Now the recipient of the National Book Award, Franzen’s third novel, The Corrections, has secured a place for itself as more than "that book". To be honest, Franzen’s book has been the book for the whole year, earning obscene amounts of anticipation as early as March. For the last month or so, anyone who’s paid the attention has heard of the grand snafu that turned Franzen from a popular author to an Oprah-disinvited author. All of which is to say that, even if you don’t care about books, even if you don’t care about literature, you probably have heard about Franzen and his Great Big Book. The question that seems mostly long forgotten at this point is: is the novel any good? Before we get there though, let’s look a back a bit, just for fun.
The Corrections is nearly impossible to compare with Franzen’s other works. When his The Twenty-seventh City came out in 1986, he was staking his claim on the great line of post-modernist writers that stretched to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. His second novel, Strong Motion, furthered the claim, and the course that Franzen was to follow seemed clear: a future filled with socially conscious works, examining race and gender and politics and the human condition within society.
Instead he almost disappeared. His emergence in 1996 with an essay in Harper’s showed a mind clearly incapable of resting while confronting the scary trends of popular literature at the end of the millennium—the essay was written with a near asphyxiating sense of dread regarding the theoretical life of the "social/cultural" novel. While he wrote the occasional essay for the New Yorker, it was his introduction to the reprint of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters that markedly portrayed a different Franzen. Here he was praising a phenomenally perfect book that didn’t meddle with anything of society—not the spiraling, gosh wow social and cultural complexities, anyway. Instead the book, and presumably Franzen, from the almost reverent and focused tone of the introduction, addressed the myriad upheavals and downtrodden hopes related to intimacy and family living.
Back to the question: the short answer is, of course, yes: it’s superb. Franzen’s a funny funny man, funny in the sad DeLillo or Lydia Davis or Dave Eggers way, in the post/meta/hyper fiction world we live in, where approximately three cultural references per 1000 words is standard. Aside from its humor, the book is damn near perfect in terms of prose: Franzen completely earned the exuberant blurbs from DeLillo and D.F. Wallace on the back of the book, blurbs that honestly cited Franzen as being one of the key purveyors of fine prose in these times. I haven’t been able to confirm it, but I heard Updike say on a radio interview that Franzen is even better than Updike himself—tall praise indeed from the last great narcissus.
The characters, too, are perfect: Franzen has swapped his 28 mm lens that caught a wide swath of life in his previous two novels for a zoom lens, choosing only five interconnected lives to focus on, the Lambert family. From the reckless middle child Chip to the demure oldest Gary—whose nearly sadistic overbearing wife is a great glimpse of post modern hell—to the almost blithely ignorant/independent youngest daughter Denise, Franzen takes our notions of familial delineations and not only confirms them but furthers them: the oldest sibling will always try and be most correct to the parents, and will always fail; the middle child is always the least responsible; the youngest is always the most guilty but perhaps also the most free. With the parents of the family too, Franzen gives us the saddening truth: we cannot love our parents enough to save them. Al and Enid Lambert, the old (and aging so quickly it’s terrifying) parents of the book, are the kind of horrible portraits to be found at the police headquarters of Blunted Lives—frustrated by themselves, each other, the world that has conspired continually against them, and the dreams that stayed coyly in view but suicidally distant. If nothing else the book is a monumental condolence and pat on the back to all us who have or are trying to forgive ourselves: for the mistakes we’ve made in our families, for the words we can’t or won’t say.
What’s left? Well designed, well written characters in a story that purrs with Rolls Royce-quality prose, we’re left with the story itself. The plot is too gargantuan to go into here. Put it this way: there’s a nearly exponential effect our fuck-ups create when coupled with the fuck-ups of just one other person, for example your S.O. Imagine those fuck-ups in the context of the rest of your family, particularly when in a family of five. Just think of all the times a typical highway overpass nears or doubles over or shadows itself: that’s just two lanes. Do the math.
And at the end of it all, with near perfect everything, all expectations seemingly peremptorily met by virtue of the guy’s clear desire to write the most mammothly honest book of the year, to say Franzen’s novel is...stale or flat is inept and cruel. It’s a good book. It’s a finely put together and realized piece of fiction.
Perhaps this then: it is a massively sad book. It’s sad because it is, in terms of plot and character and all, equally sad and sorrowful, as if to prove that regret is the true preservative of our actions, the most permanent sepia of our mental pictures. Of course we won’t remember all this: we’ll remember, perhaps with a little sadness, how Franzen made his own incorrectable mistakes with this book. Let’s hope he figures a way to create his own redeeming opportunity.
- Weston Cutter