I know little buddies. This shit is no fun. But every once in a great while I have something to say - this post is just a refinement of the thoughts I served up last week.
I admit that I serve up my fair share of offensive, sensationalist garbage and we usually don't associate offensive, sensationalist garbage with intelligence -- particularly if it's coming from Limboland! (Right Lap Doggy?) So why do I think The Corrections belongs in the offensive, sensationalist garbage department? That's exactly what I harp on below , but let me add one more thing: the reason I try to give Franzen credit for creating a narrator that angers us with his relentless cynicism is because I agree with the point he is trying to make. We're surrounded with opportunities to make our own lives as empty and meaningless as the Lamberts. Similarly, artist's like Jonathan Franzen have the opportunity to show us the way out.
Sinclair Lewis, John Updike, Richard Ford, Richard Russo - all these guys are pretty proficient at painting bleak pictures of American culture or the lack thereof, but they always leave us with a little hope one way or the other. (For those of you that have read Hack, my POV is no surprise.)
So if The Corrections gets you down, don't despair! There's always Limboland!
I woke up the other day thinking about Gary Lambert, the downtrodden middle-aged corporate family man who could have almost been me ten years ago, but who instead is one of Jonathan Franzen’s unfortunate characters in The Corrections. I realized that, like Gary, I was nauseous and depressed. I also realized that my woeful condition was Gary’s fault. Gary and his entire pathetic family of Lamberts, and everyone that crosses their path in The Corrections, because besides being a masterful work of fiction The Corrections is one nauseating and depressing read.
I had been reading The Corrections slowly, taking long pauses to work on corporate drudgery which, by comparison, provided a sense of purpose that was relatively uplifting. So, looking for ways to get engaged, I started to focus on Franzen’s execution: the techniques and skills he so effectively employs to make his depressing narrative work.
The first thing that caught my eye that Franzen employs throughout The Corrections, is the use of what Joan Silber describes as “switchback time”:
“…a zigzag movement back and forth among time frames, the method of a fiction that alternates different ‘eras’ (like the deliberate swing of a mountain road that carries us this way and that when a straight line can’t do it.)” (Joan Silber, The Art of Time in Fiction, p. 45)
The Corrections is the story of five individual lives - Alfred and Enid Lambert and their children Chip, Gary and Denise – in the months leading up to Christmas around the turn of the most recent century. If there is a main plot it revolves around the possible gathering of this completely dysfunctional group at the family home in St. Jude, Kansas. Woven into the main thread are both sub-stories happening in real time and “switchbacks”. But even though a sub-story or a particular event may be happening in the past, Franzen’s narrator tells each story in the present tense, as if it is happening now. By keeping his eye on the action he avoids “telling” the past and keeps the narrative in constant motion back and forth though time. In the hands of a less-skilled writer this present tense rendering of main events leading off into a maze of past events and then brought back to the present moment could end up reading like a bowl of narrative spaghetti. With Franzen, we get the sense that even though the story may seem to consist of many strands it’s really all one big, consistent, if somewhat directionless noodle. So it is Franzen’s narrative skill, along with the consistent use of tone and language, and the balance of dialogue and exposition, that provides an accessible foundation for a broad audience of varying levels of sophistication. Add to that the peppy, inventive use of lively vocabulary, a comfortable variation of line length, precise attention to the important supportive detail, a natural infusion of profanity and we’ve got a contemporary blockbuster. Clearly that has been the general view of a vast majority of readers.
And yet I could barely make it through. I would read, shake my head, grit my teeth in anger. What is the point, I asked, besides making us marvel at the gorgeous, lyrical prose, laughing at these bumbling character’s who at times seemed to be reading from Hollywood film scripts? What is the point, besides claiming to be holding a mirror up to the ugly American People and our ugly American Culture?
The only answer that I’ve found to be workable is that those are exactly the questions that Franzen poses, and he poses the questions by creating this omniscient narrator who, far from being an objective third party hired to report on the action, is himself a troubled soul who can’t help but infuse everything - every gesture, every expression, every movement of air, everything the characters do, think or feel – with a nauseating cleverness: a simile, a metaphor, a turn of phrase, a sleight of hand, a spelling-bee vocabulary word or, worse, a character whipping an inscrutable scientific theory out of their ass. Franzen’s narrator is himself the ugly one, the pessimist who would have us believe his bleak rendering contemporary American culture.
We are warned early on that this story is intended to be a gross exaggeration of “real” life. In the beginning of the section entitled “The Failures” one of the principals (Chip) gives a seventeen line speech in the middle of a harried scene after his girlfriend, Julie, walks out on him right as his parents arrive for lunch. In this supposedly impromptu burst of insight, Chip concludes that he “is personally losing the battle with a commercialized, medicated, totalitarian modernity right this instant,” Immediately, red flags start popping up across the audience because everybody knows that, while entertaining, no real human being, nobody you’ve ever known or will know will ever speak that way in that situation. Normal people just don’t talk like that. When Franzen’s narrator turns the phoniness volume up to 10 in the first 1000 words it becomes pretty obvious that nothing from this point forward is to be taken seriously, because these characters aren’t not supposed to portray real people!
To the narrator though, these people – caricatures, really -- are his own grim reality. They’re his homeys. Some are perhaps not as stupid, malicious, diseased, depressed, drunk, cynical, and dishonest as others but they’re all just as generally snarky and unhappy as our narrator. This narrator has issues – he’s having a really bad time of it - and the Lambert family just happens to get caught in his sights as symbols of everything that is selfish, small-minded, trite and pathetic in our society. The blatant contempt the narrator has for the Lambert family and the characters that buzz around their disintegrating hive is almost comical. Indeed the only way to survive the breakneck narrative is to remind yourself that we were warned right up front that this was all in fun, for real people do not generally behave as these people do. Then you can laugh, for awhile at least. The humor stumbles when the narrator continues to belabor the hopelessness of the situation ad nauseum with his clever trifles.
When I look at the narrator’s supreme arrogance and contempt he has for his characters as Franzen’s way of illustrating the general lack of compassion in American society, I am able to build some meaning into this overall reading experience. Unfortunately this doesn’t make the book any less depressing. My guess is that any reader left standing after a few hundred pages of relentless below-the-belt blows to the psyche would qualify for an appearance in The Corrections II. But if we take Franzen at face value and eliminate the possibility that author and narrator are not one in the same, we’re left with a meaningless portrait of a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional society, completely devoid of love. If there is any sign of love, it is the awkward fawning that the demented and crippled Alfred attempts show for his intellectual but sex-crazed son Chip at the very end of the book. But even the tender moments are befouled with anxiety and distrust, thanks to our narrator who keeps us abreast of what the characters are really thinking, versus what we might surmise from their actions. Even when Alfred can no longer express his disdain for everybody and everything, our narrator spares no detail in describing the indignity that Alfred must be feeling. My exhaustion by now is on par with poor Alfred, and I am more than ready for the narrator to “put an end to it.”
Ultimately it is Enid’s revenge, in the final pages, that encapsulates the mean spirit shared by the members of the Lambert family. If it is Franzen’s intention for the reader to stand up at the end and shout “go Enid!” with a hearty fist pump, he craters that intention by turning Enid into a woman incapable of forgiveness and compassion and whose only interest is to show her evil husband how wrong he has been about everything. But if we’re to understand our narrator correctly, this is exactly what we should expect. Nobody get’s out of The Corrections truly corrected. According to the narrator, American culture and the mean shortsighted selfish robots that define it are way too far gone for any real correction. Besides, corrections are by definition temporary, as are, fortunately for Jonathan Franzen, narrators. Because if this is the way Jonathan Franzen honestly feels about his fellow humans, he must be the loneliest person on earth.