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"The Corrections", Jonathan Franzen

June 15th, 2009 · No Comments · Literature

correctionsSynopsis: As the aging patriarch slips into dementia, a Midwestern family prepares to gather for ‘one last christmas’ in the parents small home town of ‘St Jude’ (The patron Saint of lost causes). Familial pathos and melodrama is writ large.

My Take: I loved this book and I wasn’t alone. It was a massive best seller and won every award under the sun when it was first released in 2001.

In ‘The Corrections’ Franzen achieves the rare feat of writing a long (700+ pages) and serious work of literature that rewards close-reading and reflection, but doesn’t require it. Indeed, when I read this book, I enjoyed it so much that I tore through it – gulping down the rich and sharply drawn character back stories as fast as I could swallow them. Franzen’s five protagonists are a delight. The former railway engineer and patriarch Alfred. The mid-western house-wife and bundle of neurosis, Enid. The eldest son, banker and depressed family man Gary. The middle son, a pathetic, critical theory academic, Chip (I especially appreciated his sad quoting from Habermas and Adorno). And the emotionally intense but confused, successful chef, Denise. The actions of each of these protagonists are largely caricatured – and their entertainment value at the surface level flows from this skillful comedy.

However, underneath the amusing facade, Franzen constructs a serious and engaging work of literature. ‘The Corrections’ is truly an American epic. Each of the characters embodies the great conflicts and tensions of modern America. By examining the neuroses of each of the characters in tightly over-lapping detail, Franzen is able to trace the causes and the interdependences of the pathos of American society. In this sense, Franzen’s insight into the modern American dilemma is made even more extra-ordinary by virtue of the fact that this book was written barely a year into the Bush administration and before the September 11 attacks. Franzen is so skilled at burrowing to the core of the long arc of the perversities of modern America that instead of being superceded by the trauma of the Bush years, ‘The Corrections’ seems to foreshadow them. Very impressive.

Highlights: There are many:

The Universe was mechanistic: the father spoke, the son reacted.

From the Patriarch:

“Take it easy”. The phrase seemed to Alfred an eastern blight, a fitting epitaph for a once-great state, Ohio, that parasitic teamsters had sucked nearly dry. Nobody in St Jude would dare tell him to take it easy. On the high prairie where he’d grown up, a person who took it easy wasn’t much of a man. Now came a new effeminate generation for whom ‘easygoing’ was a compliment…. ‘take it easy’ was the watchword of these super friendly young men, the token of their over familiarity, the false reassurance that enabled them to ignore the filth they worked in.”

From the yuppie eldest son:

Gary in recent years had observed, with plate tectonically cumulative anxiety, that population was continuing to flow out of the Midwest and toward the cooler coasts…. Gary wished that all further migration [could] be banned and all Midwesterners encouraged to revert to eating pasty foods and wearing dowdy clothes and playing board games, in order that a strategic national reserve of cluelessness might be maintained, a wilderness of taste which would enable people of privilege, like himself, to feel extremely civilized in perpetuity.

And from the denouement:

The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle letdown, a year long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.

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