The Corrections

book by Jonathan Franzen

annotation by Talya Jankovits

It started off as a crush. I was feeling flustered and warm with each rich sentence, his detailed imagery, the way sound greeted me through my eyes and I discovered that a stack of bills could be made interesting. At the same time, I also found myself rolling my eyes and skimming eagerly to reach the next relevant scene or narrative. Jonathan Franzen’s The Correctionsis an exhausting work of fiction that left me both panting and out of breath with want for more as well as feeling condescended to and abused. I was in turmoil reading this novel; was I in love or was I being driven mad? I decided it was okay to feel both.

My Infatuation:
Franzen’s novel is a story without a story. A funny thing happened while reading. I kept wondering when it was all going to come together and at first I was disappointed to find out it never actually comes together but still works brilliantly. Franzen takes a family of five, two aging parents, and three adult children and reveals the stories of these characters’ lives through the ultimate, larger but mostly irrelevant story of a quickly ailing and demented father who meets his end by the final chapter of the book.

Recently, I am finding myself drawn to novels, short stories or creative pieces that don’t have an ultimate goal of selling you on some sort of convoluted and dizzying plot, but find the story in the mundane, the every day, life as we know it. (Granted there were some grand elements, but when you’re talking about a novel that is close to 600 pages, 40-80 pages of grandeur is really not much to talk about.) This fiction was not fiction at all. I felt as if somewhere, someone is living one of these lives. They were so real, so devastatingly flawed, a smorgasbord of richly textured humanity. I almost felt a part of this dysfunctional group of fictive genes.Franzen paid attention to the nuances that don’t usually get attention and made a novel of it, a particularly lengthy novel of it.

From the first sentence, I knew I was in for a writing treat. Franzen is so detailed that you can hardly go more than a few sentences without being greeted by a beautiful image, a clever metaphor or a breathtaking string of adjectives and nouns. Just after reading a few pages I wanted to run to my own novel and find ways to make it “prettier” to enhance my  images and descriptions, to pay attention to the sound of a screeching tire or the color of a mole on an elbow. I was so driven to write after reading that I did. I’m pretty sure that’s enough in it of itself to assert a bit of an infatuation. But infatuation is usually fickle.

My Contempt:
If I had to read one page more of this novel I would have thrown this book in the dishwasher, cleaned it up and made Franzen wash his mouth out with soap. About a quarter of the way through this book, I began to feel like I was out on a date with a gorgeous guy who was smart and funny, but by the time the appetizer arrives I realize he is dominating the conversation to hear himself talk about and assert his own cultured, well rounded intellect and opinion on just about anything. Franzen is a great writer, but at times I felt that entire scenes were inserted totally unnecessarily; I began to feel taken advantage of, as if Franzen created strikingly different characters only in order to assert himself in all things. The character of Chip seemed to be invented purely for Franzen’s philosophical appetite. I felt drained reading hypothetical conversations between Chip and his grad students that went on for pages discussing the ethical responsibilities in mass media commercialism. Greg was an opportunity to explore stocks and business (where I had to read through an entire conference on an imaginary drug with irrelevant characters participating in banter with the drug reps,) Denise was a field day for sexual appetite and food connoisseurship and Aurthur became less of a character and more of an excuse to explore scatological images. Reading this novel was like having my eyes held open and being force fed information. Now, either this actually happened – characters were created to feed Franzen’s frantic appetite for self assertion – or something went terribly wrong during editing.

I am currently in the revision stage of my novel and have gone through multiple drafts and something that comes up frequently is finding irrelevant scenes or lengthy narratives that don’t contribute to the characters, the plot or my readers need to relate to the characters and the plot. What frustrated me in Franzen’s novel is that I felt I was reading lengthy narrative that didn’t at all enhance the reading experience for me and left me feeling drained, so drained that all the beautiful writing I was so excited about at first began to fade before me and leave only the constant barrage of information. My lesson – don’t overload, everything in moderation. Even the luscious writing began to become too much.

My Compromise:
I thought annotating the novel would help me gain clarity on my perspective and writerly gains or losses, but I’m still as torn as before. There will be a second date – I will read Franzen again, to feed my need for glitzy, detailed writing but I will also remind myself during my revision process of the importance of staying honest to my characters and stories, small or great, and staying committed to making sure every page of my novel matters. Because at the end of a novel, its not how much you’ve written or how much you know, but how well you know what you write.

The Corrections

Correctionsbook by Jonathan Franzen

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.