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Sunday, September 14, 2003  

Reading: Franzen's The Corrections is a worthy late read

I am a late reader of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections for three reasons. I've been busy reading other books. I was not amused by his snub of Oprah. I try not to read domestic realism when I am deep into writing some of my own, which I was at the height of the hubbub over The Corrections.

In case you missed the Franzen versus Winrey imbroglio, I'll fill you in. When Franzen's book was chosen as a monthly selection for Oprah's Book Club, he responded by expressing surprise that she was interested in literary fiction. Apparently, Franzen imagined the queen of talk a connoisseur of romance novels and talking cat fantasies. As anyone remotely familiar with Winfrey knows, she has long been a fan of some of our smartest contemporary novelists, and, her book club choices often reflect that interest.

But now, urged by another blogger who had just finished it, I have read The Corrections and succumbed.

Much of the key to the success of the book is its cast of main characters, the Lamberts.

Father: Not Daddy or Pops. Father. Alfred is a patriarch, earning the money that makes sure the family always has a roof over its heads, is fed and clothed. Beyond that, he expects little from life. He is equally determined about one other aspect of his life -- brooking no dissent from his dependents. Alfred is a man who lacks both imagination and one thinks, for most of the book, generosity.

Mother: Enid guaranteed herself a life of frustration when she set her cap for the handsome hulk who visited her mid-Western hometown as a temporary railroad worker and stayed. About 50 years of marriage will leave her with three children achieved without passion or even, seemingly, affection. Her idealized notion of what family life should be, largely garnered from Hallmark commercials one suspects, will be overturned again and again. She will painstaking rebuild the illusion until it collapses under its own weight each time.

Child One: Gary is the image of the senior child psychologists have drawn -- domineering, manipulative and successful in achieving his goals. Behind it all, he is the most frightened of the children as an adult. I have often been amused by the weakness of many men who wear the facade of success. If subjected to any real challenge, they evaporate like drops of water on a hot grill. Franzen's is one of the best modern descriptions of the Successful White Male as secret wimp I've ever read.

Child Two: Chip wants to put as much space as possible, both literally and in regard to his interests, between himself and the first three members of the family. After his mediocre career in academia collapses as the result of naivete and stupidity, he latches onto an offer to become the American member of a scheme to use the Internet to defraud American investors in an East European country. It has been in turmoil since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a turmoil that is a macrocosmic image of Chip's mental state. The quixotic adventure becomes the first step that will land this Peter Pan on a path that, surprisingly, recasts him as a responsible person by the time he turns 40.

Child Three: Along with her parents and elder brother, Denise prides herself on being a bedrock, mid-Western American, not involved in any of the excesses associated with either Coast. Ironically, her life style completely contradicts those beliefs.

The mechanism Franzen uses to make these characters strong enough to support a 500-plus page novel is humor. He is a master when it comes to seeing the often funny contrast between perception and reality. For example, the best part of Enid's marriage occurs after her husband is too senile to resist her. She is able to hold all the conversations he would have walked out on with him while his mind is lost in fog. That, really, is the main thing she wanted all those years. Meanwhile, Alfred has as interesting interactions with talking turds and imagined cellmates as he ever did with his family or co-workers.

The title, The Corrections, refers to changes in economic cycles. It could be said of those cycles that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The Lambert family reminds us that with people, that is more often true than not, as well.

Note: There is a thorough discussion of the Oprah's Book Club controversy at the online book review site The Complete Review.

12:09 PM