Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: The Corrections

The Corrections The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One way to look at a novel is to reflect on the skill it demonstrates. And, in that way, The Corrections is staggeringly good. I’ve read Freedom and I’m working through The Kraus Project, but neither prepared me for the deep excellence here. I found myself reading sections – Alfred falling from the cruise ship, Denise deciding to sleep with her boss’s wife, Chip describing the allure and disaster of Lithuania, or Gary rationalizing why he’ll capitulate to his controlling wife – and thinking, “This is so wonderful that I have to remember it.” Then I’d come across some equally stunning sequence that put that one on the back burner.

In the course of this sprawling story, we get the interwoven stories of the four principal branches of the family – Alfred and Enid and then each of the three kids – with such depth and patience that it never feels as if there’s a “favorite” here. In the tradition of the great Victorian era novels, this tells the story of a class of people rather than a single protagonist. As such, it’s atypically American, concerned as it is with a collective rather than a representative individual. (As such, it’s also much less ‘post-modern’ than its reputation holds.)

We also get a range of emotions. In the early sections with Chip, there’s a kind of malaise, a sense that our esoteric cultural theory has left us no more able to understand our culture and that, at the same time, represents a great waste of intellectual energy. In the Gary sections, we get a dose of misogyny (in its frustrations with Caroline) redeemed in some measure by its equal or greater contempt for Gary in his emotional weakness. In the Alfred and Enid sections, we get a sense of the scale of the story; it really does extend across the lifetime of a family, giving honor both to the hopes of its early years and respecting the sometimes silly traditions (like the Advent calendar) that have defined it. And in the Denise sections, we get the sense of someone hungering after a legitimate artistry (through her cooking), finding it, and losing it in the intensity of her feelings and self-doubt.

Somehow, Franzen ties all those elements together. In keeping with the apparent ambition to give a full portrait to a middle American family at the dawn of the 21st century, this is funny, tragic, ironic, sincere, and intimate. As someone who aspires to write novels myself, I can see that Franzen has accomplished all this in the course of the book, but I can’t untangle the technique and devices that produce that accomplishment. In ways that happen only rarely, I get the experience of being taken for the best sort of literary ride.

In all those ways, I find this worthy of all the acclaim it’s gotten. Freedom is certainly a strong novel, but it’s simply not as good as this one. Franzen may not be as cranky as he sometimes comes across in the media but, if he is, I can imagine some of it may stem from his semi-conscious awareness that he’ll never write anything this good again. Of course, only a small handful of living writers will either. Skill will get you only so far; if you pour most of your life into one great project, there simply isn’t enough life left to fill another masterpiece. There are ideas, contradictions and disappointments (and Freedom is full of those) but there isn’t the same flood of overwhelming experience. The reservoir is empty.

There’s another way to assess a novel, though, and that’s in what they used to call “the moral” way. This novel is more than just its superb skill. It’s also a claim for the kind of America we are and that we aspire to be. In that dimension, I have more mixed feelings.

On the one hand, Franzen brings a smarm to this – especially early and then in the closing pages – that troubles me. Maybe he’s kicking off the dust of his postmodern adolescence when he gives us Chip in all his ironic and conflicted theorizing. And maybe he’s working through a pose when he gives us a Caroline who is so icy, so incapable of giving Enid one last Christmas with her family. And maybe there’s something ultimately ironic in the sense that everyone is called upon to find his or her parents wanting.

The bottom line, though, is a dissatisfaction, a lack of faith in the people who make up our lives, that seems to me pessimistic. And maybe a little too easy as well. This is a novel powerful enough that we either have to acknowledge it or wrestle with it. And I find I have to wrestle with it in a lot of ways.

I find that ambivalence running through to the very end here. In one sense [SPOILER] the novel really ends when Alfred, in his final lucid moments, begs Chip to help him kill himself. It’s an intense, beautiful, and human scene. The father realizes he’s confronting a shell of the life he’s known, and he sees himself subjected to the indignity he’s fled for as long as he’s been himself. The son, knowing the weight of what’s being asked of him, knows as well that he can’t do it. It’s a great exchange, one freighted with real emotion and power. There’s nothing ironic in it; it’s just two men confronting mortality and realizing their own weakness in the face of death.

In truth, though, the novel goes on a dozen or so more pages. In them, Enid emerges into denouement. She visits Alfred every day, seeing to his care, but also taking time to “correct” him relentlessly. She gets to nag the mostly mindless fellow; she gets his body to herself, and it’s his body, Franzen tells us, that she’s wanted all along.

I find that scene a reversion to what I called the smarm, a letting go of the power of Alfred’s dying into the irony of the generally governing sensibility here. It’s a lingering vision of America as a kind of emasculated place. (Not only is Enid full in charge of Alfred, but Gary has long since capitulated to Caroline, and Chip has become a kept man with his new wife.)

Maybe Franzen has a point with that ironic pessimism. Maybe our America really is caught in the sort of irony spiral that a David Foster Wallace takes as his starting and ending place. Still, there are glimpses here of a deeper moral vision, and yet Franzen largely forecloses that vision. For all that this is a novel of surpassing skill, it gives us a disappointment with contemporary America that, next to an image it nearly accepts, is a disappointment itself.

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