Monday, October 9, 2006

the corrections, by jonathan franzen

So I've finally gotten around to reading Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, a novel which is now five years old. I ended up avoiding the book at the time of its publication, as a result of the now-infamous "Oprah controversy," which made it difficult for me (depite basing my understanding of the controversy completely on second-hand retellings) to think of the book as anything other than a node in a complicated argument about literary elitism, corporate populism, and garden-variety sexism. Eventually I grew less interested in this argument and more interested in the more basic question of whether the book is any good.

Short answer: it is. The world of The Corrections is more keenly and deeply envisioned than any that of any other novel I have read in recent memory. Franzen's great triumph here is to have produced a set of believable characters and built their personalities, histories, and current contexts in extremely fine-grained detail. Furthermore, Franzen routes this information to the reader through channels that feel consistently fresh, proving that there are still artful ways to present exposition in an essentially traditional narrative.

And make no mistake: this novel is, at its core, a traditional dysfunctional-family drama, a book with aspirations that are essentially modest, despite the tendency among some critics to talk about The Corrections as a "big" social-novel-type book.

In fairness, Franzen himself speaks perfectly clearly about the book's true scope: in this Bookpage profile, Franzen says that an earlier draft of the novel "was much more about the stock market, insider trading and prisons. I finally found that the big social picture stuff wasn't working so well, whereas the little crises these characters were involved in interested me a lot." I think Franzen's right to trust his instincts here: in my own reading of the finished novel, I found that the stuff that works best was the attention to the nuances of interpersonal crisis, whereas what works least well, at least for my money, was the stuff that seemed most obviously intended as Important, Relevant Commentary. (I'm thinking specifically of the psychophamaceutical drug Aslan, which enters the book almost exactly at the halfway point and functions, in my opinion, as a glaringly "devicey" plot device in a book that otherwise sticks to more realistic terrain.)

Franzen makes related points in this interview: "[T]he problem with the social novel is that we don't need it anymore. Before TV, people would actually read a book to learn about a subject, and TV does it so much better. The serial dramas like ER and the news do it so well. So, if you have something important to say why would you write a novel? If you are trying to advocate two sides [books] aren't a good way of doing it. But, TV is really good at it."

These claims, which show Franzen moving from personal feelings about his own novel to broader claims about the Novel in general, work a little less happily, in fact, there's almost no sentence here that doesn't make my mind ache. Is the point of the social novel really to "advocate two sides?" Is TV news really that good at helping people "learn about a subject?" Are the people who have "something important to say" really all working as ER scriptwriters? (It's fuzzy thinking like this that helps to justify something like Ben Marcus' hatchet job on Franzen-the-critic that ran last fall in Harper's.) For all its flaws, though, I feel the quote does adequately sketch out the scope of Frazen's ambition.

Which still leaves me feeling puzzled by pieces like this one at N+1 (actually a profile on David Foster Wallace's recent work). In it, critic Chad Harbach makes the claim that The Corrections serves as a worthy follow-up to Wallace's Infinite Jest, a claim which strikes me as frankly bizarre: although the two novels share a degree of thematic overlap, they have radically different ambitions (not to mention broad differences in their respective formal concerns).

So: is The Corrections worth reading? Yes: but you'll need to dig through some misleading hype to discover the excellent (but modest) novel which lies beneath.

No comments: