Alison’s had me on a Pulitzer Prize-winning and other great book tour over the last several months: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, A Confederacy of Dunces, Shadow of the Wind, The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle, Middlesex, The Kite Runner. A note about the most recent.
I’ve just finished The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. While I have a few pointed criticisms, I believe this may be one of the most beneficial books I’ve read and that it should be on everyone’s bookshelf (virtual or physical).
To start, the obligatory spoiler alert. I’ll try not to give away critical plot points. On the one hand, I believe that good literature is about how the book plays out, not what happens. At the same time, I know that I can spend 500 pages with a group of characters and a plot, but the denoument carries most of the weight of a book for me. Closing a story in a satisfying way to me is critical for me to carry with me a sense of enjoyment regarding the story as a whole. So I’m not going to address where events carry the characters from a plot perspective. That said, I have a few distinct impressions.
The Corrections centers on Alfred and Enid Lampert, he a retired railroad worker and she a woman caught in a marriage that has not gone the way she expected, and she clinging to a few last-ditch ideas as to where she can find happiness within her family. The couple have three very different children: Gary, Chip and Denise. Gary is the responsible one, married to a gorgeous woman who abhors his family and holds her affection hostage to his willingness to remain away from them; Chip begins as the ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold, but shows himself to be both deeper and less good than that shallow stereotype; Denise is the caboose daughter who flirts with lesbianism, sabotages her own happiness through guilt and lust. She is the one child who honestly understands both the mechanics and duties implicit in her family, but her intuitive knowledge that her parents would not be able to accept her choices means that she is unable to find her place among the others, as well.
Without doubt, the greatest strength of this novel to me is the depth of character development. Frequent calls back to each character’s past demonstrate the reasons that they have become who they are; I’d estimate that better than half the novel is deep background on four of the five (Enid alone is the shallow character who is painted through interaction with the others). The interesting aspect to Franzen’s storytelling is that he doesn’t promote anyone as a hero. Each character, including peripheral characters who receive development to flesh out the Lamperts even more fully, is possessed of critical flaws and blind spots. Franzen strips them all naked and shows them at their most gutteral, painting a portrait of a real family, rather than one designed to make some broader statement about what family is or support a trite moral.
Interestingly, the lack of a unifying statement leaves the reader wondering a little why all these warts need to be shown. The plot is anything but compelling. One event leads to another and to another, but seemingly only to demonstrate where each person’s bad decisions have taken them or how they will react to the hard knocks of fate. By 80% through the book, I was honestly wondering what the point was. Why I was reading about these people. Having already done my time in the salt mines of the pointless (I read Moby Dick recently), I found that the only thing that kept me turning pages was the extraordinary skill Franzen exhibits in developing the characters, and trying to apply those lessons to the stories I hope to tell, myself.
And some pages were difficult to turn. A spoiler, although a necessary one: Alfred is demented by midway through the story. I find it necessary to reveal that because is gives rise to one of my criticisms of the work – Franzen departs on several long chapters that resemble acid trips more than elements of story. Undoubtedly these are intended to allow the reader to emphathize with what this once-mighty man was dealing with and how he finds himself marginalized in a family over which he used to be lord. The sequences are surreal, though, and shorter descriptions of hallucinations about talking, crawling turds would have accomplished the same goal.
Ultimately, I’m not sure I would have given the Pullitzer to this book (no one asked my opinion), but I would rank it highly as a magnificent example of character. And of dialogue, which is no mean compliment from me. Great novels set in the 1980s and 1990s have not passed under my nose frequently, and seeing the world I knew reflected around the characters was also enjoyable. I would The Corrections to anyone who doesn’t need explosions and espionage in a great modern work of fiction.