What makes The Corrections so frustrating is that Jonathan Franzen is undeniably talented. His writing is smooth and fast-paced, but still densely packed. There are no extraneous descriptions of clothing or hair and the characters don’t come off as wish fulfillment fantasy versions of the author. That may sound like a low bar for talent, but keep in mind that I’ve waded through a lot of crap books this past year.
In any event, the problem is not Franzen’s skill as an author but rather that Franzen comes off as the literary version of Oliver Stone, by which I mean that his writing seems so consciously designed to force interpretation and meaning upon the audience that it leaves no room for individual interpretation. It’s the work of someone who seeks to breathlessly assure the reader that every symbol and reference and coincidence is intentionally crafted and has one specific, fixed meaning.
And, while the characters don’t serve as wish fulfillment, they do come off as familiar stock figures loaded with upper-middle-class pretension. The Lambert children specifically all find themselves in the midst of issues that could only be defined as First World Problems. There’s the disgraced ex-Professor who was fired for having an affair with a student whom he is alleged to have helped with a paper while they were high on drugs in a hotel room who, months later, has to smuggle a $70 fish out of a luxury grocery store in his underwear because he can’t afford it thanks to his recent state of relative penury and wants to keep up appearances for his parents. So of course he winds up running into an acquaintance and must keep a straight face while the fish begins melting in his pants!
If that wasn’t wild enough, try the madness of his sister, Denise: A gourmet chef with a history of sleeping with other women’s husbands who decides to dabble in lesbianism with the wife of her current employer (a man that she almost slept with). The wife of the current employer, naturally, runs a community garden project and — while fooling around in the aforementioned garden project — the gourmet chef accidentally rips up the newly-planted asparagus! I hope that wasn’t too jarring. When I first read those passages, I nearly spilled my espresso all over my summer scarf.
This isn’t so much a story with a plot as it is the profile of Franzen’s idea of the modern American family. The narrative jumps occasionally between a time when the kids were still young and the parents comfortably middle-aged, to the discomfiting middle-age of the children and the not-so-Golden Years of their parents.
The Lamberts, the fictional story around which this quasi-narrative revolves are as follows: There’s Dad who used to work at Midland Pacific, a railway company in the Midwest, but also dabbles in chemistry in his spare time and who — in his twilight years — is fighting both Parkinson’s and dementia. Mom, a housewife stifled by her absent, uncaring husband whose true love is Christmas and the ability to brag about her children to wealthier neighbors and friends. Oldest brother Gary who is essentially Gooper from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — desperate to achieve everything he thinks is expected of him and completely dependent on rules and the juvenile notion of “fairness.” Chip, the younger brother, who is essentially Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — the father’s favorite, despite having screwed up a great career through self-sabotage (drugs and sex instead of alcohol, academia instead of athletics). And Denise, their younger sister who, like Gary, was once obsessed with following the rules and proving herself and then poured all that energy into cooking instead of college and became a gourmet chef until she shtupped her boss’s wife.
If you have your Pretentious 21st Century Lit bingo cards ready, I can start listing off all of the relevant stereotypes found in The Corrections:
– Mid-westerners who move to New York City and spend their whole adult lives trying to shake off the association with their former flyover state homes.
– Satirical descriptions of the way wealthy New Yorkers rear their children. Expensive, exclusive preschools and organic soy bean snacks would seem funny or ridiculous if we weren’t already well aware that rich people treat their children like deeply important business clients or tiny monarchs. Maybe I can cut Franzen some slack since this came out in 2001, well before the Real Housewife madness began, but then I’m pretty sure that “wacky rich New York parents” have always been analyzed and attacked for the sake of a cheap laugh for the commoners.
– Dialogue that involves two or more characters talking at one another about dissimilar things to create a sense of tension or frustration. I cannot even begin to describe how much I hate this. It usually goes something along the lines of:
Character One: Mom, did you get my letter?
Character Two: The turkey’s in the oven.
Character One: Mom, the letter?
Character Two: So just set the oven to 400. Did I tell you about the party at the Wilsons’ house? So lovely. They got new drapes.
No one talks like this. No one. There is at least some acknowledgment of the other person having spoken, even if the conversation is still railroaded to whatever Mom, in this case, wants to talk about. And yet I can’t seem to pick up a book written in the last 10 or 15 years that doesn’t use this awful tension-creating dialogue. So knock it off, authors, I’m officially declaring it banal.
– A character goes to a third-world country where people are genuinely poor, starving and under horrifying government regimes, and yet we’re supposed to care that our upper-middle-class hero feels “lost” in his life and needs another high-paying career that will truly challenge and delight him.
– Lots of descriptions of very expensive food — mainly meat — contrasted with the laughable descriptions of awful, terrible, bourgeois Midwestern food like marshmallows and spam and fondue that these pathetic sub-humans actually enjoy.
– Prescription drugs.
– Montages involving lists of places and/or things. This relates mostly to Denise who goes on at length to describe the dishes she feverishly creates for her new restaurant and the countries she visits on her boss’s dime while trying to create the menu for the aforementioned eatery. The montage list is hardly a new phenomenon, but it’s annoying nevertheless and I always fail to understand its purpose. In this book it seems like it’s trying to convey just how hard Denise is working at her menu, but then she is a chef who has been hired to create a menu, so I would kind of expect there to be a lot of work involved.
– Mental illness/depression/insomnia/a general sense of ennui.
– Middle-aged men having sex with 18-year-old girls.
– Sexual experimentation.
I could go on.
The point is, if you’ve read one profile of an upper-middle-class white family dealing with its whiteness, you’ve read them all. If you haven’t, you could do a lot worse than The Corrections.