dinner with yuppies

two words: indignant spectator

I picked The Corrections because it’s one of the few on The List written in this century. A contemporary book about a contemporary family. Ace. Other than that, I knew nothing of Franzen or his novels. How? I live under a rock apparently.

I gave up on the library in February after the various queues in Yarra, Darebin and the city weren’t budging and went trawling for The Corrections in second-hand shops. One of my book ladies, the cool one, gushed when I mentioned Franzen as she apologized profusely for the absence of his novels on her shelves, the scarce few copies relinquished by previous owners positively evaporate within seconds of landing in her shop, she is so disappointed I hadn’t heard about the Oprah scandal and that we couldn’t touch brows about it, he’s an advocate for ‘serious American literature’, he’s been on the cover of Time, he also writes for them, he is so generous with his writing process, you have to read Freedom

So, the pressure was on to like Franzen and his novel, which can mean only one thing: I probably won’t like Franzen or his novel.

True to form, after catching up on the goss, purchasing the iBook for $15 and spending the last four nights reading it, I’m struggling to remember anything that makes me gasp for more Franzen (and to not think of him as a snob). But just in case I’m being petty and reactive let’s do some ‘corrections’.

franzen's time cover, august 2010

There were elements I enjoyed in The Corrections. The conversations were brilliant. The equal emphasis Franzen places on the ‘said’ and ‘unsaid’ made me feel like a telepathic eavesdropper. His portrayal of the cringe-worthy incongruousness of our inner and outer selves, of the desire to rewind that last word/slap/night, of regret is believable.

Franzen also nails the nuclear family dynamic. I can relate to the disgruntling flashes of familial retention, the secrecy and fragile suspension of disbelief, the alliances in extended warfare between spouses and siblings, the urgency to flee, the enduring love: These are all sensitively and beautifully recreated.

The problem is his characters; they leave me cold. Of the five central characters – Enid and Alfred Lambert, elderly mid-westerners, and their three adult children, Gary, Chip and Denise, all on a mad dash east of their parents’ traditional influence – there isn’t one that I could connect with. In fact, the only character I identified with is the unnamed English author who says,

I suppose that a country that teaches creationism in its schools may be forgiven for believing that baseball does not derive from cricket. p.272

There were mild pangs of sympathy for Chip and Alfred, but I couldn’t suppress my resentment of the excess, the snobbery, the insularity, the permissiveness, the recklessness, the passive-aggressiveness and Franzen’s half-assed critique of these traits. I’m stupefied by the greed and the waste that goes unchallenged throughout this novel. I felt like a gate-crasher, like a hippie ‘plus-one’ at a yuppie Lambert do, like an incredulous spectator at an extravagant self-pity party. The affected discontent embodied in Chip’s cigarette burn as he trades battle scars with a torture survivor points at the pervasive sense of entitlement that shits me with this novel,

“Self inflicted. You pathetic American.”
“Different kind of prison,” Chip said. p.89.

You’ve got good metre, Chip, but get the fuck over yourself.

If Franzen meant The Corrections as ‘farce’ he bombed at critical mass. The progression is too slight (if not regressive) and by extension, tragic, most of all with Gary. There simply isn’t enough satire in this ‘satire’ and too many things still wrong with the picture. I anticipated a big finish, other ‘corrections’, catharsis. I didn’t get it.

I think of Franzen as the new Jane Austen, intimately recreating his familiar world, the world he perceives as ‘common’ – a world I can’t relate to unless you’re calling it out.

Maybe my expectations were falsified – by Franzen and my book lady. Maybe Franzen strove for authenticity over circularity/form. Maybe there’s a sequel in the works. Maybe, like Alfred’s death, The Corrections ended in an intentional fizzle. Whatever it is, it’s not a novel I’m keen to read again (I would read the sequel, though) and apart from his exceptional insight into dementia, I don’t feel particularly enriched having read it.

soundtrack
don’t believe the hype-public enemy
american idiot-green day
the wrong child-r.e.m.

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