Monday, November 16, 2009

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen has written an unpleasant novel, filled with unpleasant characters to whom nothing bad ever happens. At the book's end there's a death that was given at the outset—a death that has, in effect, already happened. The story’s other ostensibly tragic events are minor and pitiful.

The primary impression one gets from the book is that Franzen takes pleasure in eviscerating his characters. From the outset the stack is arranged against them.

But such arrangements constitute the fundamental difference between literature and propaganda. Most of Franzen's readers—well-educated, well-meaning liberals—will agree with the book's propaganda and so mistake its declamations for artistry.

Of course Franzen is intelligent—painfully, mercilessly intelligent. His prose is swift, democratic, entertaining.

But novelistic insight is not his strength. In its place we get Stating the Obvious.

So The Corrections is a new addition to the Literature of Recognition. An old, venerable tradition: We're invited to read a book in which we'll recognize what we already know about ourselves. Consequently, The Corrections is as modest as its title, despite its many pages and the hopeful fanfare that accompanied its notorious anti-Oprah arrival. It congratulates us on collaborating in its excoriation of human stupidity; our collaboration, if the reader possesses any intelligence whatsoever—and, in a manner typical of our era, wants to be congratulated on his or her intelligence—is reassuring and gratifying. Like other, similar collaborations, it passes from the mind as quickly as a compliment from a stranger whose attention we didn't desire.

The only lasting source of interest in the book is watching its author suddenly quit the game as his characters begin to take control of it. So the book ends abruptly and happily. In place of the venomous tone that characterized all but its final few pages, we suddenly get sympathy and admiration.

Curiously, though, Franzen's abrupt surrender is the most moving aspect of the book. And it is moving. As if all along the novel had been advancing towards its author’s unexpected and deeply painful confession of weakness vis-à-vis his hapless, stupid characters. Satire abruptly turns into love.

Aside from its viciousness, the book suffers from a problem common in modern fiction: there's no one in the book who is nearly as intelligent as its author.

How different they are, in their vapidity, from the protagonists in Tolstoy or Dickens! (Chip is no Pip!) Tolstoy, especially, filled his books with fiercely intelligent characters. Franzen can't. It would ruin his fun.

But Franzen is of his Age, mistaking cynicism for satire. Where Petronius is reckless, patient, generous—delighted!—and grand-spirited and perverse, where he's timeless as opposed to timely, where he's filled with affection for his characters, Franzen is a prosecutor. That’s what we get here: evidence, conviction, punishment. His targets are easy and all too familiar: name brands, fashion drugs, workaholics, a word like “workaholics,” suburban naïveté, political correctness, IPOs.

Yes, Franzen’s characters merit his mockery. It's another question whether or not they merit our time.

Always behind The Corrections, a deeply conservative temperament. Now and then the text plays, but always according to the clever conventions of DeLillo postmodernism. So the book's rare riskiness sticks out awkwardly from the dreary trunk of an otherwise skillful, intelligent, traditional novel.

Franzen wants to be right about us; and he is. Good for him. Dreary for us.

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