Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Corrections

There exists a very specific theme in Jonathan Franzen's novels-- a character flaw that he nails with a specificity so many novels are lacking. The theme is that of 'good' vs 'evil' but with a minutia lens. I'm Not A Good Person, his talking heads silently scream from behind straight A's and strong work ethics and career successes and good parenting. I Am Going To Hurt You, And When I Do, Don't Say I Didn't Warn You.

Both Patty and Denise (Freedom, and The Corrections, respectively) act it out, cowering in the arms of married others, in the shadows hidden from husbands and fathers and their own conscious selves. Sure, you can blame adolescent disruptions but Franzen doesn't seem to be driving home any real messages of the harm of date rape and infidelity. He pushes more radically the idea that even the good girls carry a burden: The burden of feigning morality.

We are used to meeting villains and good faeries and soft monsters. We swell at the idea of 'growing a heart' or 'learning to love', and we expect it (read: Great Expectations, The Museum of Innocence, The Grinch, Beauty and the Beast). Franzen introduces a lesser idea of Evil being confused for Good.

This theme is first carried out by both Patty and Denise as a sort of defense, or reasoning, for doing wrong. 'Well, I slept with that married man because I'm not a good person', they quack darkly behind a sensible veneer. 'It's not wrong if its done by a Bad Person.' The catch is that we will never hate them, as is standard with most Immoral Villains of literature late. Alternately, Franzen shaped us with his tricky potter's wheel to respect both characters as our own sisters, mothers, or selves. Sure, Denise broke up a marriage, lost her job, and feels no remorse-- its her way of proving to herself and the world at large that she wasn't Good to begin with. We know better. It's with this observation of the Human Condition that Franzen so viciously attacks us. Instead of offering platitudes of the masses, he gives us people we know, can imagine, or are.

I loved this novel.

It ate me alive (oh, let our parents never grow old) but I savored the structure and detailing and meat of it all. Franzen knows how to carve a story and when to switch voices just when we've gained interest. (The structure here reminded me so much of those AWESOME Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys Super Mysteries. Remember those!? So good.) He's a master at playing hard to get, and we fall for it hook line and sinker.

From Chip, in his heartbreaking and unguided innocence to Gary and his angry neurosis and comical injustices, we follow a family of five during the most tumultuous year in each of their own lives. They are forced together by an overbearing mother as they scramble like flowers from Pepé Le Pew. The mood is dark but the interactions are shockingly kind, as they gather together for one last Christmas with an ailing father who will absolutely break your heart. I loved Chip's observations in that last chapter, when he arrived home from Lithuania. "I'm the least sad person at this table" he thinks, after literally surviving war.

As in Freedom, Franzen offers a view of the Midwest so very familiar to East Coast transplants (such as Franzen and, well, me.) He touches on the uncomfortable and unwarranted guilt that we feel for judging the land that raised us. We wish we could love Christmas the way we understood it from a cul-de-sac but somewhere between the Heartland and Midtown we were robbed of it and feel only a prickly angst for no longer understanding its worth. He isn't degrading it, he's mourning it like the rest of us. It isn't 'less', its just left behind.

I think that The Corrections is my favorite title of a book, ever. The word is echoed throughout the text so carefully that I found myself digging my heels in in hopes of understanding the point of it all early. You see, Franzen doesn't give it up too soon. He makes us work a bit before we realize, 'oh, that book was about Enid all along'. It was first Chip's story, with his final corrections on that sad little screenplay. Then maybe the Corektall tie in, or Denise's treatment of Robin, correcting every flaw. But it's Enid's story in the end, and I loved that. We find her there, on the final page in a hopeful new beginning. Thank you for that, Jonathan. Cheers to ending both of your novels with a completely unsuspecting and all together unwarranted grace.

There is so much more to say here, about this readable novel and its insanely flawed characters. But I've been trying to write it all down for three days and maybe we should just discuss it over dinner, wanna? Let's go to Denise's new restaurant on Smith Street and do just that.

NOW, onto Great House. Get excited.

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