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Sprawling Tome Doesn't Merit Hype: Franzen's Novel Could Use More "Corrections"
by rebecca fox on Nov 20, 2004
They're miserable. Their life choices have been wildly disparate. They chafe against the impositions of their opinionated parents. The "they" being referred to are the children of the Lambert family: Gary, Chip and Denise. These characters' assorted breakdowns, calamities and lapses in judgement comprise the bulk of Jonathan Franzen's novel, The Corrections, currently receiving hype as the only Oprah pick whose author ever dissed the Mighty O -- and lived to talk about it.
Franzen paints a vivid, albeit unfocused, picture of the Lambert family. Think Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights": Though the painting is widely hailed as a masterpiece, the viewer doesn't know where to look first. However, unlike Bosch's painting, Franzen's novel doesn't achieve any greater sum than the weight of its individual, proliferating parts. Despite the book's geographical sweep and variety of plot turns, Franzen's authorial coups are outweighed by the fixation visited by the author upon his subjects.
That the characters are uniformly unlikable isn't so much the problem -- it's the unvarying depth and degree of attention paid to each. Franzen fails to play favorites with his characters, and his lack of prioritization results in the reader's inability to sympathize with any of the Lambert offspring. College professor Chip can't keep it in his pants when it comes to sultry students; neurotic, type-A Gary counters the paranoia that his family is conspiring against him by micromanaging them even more; daughter Denise undoes her public success as a high-profile and gifted chef by consistently shagging authority figures, be they male or female -- she's less bisexual than self-sabotaging.
Franzen leaves the clichés behind when he removes his eagle eye from the offspring and focuses it upon parents Enid and Alfred. Enid's ceaseless machinations to get her entire family home for Christmas are hilarious in their motherly imperviousness to reason and logic. A master of self-justification, when young Chip is required to remain at the dinner table until he eats his despised vegetables, Enid reasons that "if (Chip's punishment) was her responsibility, then she was horrendously derelict ... and a loving mother could never be so derelict, and she was a loving mother, so the responsibility must not have been hers."
While Franzen puts a fine point on Enid's "if ... then" manipulations, his best writing comes from the perspective of Alfred, who spends the novel battling the dissolution of mind brought on by Parkinson's disease. Unsavory as it is, Franzen's skill shines through when Alfred spends a maritime hallucination negotiating with a personified bit of feces (South Park-style "Mr. Hanky, the Christmas Poo," Alfred's is not).
It's unfortunate that dealing in shit is the clearest, most authentic use of Franzen's distinctive talent for getting inside his characters' heads. Comparatively, much else in the novel rings as snarky and insincere. Cashing in all his euphemism chips at once, he skewers high-tech, along with our culture's marriage of crime and blame, and the American tendency toward self-medication. In doing so, nowhere does Franzen reveal a warm, beating heart beneath the excesses he lambastes. Such a dearth of meaning renders his novel equally damnable.
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar Straus & Giroux; ISBN: 0374100128
Hardcover, 568 pages (September 2001)
Rebecca Fox, a freelance writer living in San Francisco, is a regular columnist at SF Station.
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by rebecca fox on Nov 20, 2004