You may be surprised to learn that, at work, we are still selling several copies of Franzen’s new(ish) novel, Freedom, every week. Cheers, Oprah. But then someone gave me The Corrections for Christmas last year (which was, yes, a very long time ago), a nice gesture because so many people talk about how wonderful and seminal it is, I really did want to read it to see what all the fuss was about.
The Lambert children have been scattered across America. Gary has a family of his own now, with three sons – though he’s been feeling depressed lately. Chip’s just had an unfortunate incident at work, having been fired from the university courtesy of a slight incident with a freshman. And Denise, a chef extraordinaire, has a secret that will keep the rest of the family guessing. Their mother, though, wants one last Christmas at home, as a family – though getting this wish may be more trouble than it’s worth.
For a long time, I felt very uncomfortable reading this novel. There’s something offputting about the tone that doesn’t quite fit right. You never really know whether to laugh or cringe at what is happening to these characters, as well as the way they react to them. It’s not until the final pages of the book when Franzen lets you in on a secret, when one of the characters remarks that their plight is simply “tragedy rewritten as a farce”. And suddenly, the whole novel makes complete sense. I think it’s probably an instinctive move for someone to think – oh no, Alzheimer’s, secret lesbianism, depression, awkward sex scenes – I must make this the most depressing “important” novel of all time. And Franzen turns all of that on its head, and basically gives it the finger by turning it into high farce. In the hands of a lesser author, I suspect this would come off as uncaring and a bit insulting. But Franzen manages to undercut the humour with just enough depth that the whole thing holds together really well.
Alfred is arguably the centre of most of this comedy, though that could just be because I’m not very sympathetic. Much of his section is given to his (hilarious) hallucinations, where he is haunted by poop. Yep. Franzen manages to take it to the point where we don’t worry about his mental state, because he is simply providing us with comedy gold. Of course, as the novel goes on, we begin to understand that this is just one symptom of Alfred’s descent into insanity, though he has managed to hide it pretty well by using stock phrases every time someone asks him a question. It’s not really until the final pages of the novel that we finally get a glimpse into his functioning mind, though I’m not going to tell you what that is. Suffice it say, it’s the most touching part of the tome.
And despite the comedic tone, most of it holds together in terms of realism. It’s very easy to imagine these events happening – Chip’s accidental affair with the young girl, for example (a story we’ve all heard so often it borders on the cliché), is perfectly realised. Gary’s fractious relationship with his maddeningly modern wife (her refusal to discipline her children is so very frustrating), and his spiralling into depression seems apt. Most of all, though, is Denise’s realisation that she likes women, and the chaos that this causes. The only thing I would say is that the Lithuania sequence (yes, you read correctly) is a step too far. I suspect the whole thing could be cut, replaced with something else, and the novel may have felt tighter. Or less ridiculous.
At one stage or another, each of the five main characters comes off as deeply, deeply unlikeable – particularly Gary and Chip. I should point out, though, that I found Enid to be the most annoying character, almost without any saving grace. This doesn’t mean to say I don’t understand where she’s coming from – an older woman desperately deluding herself that her husband isn’t going mad, trying to cling onto her children in the hope that they might provide her with some comfort – but it really, really frustrated me. Again – maybe I’m just not very sympathetic.
If there’s one thing that causes The Corrections some problems, it is that it’s very full of itself. This is a very good novel – and Franzen knows it. In many ways, a lot of this novel seems to be Franzen showing off. Bam – have some quirky English lecturer who sleeps with a student. Bam – have a closeted lesbian. Bam – have some Eastern Europe. He seems to be trying very, very hard to be cool. Though, in his defence, it kind of works.
I’ve barely touched on half the themes and ideas in this book. This is a big book, and its canvas is even bigger, but at its heart, it’s a story about an American family. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so American. This book wears America on its sleeve, from its characters, to its location, to its philosophy. That combination of America and cool manages to make this book quite readable, though at the same time, a rather damning indictment on the state of the modern family.