Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen (2001)

Oeuvre rule: I have only previously read How to be Alone, which came out a year after this.  I enjoyed it very much, while I thought Franzen sometimes went on too long and sounded a bit pretentious and cranky.  Some of the material intimates Franzen's raison d'etre in The Corrections--i.e. "this is what I was trying to do" or "this is what I was going for..."  I would like to revisit it in light of those comments, because I'm going to agree with the rest of the world and slap huge compliments on this novel.  Oprah, I'm not going to read everything in your book club, but you got it right with this one.  (No comment on Franzen's disavowal of that institution--except my belief that he regrets that in retrospect.) I don't have a book club, but I do name those I consider the best books reviewed on Flying Houses, and this one makes the list.

Recently, this novel was named the #5 novel of the 21st century so far, and overall it is a very fine piece of literature indeed.  I have minor complaints: the unfortunate media-driven obsession with sex in American society is transplanted into these pages, and Franzen occasionally goes off on a super-long tangent.  The second complaint is also a compliment, however, and I realize it is hard to produce an item designed for entertaining the masses without appealing to baser instincts.

The most notable thing about this book are the extremely long chapters.  There are only a few: "St. Jude" (9 pages), "The Failure" (120 pages), "The More He Thought About It, the Angrier He Got" (99 pages), "At Sea" (97 pages), "The Generator" (117 pages), "One Last Christmas" (99 pages), and "The Corrections" (5 pages).  7 chapters in 570 pages seems unwieldy, but this is not a criticism.  It serves to break the book up into recognizable sections.  "St. Jude" and "The Corrections" are short introductions and conclusions to the novel.  "The Failure" is about Chip.  "The More He Thought About It..." is about Gary.  "At Sea" is about the cruise that Enid and Alfred take.  "The Generator" is about Denise.  And "One Last Christmas" is about the family together for that event.  I found much to enjoy about each of them.  The book is a consistently pleasurable read.

The plot?  The major device is Alfred's failing health--he has dementia and Parkinson's disease, sprinkled together with Alzheimer's.  He is in his late 70's or early 80's.  He worked as a railroad engineer his whole life and raised his family as pitch-perfect members of the middle class.  He is married to Enid, who is constantly trying to put on a happy face and make everyone around her believe that her family is perfect.  Their oldest son, Gary, is a successful bank executive in his early 40's, married to an attorney who has gone into public interest work because they don't need the money, with three kids.  The middle child, Chip, is an anti-establishment English PhD pushing 40 who has recently fallen on hard times after a good teaching job, and is trying to finish a screenplay.  Denise is a chef, but really "culinary master" seems more accurate, 32 and divorced, going through a transitional period.  Enid and Alfred come to visit Chip in New York City before embarking on a cruise along the Canadian coast.  Denise comes to visit from Philadelphia the same day, and Enid pushes the idea of bringing everyone back to the family house for "one last Christmas," because Alfred is losing his lucidity.

The first aforementioned "long tangent" occurs during these preliminary introductions.  Out of nowhere, seemingly, Franzen stops the narrative and tells the entire story of Chip's rise and fall as a college professor.  It was just as engaging, so I didn't mind, but it challenged my expectations.  One other thing I wanted to mention about Chip is that he is the most overused character in all of modern literature: the struggling male writer in his 30's.  I felt like I was reading about Nate or Guert (in his younger days) or even Nick (obviously to a lesser extent)--but while I am sure there are many more examples to be had of this "type," Franzen paints him as more of an unpredictable "bad boy" such that he feels more real, behaving impulsively and making bad decisions.

While Franzen's prose is remarkably pristine, I did come across one passage that made me believe he was not godlike, and could have put in a couple more minutes of research:

"The clerk laughed in a way that was the more insulting for being good-humored.  But then, Chip had reason to be sensitive.  Since D---- College had fired him, the market capitalization of publicly traded U.S. companies had increased by thirty-five percent.  In these same twenty-two months, Chip had liquidated a retirement fund, sold a good car, worked half-time at an eightieth-percentile wage, and still ended up on the brink of Chapter 11.  These were years in America when it was nearly impossible not to make money, years when receptionists wrote MasterCard checks to their brokers at 13.9% APR and still cleared a profit, years of Buy, years of Call, and Chip had missed the boat.  In his bones he knew that if he ever did sell 'The Academy Purple,' the markets would all have peaked the week before and any money he invested he would lose." (103)

Now it is technically allowed for an individual to file Chapter 11 (see Sheldon Toibb, proper citation way too fucking lazy to track down), but that is rare.  It would be most proper to write Chapter 7 here, as Chip would not be a good candidate for Chapter 13 at this moment.  Perhaps Franzen meant to characterize Chip as a business, but I highly doubt it and digress.

From there, the book shifts its focus to Gary.  Gary is somewhat mysterious throughout the beginning of the book, referenced by all the characters but silent, so his prominence in the chapter is noteworthy.  The idea of what the novel will be about is completed here, basically.  Gary is shown working in a darkroom, developing photographs of his family for an epic album that he will give everyone for Christmas, while his youngest son Jonah enthuses about The Chronicles of Narnia.  His two older boys play outside with his wife, Caroline, and seem to like her more.  Gary resents this, and calls her out for lying about a minor injury that she suffers while playing with them.  This happens when Enid calls him and asks if they will all come for Christmas.  Caroline refuses to visit his parents, and Alfred does not feel comfortable staying at their house for more than 48 hours.  She pretty much comes off as a huge bitch when she explains why:

"'The truth, Caroline said, 'is that forty-eight hours sounds just about right to me.  I don't want my children looking back on Christmas as the time when everybody screamed at each other.  Which basically seems to be unavoidable now.  Your mother walks in the door with three hundred sixty days' worth of Christmas mania, she's been obsessing since the previous January, and then, of course, Where's that Austrian reindeer figurine--don't you like it?  Don't you use it?  Where is it?  Where is it?  Where is the Austrian reindeer figurine?  She's got her food obsessions, her money obsessions, her clothes obsessions, she's got the whole ten-piece set of baggage which my husband used to agree is kind of a problem, but now suddenly, out of the blue, he's taking her side.  We're going to turn the house inside out looking for a piece of thirteen-dollar gift-store kitsch because it has sentimental value to your mother---'" (185)

I have to say that Caroline is probably the least sympathetic character in the book.  In one sense she may be rational.  Her husband's family is crazy, and she wants her family to be healthy and emotionally stable.  But the reader feels very bad for Gary, when she seems to think that this fight over Christmas is going to lead to their divorce.  Unfortunately, this is not a very charitable depiction of an attorney.

Much of this chapter is about Gary's fear of anhedonia--basically, depression.  Lack of interest in things.  But then, the end is this long shareholder's meeting of the Axon Corporation, which has offered Alfred $5,000 for his patent on a process for developing pharmaceutical anti-depressants, and which is coming out with a drug called Corecktall.  Later on, Denise and Enid try to get Alfred on a regimen, because it may be able to cure his condition.  While I would never suggest this chapter is "bad," I must admit that while I found certain parts of it highly enjoyable and stimulating, on the whole it was the least memorable section of the book.

"At Sea" details the cruise that Enid and Alfred take, and is fantastic from start to finish.  It reaches its pinnacle in the conversation between Enid and Sylvia, a woman she meets while sharing a dinner table on the cruise, whom she intuits will either be an arch-nemesis or a friend.  The two women spill out all their feelings as they continue to have "just one more."  I do not want to spoil it.

Later, Enid is offered a drug called Aslan by a rogue doctor (who shares his name with a Simpsons character, albeit with different spelling) on board, and I feared that the book was turning into a rip-off of White Noise, which is now turning thirty years old and remains an absolute classic of the late 20th century.  Thankfully, Franzen seems to recognize this (indeed Don DeLillo even offers a blurb in praise on the back cover), so this scene ends up being a mere homage to White Noise.  Maybe it's not and I'm crazy but if you've read that book, you must admit that Aslan and Dylar are essentially identical plot devices:

"'We think of a classic CNS depressant such as alcohol as suppressing "shame" or "inhibitions."  But the "shameful" admission that a person spills under the influence of three martinis doesn't lose its shamefulness in the spilling; witness the deep remorse that follows when the martinis have worn off.  What's happening on the molecular level, Edna, when you drink those martinis, is that the ethanol interferes with the reception of excess Factor 28A, i.e., the "deep" or "morbid" shame factor.  But the 28A is not metabolized or properly reabsorbed at the receptor site.  It's kept in temporary unstable storage at the transmitter site.  So when the ethanol wears off, the receptor is flooded with 28A.  Fear of humiliation and the craving for humiliation are closely linked: psychologists know it, Russian novelists know it.  And this turns out to be not only "true" but really true.  True at the molecular level.  Anyway, Aslan's effect on the chemistry of shame is entirely different from a martini's.  We're talking complete annihilation of the 28A molecules.  Aslan's a fierce predator."  (318)

"The Generator" comes next, and for me it was the strongest section of the book overall, from start to finish (thus, "At Sea" combined with "The Generator" is certainly the strongest stretch of the book).  It is Denise's chapter, and she is probably better developed than any other character.  She spends her last summer before college working at Alfred's railroad company, goes to Swarthmore, and drops out not long after, discovering a love for culinary art.  She marries a man much older than her while serving as his sous-chef.  They get divorced not long after, and the major plot of the section is set into motion.  Paid a generous salary by a benefactor, she travels through Europe to sample the cuisine, and returns to open her own restaurant in a massive building previously owned and utilized by the Philadelphia Electric Company.

Later this same benefactor (Brian) gets involved with a film project, and Stephen Malkmus is name-dropped as a person who would eat dinner with him at fancy New York restaurants, seemingly as a technical adviser.  This really came out of nowhere, and it's particularly ironic because the previous book I reviewed here thanked "Steven Malkamus" in the acknowledgements section.  I really wanted to point that out previously (was it just sloppy editing or some kind of weird SM Jenkins joke?).  There is also this reference, which was prescient in 2001:

"Their few real differences came down to style, and these differences were mostly invisible to Robin, because Brian was a good husband and a nice guy and because, in her cow innocence, Robin couldn't imagine that style had anything to do with happiness.  Her musical tastes ran to John Prine and Etta James, and so Brian played Prine and James at home and saved his Bartok and Defunkt and Flaming Lips and Mission of Burma for blasting on his boom box at High Temp." (349)

Prescient because, Mission of Burma was primed to come back about a year after this novel was published, and because the Flaming Lips were about to "peak."

The last large section of the book, "One Last Christmas," wraps up the story in relatively satisfying fashion.  There is one particular sentence that almost made me want to cry--when Enid says, "This is the best Christmas present I've ever had!" There are a few strange moments at the end, though, and Franzen definitely does not arrange a conventional denouement.  There is one seriously WTF moment (I will just say the word "enema" and anyone who has read it will know what I mean) that I don't understand, unless it's just supposed to be sort of icky and disturbing and nothing more.

The closing eponymous chapter reminded me of the ending to Buddenbrooks, which is also referenced on back cover in a blurb by Michael Cunningham (in the same breath as White Noise)--that is, it feels oddly unceremonious, but appropriate.  There is a short dialogue about whether being gay is a choice and a reference to Six Days, Seven Nights.  And then there is a type of "where are they now?" conclusion.

I've failed when it comes to highlighting the craft of Franzen's prose.  I've picked out really random passages that I found notable for idiosyncratic and insignificant reasons, and I've avoided certain passages to preserve the pleasure of their discovery.  Rest assured this entire novel is well-written.  There are probably 10-15 pages of sentences included throughout the book that annoyed me for some reason, but they do not detract enough to remove it from its rightful place as one of the best books reviewed on Flying Houses.  I just hope this review has done it justice.

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