I'm glad I read this book a few weeks ago; I would not have had the concentration to read it under the circumstances. I'm also relieved to steal a few hours for literary talk in a week that should properly be spent in mourning. The Corrections may be the best novel I have read by a living writer who is not Saul Bellow. John Updike has never written anything to match it. Neither has Norman Mailer. Now it's clear that Franzen's book will be given its due only retrospectively; published in an hour when civilization must either steel itself for war or bow to evil, The Corrections is going to get lost for a few months or weeks or years. Still, I'm glad to be reading it, and glad to be reading it with you. Books like this are what civilization is for.
The Corrections doesn't have a particularly intricate plot. It is the story of an aging Midwestern couple--Enid, a nightmare of American consumerism, frantic activity to no end, and keep-up-with-the-Joneses superficiality; and Alfred, a gifted, noble, principled man who seems to have gained nothing for his gifts but a love-repelling irascibility that he clings to as if it's some sort of treasure, and who's halfway down the slide of Alzheimer's-related dementia--and their three children. These (Gary, 43; Chip, 39; Denise, 32) have all moved to the East Coast. Franzen describes their silent anguish (and the society's) by using each of the five as a window into the family (and social) dynamic. And he brings them all together for "one, last"--explosive--family Christmas.
If I could just isolate a few of the gifts that set Franzen above the run of the mill:
1. He is a great describer: "Don Armour unwrapped a sandwich and opened it to a slice of bologna on which the texture of bread was lithographed in yellow mustard." You can read the whole Midwest in that bologna lithograph, as you can in Enid's urging that Alfred "visit with" his son on the telephone, in her tendency to praise everything conformist as "matoor," in her Christmas menu ("Enid mixed and refrigerated a ham loaf for later baking and assembled a salad of bananas, green grapes, canned pineapple, marshmallows, and lemon Jell-O"), and in her Christmas fanaticism in general. One point that bears returning to: making fun of Middle America has become such a convention that tapping into the descriptive power of sneering is pretty much irresistible to authors. It's irresistible to Franzen, too, but he does not let it substitute for the hard descriptive work of humanizing Enid. On which more later.
2. He is a great feeler. There's the "infinity in his eyes" that Franzen makes us see in Alfred. There's Chip's odd depression after his disgrace on sexual harassment charges, where he circles all the m's in the New York Times and feels depressed but also feels somehow inauthentic while he's feeling it. Then there's the extraordinary luncheon scene in Chip's apartment, where Enid describes a suburban party she's been to and becomes aware with a despair-inducing lucidity that her daughter Denise, a renowned chef, has acquired impeccable tastes that make her own look tawdry by comparison:
"The Dribletts really do things super-deluxe. I'd never seen a dessert that tall. Have you?"
The subtle signs that Denise was exercising patience--the slightly deeper breaths she took, the soundless way she set her fork down on her plate and took a sip of wine and set the glass back down--were more hurtful to Enid than a violent explosion ... she was afraid that Denise would not have found the party elegant at all, that Denise would have picked apart its specialness until there was nothing left but ordinariness. Her daughter's taste was a dark spot in Enid's vision, a hole in her experience through which her own pleasures were forever threatening to leak and dissipate.
What a passage. Outside of the dinner-party scene in William Dean Howells' Rise of Silas Lapham (which takes place in society, not en famille), I don't think I've ever seen the heartbreak of American upward mobility more acutely rendered.
3. He is funny. Those "Yuban coffee cans," in the basement, "which despite increasingly strong olfactory evidence Enid chose not to believe were filling up with her husband's urine." The Per Lagerkvist lounge on the cruise boat that is staffed by dwarfs. The Lithuanian political oratory ("I will not, I cannot, I must not, I durst not, I shall not certify these scum-flecked, maggot-riddled, tertiary-syphilitic national parliamentary election results!"). Chip's decision, since he lacks tape, to seal the wrapping on his mother's Christmas present with National Abortion Rights Action League stickers.
4. And Franzen lives in the world. The sinister corporate empire of Orfic, the bio-engineering of Axon, the politics of the newly independent Soviet republics, anti-death penalty activism, the economics of restaurant financing ... Franzen is to be commended for his reporting skill on all of them. But more than that, he draws great strengths (as he did in his second novel, Strong Motion) from a rare ability to let his characters think with a scientific mindset, which happens to be the mindset most Americans--perhaps especially "transgressive" literary types like Chip--apply to their problems. "It was a testament to the insulatory effectiveness of political boundaries," Chip reflects after a 24-hour-journey that has taken him from riot-torn Lithuania to a Midwestern suburb, "that power didn't simply arc across the gap between such divergent economic voltages." (The sentiment sounds a bit less true than it did two weeks ago, but I still like the sentence.)
Ultimately, though, this is a book about shame and guilt and the terrifying, discomfiting ways they crop up in a consumerist society. Next time we talk, I'd like to talk about that, about the individual siblings (are you another one of these critics whose favorite is Denise? whom do you think better drawn, the parents or the children?), and Franzen's odi-et-amo sense of the erotic, which has something vivid and true in it that I haven't seen in any other contemporary fiction.
Hope this finds you well. Till soon,