I just finished The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen in order to put my money where my mouth was because I was recently defending what some feel are his elitist, misguided, snobby, dismissive views of readership and technology.
I did not know if I'd like his material at all.
Having now finished the book -- already dwarfed by his more recent Freedom, I am left breathless. Dizzy. Awestruck. Sickened. Weak in the knees. Torn apart. Forever changed as a writer. It was like taking a cure at a mineral springs with noxious, invigorating odours. I'll revisit, yes, but not soon.
Before I attempt any description or explanation, I've selected a few diverse reviews of the work:
"When critics refer to 'The Great American novel' this is it, people." -- Oprah Winfrey
"All who care about the direction of this world must read this book, so monumental, melancholy and precise." The National Post
"A genuine masterpiece, the first great American novel of the twenty-first century...A wisecracking, eloquent, heartbreaking beauty." Elle
"If some authors are masters of suspense, others post-modern verbal acrobats, and still others complex-characater pointillists, few excel in all three arenas. In his long-awaited third novel, Franzen does...This is, simply, a masterpiece." Publishers Weekly
"Books like this are what civilization is for." Slate
From the opening lines you know you are about to be swept into a vortex of reality immersed in hallucination and nightmares, sardonic wit, searing imagery that never misses a beat, never stumbles, not even once, and never resorts to any comparisons or similes or analogies that have been employed before...and you know that you will be chained to a roller coaster ride of deadly, palpable hysteria, verbal howls, in much the same way one is trapped into looking at a train wreck, at the various scalding debris, smelling substances one hates to associate together in the same visceral frame, the soldering, sulfurous, acrid burn of flesh and rubber and steel -- and yet, one cannot, simply cannot escape, or turn away.
Franzen tells a story about a husband and wife in late middle age who are coming apart, whose children never really melded into whole beings, whose simmering hate, resentments, confusion, precipitate outcomes that are both terrifying, quasi-predictable, and yet, completely surprising.
Deftly, Franzen lays out a single frame -- mother, Enid, wants her family around her in St. Jude (in the Midwest) one last time for Christmas, before Dad gets even more decrepit, demented, and before the house is sold.
From this deceptive thin spool, we learn about each of the three children, one at a time, and move adroitly in concentric circles through past to present and back again, inching with dizzying tension toward a conclusion whose cataclysmic event remains as unsteady and tenuous as father Alfred, as unfulfilled and resentful as mother, Enid, and as confused, proud, stubborn as the children.
All are graced with touches of humanity; all are shameful, ashamed, angry, bewildered, resentful, humbled by events that poke and prod and stab at their consciences, their crumbling values, their misguided senses of self and self-righteousness.
The family's secrets, dizzying dynamics are laid against a backdrop of American culture today. Franzen recalls another America, when the railway was king as much as Bethlehem steel, when workers owed employers eternal loyalty and were then consumed by them, when the Joneses never had funny last names, and everyone kept up with everyone else in the hunt for the American dream.
Franzen indicts this dream. It's is a failed experiment, predicated ever more on the 24-hour whizz of white noise consumerism, lack of soulful touchstones and sordid new age values that preclude humanity for humanity's sake. Perhaps, en masse, humanity never really existed in the way Americans supposed it would -- perhaps, it is family, itself, that must find a way to forgive, accept, and rejoice in the simple graceful acts of love and acceptance.
The agony with which Franzen displays the innermost humanity in all of us is perhaps what sears us with the sense of having journeyed reluctantly (because of the anticipated pain) into what we sensed was unspeakable and hoped to avoid -- that presumably ugly-because-it's-too-close-for-comfort-all-unknowable honesty of self -- only to realize we have safely emerged at the other end of the voyage, scathed, bruised, bloodied -- but determined to make peace with personal failings, find hope and redemption in the things and people we once so easily rejected.
The art of language, the use of extraordinarily simple, stunning imagery mark Franzen's style. He reminded me what great literature is all about. It is a lost art whose mysteries are worth taking up once again -- for me, as a reader and a writer.