Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Books: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

Don't let the Oprah's Book Club sticker deter you—this is a smart and worthy piece of literature that doesn't unravel into the sentimental garbage favored by the talk-show set until the very end, by which time Franzen has so assuaged your fear that you were the only one ever heartless enough to feel the way you do about your family that you forgive his minor incursions into the absurd.

At the outset, The Corrections appears to be about someone a lot like a lot of people I know, and in fact a bit like myself. Chip is a hipsterish 20-something who is very smart, very self-involved, and very much in need of a reality check. He wants to be a writer and has drafted a (bad, self-indulgent) screenplay, but is not getting the response for which he hoped. He's not getting the response for which he hoped from his girlfriend (who happens to be married to someone else) either—she's just dumped him. And his aged parents are in town from the midwest, on their way to a cruise. And he thinks that if he can just make a few corrections to his screenplay, he will win everything: the money, the girl, and the approval of his parents (even though he completely rejects their middle-American mindset).

But Chip has a brother, and he has a story too. Gary has a beautiful wife and three strong, smart boys, and a well-paying job in finance, and a big suburban house. But his wife hates his mother, and doesn't want to go to his parents' house for Christmas. It's the middle of the summer, but mom, who lives for Christmas, is already making plans and insists on having all of her children, and grandchildren, under her roof. As loathsome as the prospect of a holiday stuck with his entire family sounds to Gary, he is willing to do it this one time, hoping that by fulfilling his mother's wish, he can remove them from their big house and sell it, moving them into a small apartment near him. They are getting old and the house is losing value every day due to deferred maintenance.

Only their sister Denise seems to have any patience for her parents, but hers is wearing thin as well. An extremely successful chef in the middle of opening a new restaurant, Denise has had far less success with relationships. She was married once to another chef, an older, unattractive man of whom her mother hardly approved—probably because they eloped and didn't give her mother Enid the opportunity to throw a big party and show off to all of her small-town neighbors (another thing for which she seems to live). Now, she thinks she is being courted by her restaurant's financier—a fantastic guy who happens to be married. The attraction is mutual, but she stops herself when given the opportunity to make him an adulterer. But she begins spending more and more time with his wife Robin, and realizes that the reason she's never felt sparks with any man is that she is attracted to women. She and Robin have a torrid sexual affair.* Their summer of love ends when Denise cheats on Robin with her husband, and refuses to apologize. Something about Robin activates a mean streak, a sadistic impulse. And clever, fashionable Denise just doesn't want to be a frumpy lesbian raising Robin's daughters.

All three grown children get their much-needed reality check when their father's already tenuous health suddenly declines further. Alfred Parkinson's disease has evolved into early dementia, and hallucinating and in diapers in the middle of the night in their cruise ship stateroom, he chases an invisible turd that taunts and cusses at him. He cries out for Enid to help him, but, exhausted and embarrassed, she has gone to the ship's doctor asking for pills to help her sleep. He has given her something he calls "Aslan" (named for C.S. Lewis' magical lion, which has incidentally appeared in one of Gary's sons reading), which is actually a highly-addictive, controlled substance known in the US as "Mexican A," which drug, incidentally, played a part in the early end of Chip's career as a college professor.

Alfred has an accident on the ship and we guiltily hope that he has died, thereby solving many of his family's problems. Frankly, he's not a very likable man. He has, of course, worked hard all of his life as an engineer, and provided for his children as necessary, but he is sullen and stubborn and parsimonious. Now that he has retired, he spends all of his time sitting in an ugly blue chair in the basement, ignoring Enid's constant complaining. When he had opportunities to make extra money—by investing in his company's stock when he knew a big merger was coming, by working two more years for the new ownership rather than retiring and thereby doubling his pension, or by squeezing more money from a pharmaceutical company that wants rights to one of his patents—he refuses them. He refuses to discuss finances or his health or emotions with his wife or the rest of his family. He has a shotgun and some shells in his basement laboratory, and, when we find out that he lived through his cruise ship accident, we again find ourselves guiltily hoping that he will use the gun. And when his children come home for Christmas and see it, they guiltily hope the same.

Alfred doesn't kill himself, but the family's story unwinds into a final chapter focalized through the aged patriarch, who is by now so demented that though he is in the hospital, he thinks he is in prison. He doesn't recognize his children or his wife until they repeat multiple times who they are. He is paranoid and embarrassed and afraid. He wants to die. We want him to die. But he lives. The family moves him into a home, and things settle. Gary stops fighting with his wife. Chip meets a new girl, gets a teaching job, and continues editing his screenplay. Denise gets a job at another restaurant, one not financed by an adulterous liaison. Enid relaxes and ceases to be such a neurotic, judgemental nudge.

It's hardly an inspiring or feel-good story (which you probably think is why I like it so much). It's brutally honest and admits things that we don't like to admit. Chip, Gary, and Denise are very different, but we identify with each of them (perhaps Denise the least; hers is the least-deep character, and I can't help but think that she reveals Franzen's uninformed understanding of women—even though he completely nails Enid. Denise seems to be Franzen's fantasy, while the other characters seem deeply rooted in realities that he experienced first-hand). The book is long, but never feels tedious; it's plot-driven, but never feels gossipy, like so many other contemporary New York novels. It's simple but smart, and ultimately very real. I don't know what ray of light Oprah could have found in it, but I'm not a reader looking for a ray of light. I like the sad, ugly, mean truth.

*This is one of the aforementioned incursions into fantasy.

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