A mighty author at bat

Five hundred and sixty eight pages is, by any count, a lot of pages. That’s less of a book than a marriage vow. When you lift something of that size, when you show you’re willing to put in the effort that a relationship like that demands, you’re looking for a little something in return. It’s only fair.

correctionsI’ve mentioned here before that I’m no critic. A lot of what I’m reading these days is lost on me, I’m sure. I don’t have the depth of knowledge or the exposure to great literature that is necessary to grasp what many of these authors are tossing. References are wasted. Vocabulary whizzes past my head. Humor — so many of the book jackets I scan promise dark humor, wryness, all-out hilariousness — sometimes completely escapes me. I wonder if it’s really there.

Somewhere in that mix should be a story, right? Seems to me that the basic ask by a reader is to be told a good story. How it’s told, of course, is up to the author. But, in the end, a story should at least be offered.

It took me a few weeks to get through Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” a 2001 back-breaking novel about an elderly Midwestern couple and their three adult kids. To say this family is a little screwed up is the kind of cliched understatement that Franzen wouldn’t come near. He does not do cliche. He does not understand understatement.

What we have in “The Corrections,” then, is a long and long-winded look at a struggling American family. The father has Parkinson’s disease. The mother is passively domineering and not dealing well with her husband’s disease. The three siblings wrestle with varying degrees of failure, professional and personal.

The story: Mom wants this mess of a brood back together in St. Jude for what may be one final Christmas as a family.

Will it happen? Should it happen? What in their strange little lives will stop them?

Those questions are what propels this tanker of a novel toward what might be expected, in other novels, to be a conclusion.  For Franzen, though, those questions are a mere gimmick to portray what he would have you believe is a typical — or at least typically dysfunctional — contemporary family. In this novel, as in many, the contrived destination definitely takes back seat to the journey.

In lengthy chapters and eye-crossingly long paragraphs, Franzen jumps back and forth between the characters, details their backstories and exposes their innermost thoughts. To his credit, Franzen does this well. One example of a thousand: I don’t know the thoughts and fears of those who suffer with Parkinson’s. But Franzen’s take on Alfred’s anger and hopelessness — as told by the book’s omniscient narrator — seems painfully real:

“But Denise left the kitchen and took the plate to Alfred, for whom the problem of existence was this: that, in the manner of a wheat seedling thrusting itself up out of the earth, the world moved forward in time by adding cell after cell to its leading edge, piling moment on moment, and that to grasp the world even in its freshest, youngest moment provided no guarantee that you’d be able to grasp it again a moment later. By the time he’d established that his daughter, Denise, was handing him a plate of snacks in his son Chip’s living room, the next moment in time was already budding itself into a pristinely ungrasped existence in which he couldn’t absolutely rule out the possibility, for example, that his wife, Enid, was handing him a plate of feces in the parlor of a brothel; and no sooner had he reconfirmed Denise and the snacks and Chip’s living room than the leading edge of time added yet another layer of new cells, so that he again faced a new and ungrasped world; which was why, rather than exhaust himself playing catch-up, he preferred more and more to spend his days down among the historical roots of things.

He closed his eyes and thanked her. As if waiting for a break in a downpour so that he could run from his car into a grocery store, he waited for a lull in his tremor so that he could reach out and safely eat what she’d brought him.

His affliction offended his sense of ownership. These shaking hands belonged to nobody but him, and yet they refused to obey him. They were like bad children. Unreasoning two-year-olds in a tantrum of selfish misery. The more sternly he gave orders, the less they listened and the more miserable and out of control they got. He’d always been vulnerable to a child’s recalcitrance and refusal to behave like an adult. Irresponsibility and undiscipline were the bane of his existence, and it was another instance of that Devil’s logic that his own untimely affliction should consist of his body’s refusal to obey him.”

That’s stunning work. Gripping.

But it doesn’t end there. It never ends in this book. Franzen meanders along, for pages, about a young Chip, sentenced to sit at the dinner table for failing to eat his supper, exploring the underside of the table with his fingers.

Later, Franzen does the same splurging — including a whole-page, one-paragraph soliloquy — on Alfred’s hallucinatory meet-up with a turd.

Yes, a turd.

(The turd, by the by, was doing the talking.)

While all this writing is going on, I’m thinking:

  1. Where’s all this going? Oh, yeah, I nearly forgot: Is everybody going to make it home for Christmas?
  2. Do I care? I don’t even like any of these people!

“The Corrections” was not an easy read. But I persevered, in large part, because of the writing. Franzen goes on and on, but he often goes on beautifully.

Yes, slinging all those words around, Franzen is bound to knock out a few clunkers. When Chip is feeling under the table, Franzen allows that the boy doesn’t want to see what lies beneath because it would ruin what he has imagined. “Elective ignorance was a great survival skill, perhaps the greatest,” he writes. Pretty insightful stuff about scraping for boogers.

Franzen explains Alfred’s newfound fondness for naps in terms that may prompt some readers to grab an antacid. “Alfred’s new lover soothed whatever beast was left in him. How much easier than raging or sulking he found it to simply close his eyes. Soon everybody understood that he had an invisible mistress whom he entertained in the family room on Saturday afternoon … ”

And on and on. And on.

“The Corrections” received mixed reviews from the reading proletariat (and at least one review I stumbled over that was unflichingly, and not altogether inaccurately, scathing). It’s not an easy read.

But, non-critically speaking, I found parts of it fascinating for its sheer magniloquence, its utter, unapologetic boastfulness. This is a look-at-me book that, understandably, would turn a lot of people off. It’s both grand and grandiose. It’s a moonshot of a fly ball that will make you gasp, even as it falls short of the wall.

Ultimately, to take this one (in the manner of Franzen) a bit too far, “The Corrections” may be a swing and a miss. But, damn. That’s a hell of a swing.

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