what? Such a book exists; it’s called Mrs. Bridge, and was written by Evan S. Connell, in 1959. Here is how this concise, poetic, vignette-filled novel ends (Chapter 117, page 245):
She had backed just halfway out of the garage when the engine died. She touched the starter and listened without concern because, despite her difficulties with the Lincoln, she had grown to feel secure in it. The Lincoln was a number of years old and occasionally recalcitrant, but she could not bear the thought of parting with it, and in the past had resisted this suggestion of her husband, who, mildly puzzled by her attachment to the car, had allowed her to keep it.
Thinking she might have flooded the engine, which was often true, Mrs. Bridge decided to wait a minute or so.
Presently she tried again, and again, and then again. Deeply disappointed, she opened the door to get out and discovered she had stopped in such a position that the car doors were prevented from opening more than a few inches on one side by the garage partition, and on the other side by the wall. Having tried all four doors she began to understand that until she could attract someone’s attention she was trapped. She pressed the horn, but there was not a sound. Half inside and half outside she remained.
For a long time she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called to anyone who might be listening, “Hello? Hello out there?’
But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.
Note how much more original, in both idea and phrasing, this end is from the end of Franzen’s book. And, the reality is that the whole of Connell’s book is just as superior to the whole of Franzen’s. There is originality, humor, a fundamental sense that the character written of is not off the rack, and a lack of banalities. By comparison, the whole situation that ends Franzen’s book is trite, and has been done in prose and fictive films and television thousands of times before. Now, a wannabe nitpicking sciolist, or bad critic, might attempt to claim that ‘deeply disappointed’ and ‘falling snow’ are clichés. But, they are not, and often I get besieged with emails from none too brights who claim that because they Googled a phrase that brings back millions of referents it is a cliché. But a cliché is not a cliché simply because of numerical usage in writing or speaking, but a cliché only if the too familiar phrase is used in the same, or highly similar, too familiar context. ‘Deeply disappointed,’ as example, is not a cliché, in this context, because it is simply a bald statement of the character’s momentary condition, not an affectation designed to impress; as well as being stated in the midst of a simple poetic moment that bears great symbolism to the trapped feeling the character exhibits throughout the narrative. Yes, perhaps a modifier like greatly or simply (not profoundly) would have been better, but they also would have lacked the alliteration of the chosen phrase. In a similar manner, ‘falling snow’ is also used outside a clichéd context. Here, it ends the book, but also is a personification of the titular character’s predicament at book’s end, and in general. Therefore it is wholly divorced from its usual use as a metaphor for silence or loneliness. Rather, it is a manifestation of cosmic indifference to the slight suffering that Mrs. Bridge is left in. Would that the Times reviewer had the insight and broad reading base to make an apt comparison, and one that easily exposes Franzen’s shallow intellect.
Of course, one need not be a hack for a major newspaper to make a fool of yourself, as someone calling himself The World's Greatest Critic does in his own review of the book that starts out:
"... the fiction of living in this house was that no one lived
appears on page 5 of Jonathan
Corrections... and it stayed with me for a while. Why? Franzen is a
Prose Artist that takes a thought that most writers would play with for
paragraphs and economically states the entire thought in only part of a
sentence. On one hand I'm entranced by Franzen's literary economy and his
ability to speak volumes with such a small bit of prose. On the other, I'm
depressed... I don't write this well, and I can count on my two hands those who
can! More entrancing (and more depressing), the great writing isn't localized to
Page Five! No, Franzen fills every page with the kind of great art that any
literature lover will simply eat up.
Now, clearly, while the thought of the Franzen quote is not a naked
phraseological cliché, its idea certainly is, and for anyone to claim otherwise
means that they have not been engaged in the pop culture of the last half
century, for this is THE cliché of suburbia, from countless novels to films,
like American Beauty, that even won Oscars. And, we’ve seen the exact
opposite from Franzen, in just a handful of the excerpts proffered, than
‘literary economy.’ If anything, Franzen was clearly trying to blow up a New
Yorker story (replete with WASP bourgeoisie, inane lives, no insight nor
resolution, and banal plots) into a near 600 page novel- after all, there is plenty of
white space in the book.
As if not satisfied with his first stab at stupidity, this critic
But at no time
is this novel ever predictable. While The Corrections deals openly and
fascinatingly with the mundane, this is anything but ordinary. The mundane and
simple is often balanced by the surprising, and though there's almost no action
in this novel, there are some definitive shocks.
Need I state more? Of course, not all online critics are so bad. A critic named John Dolan wrote this funny but not too learned critique:
Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, billed as a masterpiece, is a worthless fraud, a hopelessly trite story gaudied up with tedious overwriting. The overwriting is meant to conceal the fact that this novel is a simple mix of three of the most hackneyed storylines in American fiction:
The picaresque adventures of a feckless male academic, borrowed from DeLillo;
The sentimental tale of the decay and death of one’s parents as in Dave Eggers’s “masterpiece”;
The old, old plot device of the family Christmas reunion to bring the centrifugal parents and kids back together again against all odds, as in every sentimental John Hughes movie ever made and about a thousand more before him.
That, folks, is all there is to this mess: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation meets dying-parents memoir meets Manhattanite satire Lite. God help me, but that’s it!
Of course, he goes a bit overboard on vitriol having nothing to do with the work, but is correct when he repeats a point I make:
This plotline was old before Homer went blind. How many generations of playwrights, novelists and scriptwriters have used the holiday reunion gag to get all their characters together in one room so they can demonstrate what very different people they’ve become, only to draw together in family solidarity at the end?
Naturally, there were other detractors, and chief among them was B.R. Myers, who first gained attention in 2001, with a mediocre essay called A Reader’s Manifesto, which he then bloated to be a small book which, basically listed all of the ills Myers found with contemporary prose. In general, Myers was right on most of his picks for ‘overrated’ status, but who wouldn’t be. The problem was that Myers never made his case in specifics, as I have in this essay. Instead, Myers simply listed writers he did not like for this or that reason. In deconstructing Myers’ essay’s flaws, I presciently wrote:
We all have our biases, including me. The measure of a critic is trifold- 1) ability to discern the subject, 2) ability to convey it (writing or appearance), & 3) ability to rise above individual biases. Myers vacillates wildly in these degrees. That his solidly written piece, whose major flaw- in fairness- is really just inconsistency in thought, logic & peeves [although I guess that’s why a peeve is], has provoked such obvious [yet rarely uttered] replies bespeaks the desire for an informed, relentless, & steady assault on the feeble monarchs of Literaria. That the man chose to hurl a Molotov cocktail is good. That that is all he chose to do is not. That he chose to not stay & fight is even more distressing, if not telling of his, & the Atlantic Monthly’s, real aims. But if Myers’ piece inspires more hard-edged writing- in general & more hard-edged than his- its values will far outweigh its demerits. But a note to the next would be terrorist- literary or real- what’s the point if you end up taking out yourself as well?
Well, I guess Myers never read my mild upbraiding, and returned to take on Franzen for his latest novel, 2010’s Freedom, which some critics ripped more than The Corrections, while others hailed it as supplanting the earlier book as Franzen’s ‘masterpiece.’ Myers wrote:
One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? If so, Tolstoy has a lot to answer for—including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s latest.
Although this is directed at Freedom, it is equally apropos to The Corrections. Yet, as mentioned, Myers never follows through and does a detailed deconstruction of the writing, he never exposes the obvious clichés, which leaves his crits and claims as mere dislikes and errant tosses, at best, and evidence of personal bias- not of the works he surveys, but of his own limits, at worst. So what? Yes, he may simply not be capable of the same, but why is it that so many critics back off of correct claims, simply because they involve negative critiques of bad works? Show the badness, and stand behind your pointing out of it. And the few times a critic does, indeed, stand behind such a claim, they always toss in a de facto caveat that the writer is nonetheless talented, some other aspect of their art is strong, or some such. I shall not insult my readers: there is nothing good about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. At its best it soars to sub-mediocrity, roots in badness, and bottoms out at really, really bad, just a tad above terrible, hence besting most Postmodernists. The book also gets worse progressively, as the cumulative heft of badness is just too much for a good reader.
Furthermore, take a look at the above excerpts, and it becomes obvious
that there are not even glimmers of greatness to be found. Hell, it takes almost
50 pages before anything of any minor note occurs- so dull are the suburban and
collegiate settings. And this is all because Franzen literally has nothing to
say to his readers, and lacks the skill with which to say anything if, indeed,
his work were to have a thing to say. The Corrections is a
book about lives about nothing, and simply has no
raison d’etre (save egregious brand name advertising); it’s just
about placing ink on pulp. Franzen writes like a woman, in the very worst sense.
It’s all emotion and no intellect, hence a different sort of badness from PoMo,
which, ironically, Franzen is supposed to have started out as. This is not
progress, however; to go from a James Joyce wannabe to a The Young & The
Restless staff writer wannabe.
Soap opera simply isn’t realism (literary or otherwise). And I know soap opera and melodrama, pro and con, and I say, give me Erica Kane or Victoria Lord over this tripe (come back, All My Children and One Life To Live!). This all begs the question, however, of why so many bad fiction writers do not, or cannot, rise above the level of mediocre melodrama, even as they rebuke melodrama (like Franzen’s sneering of other melodramatic Oprah Winfrey Book Club writers when he is so obviously in their league). I suspect that artsy types (and wannabes like Franzen) view soaps as declassé, even though they’ve never watched a soap opera for an extended period. Yet, the very things that draw these wannabes to books like this are identical to what draws soap watchers: not profound exploration of existential notions, but easily revealed plots and clunky characters. The difference, though, is that soap opera fans know what they enjoy is fluff, and nothing deep. They understand it’s not art- something that the readers of The Corrections do not, even as they are drawn to its phony, cheap, and unoriginal premises and machinations.
Boy, would I love to have one of these bad writers, like Franzen or Pynchon, read any of my or my wife’s great, yet unpublished, novels and then look me in the eye, and NOT be embarrassed by their tripe. Ah, perchance….
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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