"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler
Monday, December 6, 2010
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
There is not much consensus among either writers or readers about what good literature is supposed to do. If you are feeling masochistic, dig up the forums on any amateur writing website and browse the clumsy threads about craft, about the difference between "entertainment" and "art," about "genre" and "emotional ressonance" and "style." You'll soon realise that people often want different things from their books, and that even when they want the same thing they are insistent about the language in which those things are framed.
I have my own specific, cranky, silly opinions, but the real answer to these butterfingered debates is a book called The Corrections by a guy named Jonathan Franzen. Whatever you want to call what happens over the course of those 530ish pages, that is what great literature does. And with the exception of the dream I had last night where Rashida Jones became my Facebook friend (Hi Rashida Jones!), picking up The Corrections is the best thing to happen to me in the last month.
The book is about a family, The Lamberts. It's about Enid, a Midwestern housewife, and Alfred, her emotionally-distant, retired-engineer husband, and their three adult children: 1) Chip, an ex-professor of "cultural criticism" who lost his academic position after seducing a student 2) Gary, a banker and mild alcoholic whose fragile, beautiful wife and three children are increasingly estranged from him and 3) Denise, a top-tier chef with a penchant for married men (and women).
There's not much of a story to go around. Much of the novel is, incredibly, told through long, expositional, summarizing flashbacks. One by one, the reader explores the life of each member of the family, watches them make mistakes, and the whole thing culminates at "one last" family Christmas back in the fictional fly-over-country suburb of St. Jude.
Things happen, make no mistake. You'll experience autumn cruise-liners, Lithuanian crime lords, investment fraud, and experimental psychotropic therapies. Also a scene involving a talking piece of human excrament (Whatever, Franzen. I guess you can do what you want!). But the real meat of the story comes from the observations of the human condition. Every one of the five characters is simultaneously repugnant and sympathetic, and it is painful to bear witness to their commitment to self-sabatoge and catastrophe. You could turn to any single page and come quickly to an uncomfortable truth about either yourself or someone you know well. Reading Gary's story, in particular, was almost too heartbreaking for me.
I'm learning that it's hard to write a long review of a piece of fiction. I can't discuss the details of the book because they would be nonsense, and the events would lose their emotional impact in summary. There's no thesis whose implications can be dissected like a non-fiction review might try to do.
So let's just be clear about one thing: This is one of the best books I've ever read. I mean that both in terms of its technical execution, and in terms of its poignancy. A piece of writing has never made me cry, but the end of this book sure made me choke up a bit on my tequila-and-Hawaiian-punch.
P.S. Oh, you can read a really exceptional essay by Franzen at (of all places!) Oprah.com, since his newest book is her BookClub book currently. The essay is called "My Bird Problem."