Monday, July 11, 2011

Literature: "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which I finished a little over a month ago, was the first work of fiction I'd read in quite some time. Having just completed a BA in history and a lengthy and involved thesis on an esoteric and largely irrelevant topic, I'd taken a considerable amount of time off from "people who make stuff up." I picked up the novel in part out of a certain sense of obligation. Given all the recent hype surrounding his most recent novel Freedom and the Time magazine cover-piece hailing him as the greatest living American writer, I felt guilty for never having read any of his work. He was also incidentally scheduled to be the speaker at my college's graduation; I felt like I should prepare. Apparently unimpressed, my dad, beginning in January, had been mailing me a steady stream of negative reviews of Freedom. I opened The Corrections, then, with a number of apprehensions and not a great deal of excitement. Almost immediately, though, I found myself engrossed in the novel's intertwining storylines, all relating to the elderly and increasingly infirm Lambert couple living in suburban "St. Jude" (a stand-in for St. Louis) and their three children, Midwestern transplants living in the northeast. Ultimately a rewarding book and a page-turner in the best sense, the novel is not, however, an entirely pleasant read.

Reading the book became, almost instantly and unceasingly, an extremely personal and emotional experience. Issues I'd been mulling -- post-graduate anxieties, questions of mental health, unease with prosperity -- all occur and recur throughout the novel. That Franzen and I both come from the same leafy St. Louis suburb, and that the book seems to take on heavily autobiographical aspects (a suspicion confirmed by various comments made by Mr. Franzen, including in a speech this past February at my very recent alma mater, Kenyon College, repeated almost word-for-word (here) heightened my identification with the novel and increased my distress. I say distress because reading The Corrections is not necessarily a comfortable or happy experience. Chapter by chapter, my personal discomforts and anxieties were often exacerbated as Mr. Franzen explored the often messy relations of the Lambert family.

The Corrections also speaks, as a number of reviews have pointed out, to a particular historical moment. Published in 2002, the novel was received with rave reviews, earned Franzen a National Book Award, and was named a semi-finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The first novel Franzen published since 1992's Strong Motion, The Corrections also elevated Franzen to the status of Serious Writer. The novel was written during a period of intense optimism, prosperity, and confidence in technology. Yet the intense sense of anxiety which pervades the novel seemed to speak to a sense of unease. Released shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks and as the economic recession began to settle on the U.S., the novel addressed a nation whose entire self-conception was being radically re-examined. From this vantage, the work can be seen as literary prophecy, suggesting the exuberance of late nineties America only served to mask -- and not allay -- our anxieties. Yet the value of The Corrections extends well beyond its meaning as a historical document or cultural phenomenon. Nearly a decade after it was first published, the novel still retains its vitality in its smaller perceptions. Hailed as a book that spoke to the moment, The Corrections also transcends it.

For the novel's characters, the prosperity and personal material comfort brought by the tech-stock bubble are far more menacing than promising. Chip Lambert, a failed academic with a PhD in English heavy on critical theory, once remarks that everyone but him seems to be getting rich. The rest of the family appears to feel the same way. Having each, to a certain degree, sacrificed promises of wealth for other concerns, each of the Lamberts in turn worries that the things they sacrificed it for are ultimately unworthy. Along the way, concerns that their own fragile mental states drive their desires -- and that these desires are pharmaceutically alterable -- plague the children and their mother, Enid. Only the family patriarch Albert, through a firm resolve and increasing resignation, holds desperately to a sense of his life's moral correctness.

The Corrections is a novel full of anxiety, depression, and fear. In touching on all our own apprehensions, the book raises questions without offering answers. It cracks open the chest of our highly technologized society without suturing up the wound. Yet in laying bare a vision of our private selves, Franzen has done us a great service. However uncomfortable, The Corrections remains a book well worth reading.