National Book Award winners, number 31: 2001’s The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen.

15 Aug

1.

In 2001, Jonathan Franzen won the National Book Award for his egregiously overrated family melodrama, The Corrections.

Of all the books that have won the top award, The Corrections made me the most nervous. I didn’t like it. I don’t like Franzen. He’s both overwrought and underwhelming. He writes small stories in a grand, cloying style. He belongs to a group of hyperrealist writers that I’m not crazy about—John Updike is the greatest of them, and Philip Roth, I suppose, could also be lumped in with this group, although he’s often so funny that I can’t imagine he’d enjoy their company—that is the worst of middle brow thinking and high brow pretentiousness. A lot of people love Franzen. I have friends that cite The Corrections as their favorite novel. But I just don’t get it. The book’s prose and conceit struck me as slippery, yet over-the-top. So, full disclosure: I tried to re-read it, but I couldn’t.

So I must air my biases against Franzen up front: He has no guts. He has no panache. He’s too calm, too rationale. He loves minutia. He loves small moments (that often feel contrived and phony). He’s “serious.” He lacks the wildness I seek in contemporary novels, yet has too much cultural detritus to deliver a classic drama. In a word, he’s middle-brow.

Let me put it another way: Jonathan Franzen is not great. He’s not a terrible writer, he’s just undeserving of the near-endless plaudits and accolades.

Realism can cut many ways, but works best with a comic glow and a terse lack of sentimentality. (Check out The End of Vandalism for a fantastic example.) Franzen does the opposite. He writes in a large, tragic manner, creating a giant, sprawling character study where very little happens. (Mark Haddon covers similar territory in his A Spot of Bother, but it’s a much better read.) A pop novel, in all the good and bad that term conveys. Light-weight despite its heft and grammatical density, as well as clumsy, inelegant and stuffed with trivialities.

The story follows a family with three adult children: Chip, a failed screenwriter; Denise, a chef; and Gary, a white collar suburbanite. The mother’s name is Enid, and she wants all her children at home for a holiday. Perhaps the last family holiday. The father’s name is Alfred, and he is sliding into dementia. The novel tracks the family dissolving, and eventually reuniting, around the father’s decline. Along the way, his pettiness, his autocratic cruelty, and his weird unreason from their childhood resurfaces. He comes across as something out of Pat Conroy territory, mean and small-minded and smart. They each carry with them decades of hurt feelings, resentments, anger, and neglect.

Alfred’s failing faculties provide most of the emotional ballast of the novel, and there are some excruciating scenes. He doesn’t want to admit he’s dissipating—he doesn’t want to concede—and his family, a bit abused over the years, don’t want to admit it, either. The mutual myopia leads to a series of small disasters, culminating in a horrifying cruise trip. Here Franzen describes the father’s diminishing state:

 

“His exhaustion deepened when he went upstairs. The kitchen and dining room were ablaze in light, and there appeared to be a small boy slumped over the dining-room table, his face on his place mat. The scene was so wrong, so sick with Revenge, that for a moment Alfred honestly thought the boy at the table was a ghost from his own childhood

“He groped for switches as if the light were a poison gas he had to stop the flow of.”

The first paragraph radiates with a creeping menace. But it’s that second paragraph, right there, that reveals all of Franzen’s deficiencies as a writer. Read it a few times.

Each family member has a plot, involving dreams and schemes and money and failure. And if it all sounds grand and cathartic and moving, well, it isn’t. Much of the novel is marbled with pop culture of the time period, and Franzen substitutes an ironic investigation into the pop trends for real gravitas. He is vague when he should be specific (there are far too many scenes where characters talk about small things and the point of the scene is unclear), and specific when he should be vague (he spends way too much time describing interiors, and he over-explains the interior thoughts of his characters, leaving little ambiguity).

Really just pretty bad.

Really just pretty bad.

Chip, the failed screenwriter, in particular, involves solipsistic, repetitive, and quite boring writing. Here’s an excerpt where Chip is working on a screenplay, working and failing:

 

“In order to salvage his artistic and intellectual ambitions, he added a long theoretical opening monologue. But this monologue was so unreadable that every time he turned on his computer he had to go and tinker with it. Soon he was spending the bulk of each work session compulsively honing the monologue. And when he despaired of shortening it any further without sacrificing important thematic material, he started fussing with the margins and hyphenation to make the monologue end at the bottom of page 6 rather than the bottom of page 7. He replaced the word ‘continue’ with ‘go on’ to save three spaces, thus allowing the word ‘(trans)act(ion)s’ to be hyphenated after the second t, which triggered a whole cascade of longer lines and more efficient hyphenations.”

Do I need to comment? Is this a scene from a great or even good American novel? What the fuck am I reading?

So Franzen also overwrites, and he isn’t alone. There’s a tendency towards over-furnished fiction—as Virginia Wolff coined it—wherein writers over-describe locales in lieu of story. Or fall into frenzied interior states where very little is actually happening. Characters watch TV, or sit in airports, and the epiphanies and the images doth flow in an cascade that is dizzying and overpowering, but it’s only smoke, not fire.

He does have a handle on the zeitgeist. He captures restaurant culture, the nascent foodie thing that began to percolate in the mid-90s and blew up by the new century. He also creates the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) example of the manic pixie girl stereotype, the larger than life bi-sexual, slightly unhinged adventuress that plagued American film and fiction for fifteen or so years[1].

 

2.

What constitutes middle-brow fiction is a hefty debate. If a book doesn’t threaten the reader’s beliefs or sensibilities in some way—high-brow literature uses characters and ideas (and sometimes the form itself), low-brow violence and/or pornography—then it’s middle brow. If it appears to be sophisticated but in the final tally is quite simple, then it’s middle-brow.

I think middle-brow art has an important place. Much of the old Hollywood that I love—Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, It’s a Wonderful Life, and so on—falls into this category. Middle-brow art often celebrates values of family, civilization and basic decency. And although middle-brow art often slips into cliché, these are not bad things to celebrate. And, just as important, this middle-brow culture gives artists something to push against. Many of the great artistic movements—the Romantics, Dadaism, the Beats, the French and British New Waves—resulted from pushback against a dominant middle-brow culture.

And nowadays we probably have too much low-brow art. Superhero comics—which I absolutely love—have invaded not only film but fiction, too. Our best writers dabble in science fiction and noir. Low-brow art can be punishing, needlessly cruel, stupidly callow and relentlessly boorish. Low-brow art often isn’t fun, despite appearances to the contrary. Low-brow art often embodies the worst sexism, racism, and so on that a culture has buried within it. And, perhaps most important of all, low-brow can’t be pushed against; it has no boundaries, just titillation. In many ways the low-brow genres work best in the hands of their own practitioners[2].

And—in what is of course a ridiculously simplified system—high-brow has its drawbacks too. High-brow can be cold, calculating affectations, and often just false. The actions of characters in many high-brow novels are just wrong, contrived, utterly stupid, implausible. High-brow novels can be wordy, silly, self-serious. They can also feel joyless, overly cerebral, lifeless, intentionally esoteric and alienating. And I’m an unrepentant snob!

So middle-brow art and culture has its place, and it’s an important one, and I think that in some ways we’ve lost the elegant middle-brow novel. I don’t read them—I suppose Jess Walters writes them, that’s one I can think of, I don’t know, Elizabeth Stroud?—and I don’t know many people who do.

But I despise when a middle-brow artist tries to pawn off his/her fiction as high art. I always feel cheated. And I hate middle-brow novels that feel convoluted and stretched, as if a few hundred pages isn’t enough space to come to age-old conclusions.

Franzen was and is praised for being revolutionary when he isn’t. He’s an old school, 19th century novelist in a post-modernist pose.

 

3.

Franzen makes me cranky. He isn’t a bad writer. I just find him an invidious presence in American letters. There are great novels dealing with family drama and trauma, and there are fantastic, character-driven works of literature, and there are wonderful, challenging avant garde works of fiction coming out every year. So how the fuck did Franzen win so much notoriety? Hell, even his champions say things like, “Franzen takes stereotypical characters and situations and then breathes life into them,” a left-handed compliment if I ever heard one.

Yet in some ways, The Corrections stands as a weird testament to the time right before 9/11 derailed so much of our thinking. The novel has little to say in the way of politics. The characters are distinctly self-involved Americans, stand-ins for the Clinton-era boomers who drifted through a malaise of their own self-content. Franzen’s characters are faced with the ennui of too much material success, not enough spiritual meaning. They drift, and the patriarch’s encroaching senility is a good metaphor for the national feeling near the end of Clinton’s presidency: a dumbfounded, bamboozled phased out weirdness. This is the greatest civilization in the history of the world? MTV and Mission Impossible II and Meet the Parents?

The nightmare world—that the U.S. has played an enormous hand in—hadn’t yet blasted its way back into the public consciousness. Yet people knew in a deep-rooted way that the peace and prosperity were unearned.

So we limped along, a country bickering over absurd little symbols and petulant nonsense while the suffering and misery and violence of the larger world was streaking right towards us. We grew complacent[3]. Things seemed too easy.

And Franzen understood this! Buried somewhere inside this too-long novel is the shadowy presence of doom, not just for these characters but for the civilization that created them. He did see things. He did scratch at something big. His novel, for all its myriad flaws, is a time capsule of American culture right before things once again spun off the rails.

Anyway, Franzen beat some good books. Mark Danielewski published his dynamite, and supremely unnerving horror/typographical post-modern art book, House of Leaves. Philip Roth released his loved and hated The Human Stain. Michael Chabon put out his epic study of the first comic book creators, The Adventures of Cavalier and Klay. Barbara Kingsolver published Prodigal Summer. Dan Chaon—a great young writer—released Among the Missing. Jennifer Egan, Susan Straight, Myla Goldberg, and T.C. Boyle all put out new novels.

Franzen’s was not the best, it was not the most interesting, it was and remains a less than advertised family drama gilded with too much topical information. How he became a household name is beyond me.

 

[1] Kate Winslett delivers the best example of this in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

[2] Read Richard Stark’s Parker novels if you want to see what I mean.

[3] And no, I don’t believe this was a two-party problem, but I’m trying to avoid too much overt political commentary in these little reviews. And for god’s sake I’m not saying we were militarily complacent.

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