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In Which I Finally Get Around To Reading Something By Jonathan Franzen

In Books on May 4, 2011 at 8:07 am
The Corrections has been on my “to read” list for some time. I moved quite a few copies of it when I worked in a bookstore, and Jonathan Franzen has been in the back of my mind as a Big Important Author for quite a while. The release of his new novel last year reminded me, and I finally got around to purchasing a used copy of The Corrections at Powell’s a while ago. Last week, I finally finished it.

It was very well done, and I didn’t really like it.

Let me get this out of the way first: Franzen is a phenomenally good writer. I want to make this clear in no uncertain terms, because I’m going to spend most of this post criticizing him. His characters are extraordinarily vivid, his language rich, and as I read The Corrections I felt as if he were able to stir bits of recognition in my mind. It was if I’d encountered the people and phenomena he was describing, as if he were writing what I’d thought before, but could not express. His characterization and style are superb, and I’m pretty sure I would cash in an unimportant body part to have his talent.

That said, there are two things about The Corrections that I didn’t especially care for. One was the plot, the other was the worldview that Franzen seemed to don while he was writing it.

First the plot. That’s a slightly smaller issue. The Corrections is divided into several different subsections, each of which has their own miniature arc. The book mainly focuses on Enid, the stuffy grandmother of the Lambert family, trying to get her grown children all together for one last Christmas in the small Midwestern town of St. Jude. Her children, in turn, all get various subsections and mini-plots in turn.

There is not much in the way of “action” in The Corrections, most of the activity is actually the various characters agonizing about their emotions and relationships. This does not mean, though, that Franzen does not have to provide a beginning, middle, and end. A lack of real, physical action doesn’t mean that the author is released from having to provide tension, drama, etc. There still has to be an arc, even if nothing happens. A few dramatic things do happen in The Corrections, but no real satisfying plot connects them, and the whole thing ends up felling disunited in a weird way.

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, and I’ve consistently admired her ability to make plot arcs, climaxes, and satisfying narrative based solely on the emotional lives of her characters. Next to nothing happens in To the Lighthouse, but the ending is powerful and cathartic. That novel has probably one of my favorite final lines of any book, and Woolf pulls it off because she knows that the interior lives of her characters are something that can be exciting and stimulating. A person’s revelations, emotional vulnerability, failures, or epiphanies: these are all things that can be used as capstones and plot-points in a good character-based story.

However, as vividly as Franzen paints his characters, he doesn’t seem want to give them any kind of emotional dynamism. None of the characters in The Corrections have any moments wherein we see that singular, emotional climax, where the plot-arc of their interior lives comes together and they, for good or ill, are changed. Franzen wants to write a book about the interior lives of a single family, but withholds from his characters the kind of comic or tragic catharsis or epiphany that would serve as a resolution to that narrative. And I’m not just talking about “resolution” in a good way. Horrible and tragic resolutions can be just as narratively satisfying. Franzen seems to want to give The Corrections a happy ending (of a sort), but he doesn’t earn it by showing how the characters have evolved. That does not make for satisfying storytelling, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he tried to give his characters emotional narrative climaxes, and just wasn’t very good at it.

The other, bigger issue of The Corrections, though, is the horribly bleak (and worse, inaccurate) worldview that Franzen seems to adopt while writing it.

Franzen seems to think that because he is portraying his characters as so unabashedly ugly, he is telling the truth. Because he lays bare their selfishness, their fears, their smallness, he is painting complete portraits of them. Because he does not shrink at portraying human frailty, it’s as if he thinks he boldly portrays humanity.

I don’t mind that he’s negative. That’s fine. Franzen, though, seems to mistake cynicism for truth. That’s why a lot of The Corrections reminded me of Seinfeld.

Seinfeld‘s basic premise was that its characters were selfish, small, and never learned anything. There was no real character development on the part of Jerry and Co. At no point did one really think that any of the wacky hijinks they encountered actually have any impact on how they lived their lives. The show is amusing in short bursts, but if you think about it as a long-form narrative, it doesn’t work at all. People are not static. If someone were to go through all of the weird stuff that Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer did, they would either be wise in the ways of the world or perhaps hugely cynical. They would not stay small and naive, which is precisely what those characters did. They would change.

The reason I can’t really watch Seinfeld anymore is because of its insistence that it rests upon a static zero point. I do not buy the characters or their lack of evolution or dynamism. People like that do not exist. It may occasionally be diverting, but it is not accurate or truthful.

Characters in The Corrections suffer this same fate, but Franzen seems to think that because he’s presenting a heavily negative Seinfeldian worldview, he’s somehow saying something profound or interesting. I know, I know- I’m being slightly unfair about this, that it’s a little presumptuous to make suppositions about an author’s personality based on their work. Franzen, however, seems like precisely the sort of jaded male hipster who, upon reading and misinterpreting Sartre, would tiredly declare that “Hell is other people.”

It isn’t, though, and I’ll bet that Franzen’s a smart enough guy to know better. This is the man who famously asked Oprah to stop endorsing his book, though. I would not be surprised if someone as attached to that kind of supposed authenticity has trouble accepting beauty.

And, weirdly enough, even after all that I will still read Freedom, probably when it comes out in paperback. Franzen really is a magnificent stylist, and his prose is rich enough to make me want more. I hope that in his latest offering the issues from his most famous novel have been, shall we say, corrected.

  1. Lovely book review! I find that the more passionate and opinionated I am about a movie or book, the less coherent the review. Nice job.

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