annotation by Diane Sherlock
Just as women writers in Los Angeles should not read Janet Fitch until they have found their own voice, Franzen makes the case for staving off the long shadows of Pynchon and possibly Gaddis, the author apparently hat-tipped in the title. The Corrections is nihilistic satire filled with repugnant characters related by a totalitarian narrator who leaves no breathing room for his readers to form their own opinions. Other writers have handled repellent characters and still engaged me in the text so there is something else going on here and that is most likely the mean-spiritedness that infuses the text. Though the author has a good eye for detail, it does not seem that he has done basic research. For example, the manifestations of Parkinson’s are unconvincing. For four years, I helped care for a Parkinson’s patient until we could finally get her into a convalescent hospital; there was nothing familiar in the description of Alfred Lambert.
The main problem is that the author has undertaken the task of mocking everything, especially his garish characters, without deep understanding much less sympathy, save the failed professor. I found myself several times wishing that Franzen had confined the book to the university because that was where he had the most success with his observations, where he seemed the most comfortable, and where his brand of skewering was most effective. He could have had a more sharply realized book in that setting, perhaps a better arena to evaluate his intellectual control, and (one hopes) could have provided a more satisfying ending than the one here.
A writer like Austen intended her novels for the very people she was satirizing, but it’s hard to imagine that is the case here. He does have the underlying didactic intention necessary for his subject matter, probably too much of it.
To be fair, Franzen is a good example of shifting points of view, particularly the three siblings, and helped me establish my own narrative structure. He moves among all five family members, mostly with success. He has a strong sense of character, well, male character, and of place. His women have some problems. His characterization of Denise reads more like a male fantasy of a lesbian than a conflicted young woman. There is not enough reader identification with Enid to either sustain reader interest in her or for her desire for a family Christmas to drive the narrative.
Alfred’s falling off the cruise ship and rescue did not ring true and seemed out of place with the rest of the book. There have been enough people who disappear without a trace off cruise ships and after so much detail in overly long sequences like the Lithuanian cash plot, his fall and how he might have been noticed, found and rescued is glanced over. Franzen strays into self-parody with his narrative, then wraps up the characters into mostly happy ever afters. Chip even gets his father’s doctor and the father has a long slow decline “lasting longer than anyone expected,” which is again glossed over in a few sentences. It seems that the author could have used the one character who exhibits a moral core and self sacrifice to more effect at the end of his life. The Corrections is an overly long novel that fails to amuse and leaves a bad aftertaste.
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