Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jonathan Franzen, "The Corrections" (2001)

For a long time, the names of two contemporary American authors seemed to be intertwined in my consciousness. Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Franzen both found wider exposure for their writing in the last ten years. I knew that they were both vaguely hip, had received significant critical acclaim, and had connections to New York City. Beyond that, I couldn't distinguish them from any other name I had heard but knew little about. Several months ago I read Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, and I frankly recall very little about it. While I remember being moderately amused by portions of the book, I wasn't inspired to continue reading Lethem's work. Now I have read Franzen's The Corrections, and I'm not confident that much will stick from this read either.

The Corrections concerns a family that grew up together in the fictional Midwestern town of St. Jude. They are ruled over by Alfred, a manager of engineers for a regional railroad company. This patriarch represents old school family values, the absence of which are so grandly lamented by conservatives across the nation. Tellingly, at the time most of the book is set in, Alfred is gradually deteriorating due to Parkinson's diseases and an increasing dementia. His wife Enid is trying desperately to hold together their house and their family. She is struggling through the denial with which she has responded to her husband's condition. All she can really hope for is one last Christmas for her grown children in their hometown.

Chip is Alfred and Enid's middle son. He is the black sheep of the family, constantly searching for an alternative way to view himself. He's recently been fired from a secure teaching position at a small liberal arts college in New England. His field of study is cultural criticism, and his theories and lectures provide an opportunity for Franzen to lampoon the frivolously pretentious qualities of modern academia. Chip is holding strong to his appropriated anti-consumerism until he engages in an illicit affair with one of his students- a decision that causes his demise. Having been forced to reevaluate his world view, Chip is desperate and vulnerable. After a stint in Brooklyn, he is talked into moving to Lithuania to help a former ambassador set up a web page intended to facilitate a fraudulent investment scheme.

His older brother is Gary, the living embodiment of American capitalist success. Gary has a beautiful wife, three sons, and plenty of opportunity to explore whatever passions occur to him. As far as anyone should be concerned, Gary has it all within his exclusive urban enclave of Chestnut Hill. Unfortunately he is a man with very little imagination. His obsession with the idea of clinical depression is eroding his confidence and solidarity with his family. His mother is trying to convince him to bring the entire brood to St. Jude for the holidays. The problem with that prospect is a promise he has made to his wife never to commit his clan to such a trip. His own loyalties torn, he starts to feel like his wife is playing on his sons' feelings in order to sabotage the plans he feels obligated to make. Whether or not this perception is reality-based, it is eating away at what should be an ideal marriage.

Meanwhile little sister Denise is struggling to form a meaningful romantic relationship with a series of partners. She is the ultra-successful chef of the hippest restaurant in Philadelphia. This position garners her fame and wealth. But her workaholic attitudes threaten to forever stultify her emotional growth. Through one amorous misadventure after another, Denise stumbles through her mess of a personal life. Perhaps if she avoided adulterous affairs, she could find some happiness. Maybe if she decided whether or not she was gay, she could narrow the field. Either way, her resolve to offer strength to the dispersed members of her family distracts her from finding any real clarity.

Franzen ensures that none of his characters can find any lasting satisfactions, despite their wildly disparate strategies for living. He implies that no matter how much one works to find his/her own place in society, there are always corrections that need to be applied as circumstances change. This should be no great revelation to any reader who has attained even a minimal level of maturity. Still the reminders Franzen offers of this eternal truth are dropped like anchors in a tumultuous ocean, and plummet into the depths of the reader's consciousness. It's not a particularly light or enlightening read. It's therefore all the more remarkable that The Corrections was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club. On the other hand Franzen eventually resisted that honor, describing his discomfort with being saddled with the "logo of corporate ownership". Nonetheless, Robert Zemeckis and David Hare are currently working on a film adaptation, which should only reinforce Franzen's cynical posture.

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