Aw lawdy, what an interesting book. I write this “review” with trepidation, as Franzen’s ambitious doorstopper seeks to address hundreds of different things. I am really sleepy too so I hope this goes well.
The novel is about the Lambert family: Alfred and Enid, and their three adult children, Chip, Denise and Gary. Each character has their own personal, professional, mental and social dysfunctions that are extenuated and explained as the novel progresses. The action centres around Enid’s wish for her children to spend what could possibly be their last Christmas together as a family in their Midwest hometown of St. Jude, for Alfred’s Parkinson’s is getting worse and worse. Her children have their own reasons to be reluctant and each character is examined in turn about their individual neuroses and comical histories. Diverse issues such as the usefulness of literary studies, dependence on corrective medication, fluid sexuality, capitalism, etc, all come into play as Franzen ties these things together to form an insightful commentary on the contemporary American psyche by the novel’s use of psychological realism, a narrative technique that focuses on each character’s interior state in relation to the events that involve them.
On the publication of Franzen’s novel in 2001, he caused an accidental controversy by rejecting the offer to have The Corrections feature on Oprah’s Book Club; Franzen was accused of elitism as a result. But Franzen’s decision was in accordance with his ideology of what literature should be about. In these modern times where literature is devalued, cheapened, commodified and buried under the distracting and anaesthetising influences of TV, film and new media, it seems Franzen didn’t want The Corrections to be considered so superficially. The paradox is that Franzen is a successful enough novelist whose work has managed to surface itself beyond these influences by virtue of its artistic and intellectual merit and yet its success is mostly recognised by the extent of its marketability and financial gain: “The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority”. (But then why reject Oprah if he wants to reach an all-inclusive audience?) Franzen’s essay, “Perchance to Dream”, which can be found easily from a quick google search, illuminates his position about how literature should be consumed. He advocates such a reinstatement of the “social novel”, an antidote to our “point and click” culture where novel reading is no longer an everyday habit.
Franzen’s success can be attributed to the novel’s universal applicability: it embraces everyone in the hierarchy of readership, from stuffy intellectuals that spout out Derrida and Foucault to the “entry-level” readers that would rather read an airport novel than tomes of Pynchon or DeLillo. Both the introduction of 60s/70s literary Theory in English studies and the emergence of postmodernism as a literary movement in the latter half of the twentieth century made most “classical” fiction of the times that little bit more inaccessible and laborious to read. When the masses are given the alternative of, as Chip would say/teach, passively “consuming narratives”, whether it’s sitting back and watching cartoons and films or glancing at an advertisement, it is inevitable that any discourse that makes you put in the effort of reading and reflecting and understanding to get anything out of it will decline into obsolescence.
Rather than employing the tropes of postmodernism with its word games, formal confusions, narrative trickery, meta, and even its politically correct and post-colonial attributes, Franzen U-turns turn-of-the-century American writing to its cozy roots of white Midwestern suburbia with clear prose, familiar themes, relatable characters and both tragic and comic elements. The novel is therefore open to the lowest common denominators of American society and not reserved purely for the literary or academic elite. And so forms the basis for the “social novel”.
The Corrections epitomises anxieties about modern America, with this anxiety over the utility of high art being one of many. The novel’s title plays on the many corrections that America offers to keep its citizens happy and functional, such as correcting one’s emotional turmoil with the simple corrective assistance of popping pills, and also the more general overarching “correction” that the characters undergo upon realising their own self-deception about themselves and the society they live in.
The novel is big-hearted, amusing, insightful and a worthwhile read. The return to tradition and the family in an age of increasing singularity and displaced communication is a reminder of where we come from and what we overlooked.