Monday, August 30, 2010

"The Corrections": Still Dysfunctional After All These Years

It's August 30, 2010, and that could only mean it's (unofficially, temporarily) Franzen Eve.

Here in the Abrams household, we're all a-tingle for the release of Jonathan Franzen's already-acclaimed new novel Freedom.  At least, I'm all tingly; my wife is yawning, my daughter is Facebooking, and my cat is scratching in the litter box, discreetly covering a fresh pile.  But what do they know?  At least someone here cares about the Novel of the Year.

At precisely 12:01 a.m., Freedom will be beamed by the Amazon pixies onto my Kindle.  Question: Mockingjay, Harry Potter, and Twilight novels all get midnight release parties, but what about poor J.F.?  Are there any Franzen Freedom Frenzies planned at a local bookstore near you?  I suspect not, but you never know, there might be a few dedicated readers who just can't wait to start reading about troubled Midwestern families and will venture out into the dark of night to get their hands on Freeeeeedommmmm!  (Random Mel Gibson moment)

As I wait for the book to trickle onto my Kindle, my thoughts turn back nine years to the day when I finished reading Franzen's last Great Big Book, The Corrections.  I was so blown away by the novel, so reduced to a puddle of reader's joy and writer's envy, I believe a spoon and a mop were involved in the cleanup.

I wrote a review--not a great one, but not a bad one, either--and I'm posting it below in its original entirety.  I was a bit unrestrained in my praise and was still pretty giddy over the cultural impact of the Oprah Book Club, but I think the enthusiasm was pretty justified.  I should also note that the review was written and published online before the Oprah Show kerfuffle.  For those who need a quick primer on the drama which dominated our every waking hour for weeks on end (oh, how it seemed so important at the time!), here's the lowdown:

1)  The Oprah Winfrey Show selected The Corrections for its next book club pick, a distinction which included an invitation to appear on the show and to have the large, unavoidable O printed on the book cover.
2)  Franzen didn't say no to the invitation, but while out on tour promoting the novel, he made comments which didn't sit well with the show's producers.  To wit:  "(Oprah's) picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight."
3)  He was promptly disinvited.  Oprah announced on television: "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection."
4)  Franzen started tap-dancing with apologies and explanations.
5)  Oprah said, "Sorry, Charlie.  A disinvitation's a disinvitation.  Besides, I've been hearing about a book written by a guy named James Frey and I'm thinking that might make a good pick for my club."  (Or words to that effect.)

Here are a couple of contemporary views of the whole brouhaha:  Moby Lives and Boston Review.

And now, on to my Pre-Oprah review....

*     *     *     *     *

Let’s start with the fresh legend of The Corrections: author Jonathan Franzen wrote part of the Bible-sized novel while sitting in a room with soundproof walls and double-paned windows.  Each day he arrived at the writing room, he would draw the blinds, turn off all the lights, insert earplugs, then don a pair of superfluous earmuffs.  Finally, in a theatrical gesture to end all theatrical gestures, he’d wrap a blindfold around his eyes.  Whether or not this is apocryphal (hey, he told it to the New York Times so it must be true!), it’s still fun for us readers to sit here on the other end of the writing process with that image in mind: a blind and deaf Franzen hunched over a keyboard, alone with all those raging, competing voices in his head.

Whatever the method or madness, it seems to have worked for the 42-year-old novelist.  Not only has he taken the postmodern fiction beast by the ears and given it a rough shake, but—glory of glories!—he’s managed to get himself anointed by Oprah.

I was midway through my reading of The Corrections when it was chosen for the TV queen’s book club and I must say I was stunned.  Stunned, I tell you!  Not just because she has once again surprised me with her range in taste but because she has dared to devote an entire hour of bookchat with a novelist who—brace yourselves—cunningly features a walking, talking turd in the course of the book’s action.

Granted, the animated feces is part of poor old Alfred Lambert’s Parkinson’s disease hallucinations, but I simply cannot imagine how Ms. Winfrey plans to address it on her show.  My guess is, she’ll skip right over the poop and go straight to the heart of the novel’s dysfunction, that freezer-burned Thanksgiving turkey which sits at the centerpiece of The Corrections.  The breakdown of the nuclear family—that’s the real “poop” of the book.  Franzen puts Ward and June Cleaver (and Jim and Margaret Anderson—Robert Young with his cardigans and Jane Wyatt with her kitchen aprons) squarely under the lens of his microscope.  Father doesn’t know best here.  In fact, father hardly knows anything at all anymore.  The Lamberts of fictional St. Jude, a Midwestern suburb, have been coming apart at the seams for years.  Franzen just happens to catch them at their most unraveled.

Let’s take a quick roll call at that Thanksgiving dinner table (a scene, by the way, which makes its only appearance on the book’s dust jacket):

Seated to my right your left is Chip Lambert, the middle child of three.  A “tall, gym-built man with crow’s-feet and sparse butter-yellow hair,” Chip has just been fired from his teaching position at D—— College for “sexual harassment” (though it’s clear the sex with his student was consensual).  Despondent, he’s written a 124-page movie script called The Academy Purple, a thinly-veiled farce about the Clinton scandal (characters: Bill, Hillaire and Mona).  Unfortunately, his girlfriend who has much-needed connections in the independent film world is leaving him because the script has “too many breast references and a draggy opening.”  Now even more despondent, Chip hires on to set up a website for a shady Lithuanian politician.  Much hilarity and heartbreak ensue.

To Chip’s right is his older brother Gary, vice president of a Philadelphia bank and put-upon husband of a wife who actively despises her in-laws due to an Unspeakable Christmas Incident.  Badgered, depressed, paranoid, alcoholic and guilt-ridden—Gary’s just your typical white-collar male trying to hold his own in the post-sensitive-guy era.  Of all the characters, he’s the least appealing due in part to his bland demeanor.  I found myself reading through his section (each character gets a chance to hog the narrative spotlight) quickly, ruffling pages in hopes I’d read more about Chip or the others.  Gary is just too Rotary Club, too soccer dad, too whiny white-male “victim” for my tastes.

Let’s move on to sister Denise, sitting across the turkey-laden table from Gary.  Denise is a chef at a trendy Philadelphia restaurant built inside the skeletal remains of a coal power plant (so haute cuisine!).  She’s having an affair with both the boss and the boss’ wife, secrets she tries to conceal from the rest of the family.  She needn’t worry they’ll find out—they’re all too busy trying to sort out their own tangled skeins.  Denise gets the majority of our sympathies, mainly because she seems to be the most centered, grounded person in the whole clan.  She’s fragile and ultra-careful with her feelings (“she’d made a program of steeling herself against the emotions of this house, against the saturation of childhood memory and significance”), but who wouldn’t be, having grown up with this much repression and depression?

Next to Denise is Enid, the matriarch.  Enid is a worrier.  She worries about her husband’s rapidly-declining health.  She worries about managing the family’s finances.  She worries that Chip will never find the right girl and Denise will never find the right boy.  But most of all, she worries that the family will not reunite for one last Christmas before Alfred’s mind goes poof!  To calm her frantic mind, a doctor aboard a pleasure cruise prescribes a drug called Aslan (yes, it’s a direct nod to Narnia’s lion), so potent that the FDA will probably never approve it.  Nonetheless, Enid is hooked on pharmaceutical happiness and so, for a short while, she doesn’t have to fret about cleaning up her husband when he soils his pants.

Squeezed next to Enid is Alfred, the turd-fearing head of the household.  You’ll notice, perhaps, that I placed no one at the head of this imaginary Thanksgiving table.  That’s because there is no head of the family anymore.  At one point, Alfred sat there, carving knife in hand; but now he is a shadow of his former self (Franzen writes, he was once “an individual from an age of individuals”).  He’s become a mental ramble of a man who has set up his own little kingdom in the basement, outfitted with a Ping-Pong table, a blue leather chair, a portable color TV, a urine-filled Yuban coffee can, hundreds of dust-colored crickets and, ominously, a shotgun.  A retired railroad executive who once ruled the household with a stern hand, Alfred is now a very sick man.  The descriptions of his mental disintegration are especially detailed and poignant and color the whole novel with a sticky grimness.  Not since William Wharton’s Dad has senility been treated with equal parts realism and flights of literary fancy.

And, yes, the words do take wing—right from the get-go.  The near-musical constructs of language are the novel’s highlights.  Here’s Franzen’s irresistible first paragraph:
The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.  You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.  The sun low in the sky; a minor light, a cooling star.  Gust after gust of disorder.  Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.  No children in the yards here.  Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia.  Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage.  Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms.  And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Albert Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are words to savor.  Roll them around on your tongue like a sweet hard candy.  Don’t chew, just let them dissolve in your saliva.

Each sentence can be broken down into compartments, your mind lingering over each noun, each adjective.  The shuddering storm windows, the hiccupping dryer, the nasal leaf blower.  This is fiction at its finest hour in 2001.

There’s more good stuff elsewhere:
Alfred’s red sweater hung on him in skewed folds and bulges, as if he were a log or a chair.  His gray wool slacks were afflicted with stains that he had no choice but to tolerate, because the only other option was to take leave of his senses, and he wasn’t quite ready to do that.
It was the morning of Thanksgiving.  The flurries had stopped and the sun was halfway out.  A gull’s wings rattled and clacked.  The breeze had a ruffly quality, it didn’t quite seem to touch the ground.  Chip sat on a freezing guardrail and smoked and took comfort in the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware.  The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service. And a 99-cent Big Gulp banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard.
It’s not hard to see the skeletons of David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo showing through the flesh covering Franzen’s story.  In addition to sharing The Corrections’ doorstop heft, the books of Wallace and DeLillo share—and ultimately exceed—the intellectual heft found here.  There are no lengthy footnotes (Wallace) or spiraling streams of consciousness (DeLillo), and Franzen’s ambition is sometimes too obvious in its overreach.

Where books like Infinite Jest and White Noise brim with Big Thought—

—if you’ve ever been to a fish hatchery and walked along an outdoor pool teeming with trout, you’ll know what I mean when I say that one page of Infinite Jest can have the same effect on your brain as dropping a breadcrumb into a fin-to-fin pool of cutthroats: the water churns, and so does your brain—

The Corrections eases us carefully into its intelligence.  Oh it’s still there, to some degree, but it’s like the soft center of DeLillo-ism, the chewy caramel of Wallace-istic frenzy.  Franzen is most concerned with spinning a good yarn.  And it is a satisfying story…albeit one which grows exhausting by page 450.  A little dysfunction goes a long way, as we learned in the similarly Oprahfied Joyce Carol Oates novel We Were the Mulvaneys.

So, what Franzen’s got that many other writers of “serious” literature tend to lack is accessibility.  The Corrections is relatively easy on the eyes and the brain (though hard on the soul).  I mean, can you honestly imagine thousands of TV viewers tuning in to watch an hour devoted to John Barth, Robert Coover or even DeLillo?  Fat chance.  Sure, the imprimatur of Miz Winfrey adds “legitimacy” to The Corrections, but even without that seal of “approval,” Franzen’s Great American Novel is softer and fuzzier. It’s a big novel for Everyfamily.  No matter who your parents were, no matter what household you grew up in, you will undoubtedly see a piece of your own heritage on these pages.  This is an Instant Family—like a powder mix...just add water!—and the Lamberts should be recognizable to nearly anyone born between the twin shadows of Hiroshima and Nixon’s SALT.  On Franzen’s pages, the nuclear family is ready to explode at any moment, leveling houses, trees and psyches in a milli-blink.  These are our fathers, our mothers, our brothers and sisters…perhaps, in some cases, ourselves.  Franzen holds up the mirror and dares us to look away.

And yet, the Lamberts are very much “characters,” creative squiggles of ink on the page.  Like DeLillo and Wallace before him, Franzen elevates his creation to Voltairian levels.  The humor is broad, loud and incredibly painful at times.  As Oprah would say, “He’s got issues.”

And that’s why the image of a blindfolded, ear-stoppered Franzen tapping feverishly in the dark is so appealing.  It’s tempting to imagine that he was wrestling with his own domestic-dysfunction demons, transcribing those busy-tongued voices in his head…and yet, somehow getting it right for the rest of us in the process.

1 comment:

  1. Franzen's storytelling is so complete, writes well, and the book is extremely entertaining.