Monday, December 14, 2009

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

From reading contemporary American literature, there is a sense, over the past few years, that America is falling out of love with itself. Novels in response to 9/11, like DeLillo’s Falling Man and Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have focused on shortcomings in American society; globalisation and the McDonaldifying of the world – in Benjamin Barber’s term, McWorld – is no longer a source of pride, but of angst; and such is the extent of the uncertainty that post-apocalyptic nightmare is becoming the order of the day. The world is in trouble, and America is at the root of it. Much of this, one imagines, is a reaction to the nadir of the George W. Bush presidency but, that notwithstanding, none of it is particularly new: DeLillo, for example, has been exploring the same territory consistently throughout his career, with Mao II, from 1992, being a particularly clear example, but the scale and rate of disaffection appears to be accelerating. An early work which shows initial symptoms of the malaise is Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, The Corrections, a biting satire of the consumer culture that has overtaken America. It is a big, sprawling book, a family saga which relentlessly exposes and picks away at the sores that American society generally keeps concealed behind a façade of togetherness and domestic harmony. It is extremely funny, but its humour is barbed, mordant, unsettling. It is a work of some power.

The idea of corrections is the metaphorical thread which runs through the novel, and encompasses corrections of individual characters’ behaviours, the activity of big business, new technology, globalisation, health and social care developments, the financial markets and so on. In each case, there is a ‘correction’ which has wider implications than the protagonists realise, and the way Franzen manages to blend the personal devastation of family tragedy and wider, social, political and financial concerns, is impressive. What is common throughout is the sense of confusion, the perception that events are spiralling out of control, that nothing is as good as it should be, which appears to be so occupying American literature at present. There is, throughout, an ambiguity, a dogged determination on the part of the author to ensure there are no easy binary oppositions and therefore no obvious sides that the reader can choose: the bad things are never wholly bad, the good characters never wholly good. Nothing is easy, nothing is certain. In this, it seems, the novel is a clear reflection of its author. Colin Hutchinson develops this theme when he notes: ‘From one perspective, Franzen embodies the white, male, middle-class mainstream… From another perspective, [he] is the marginalized agent of besieged intellectual dissidence.’ Suggesting such reversals and complications are typical of Franzen’s work, Hutchinson argues that he is torn between the discourses of ‘the libertarian legacy of the 1960s counterculture and the communitarian renaissance response to Reaganism in the 1980s and ’90s; between experimental and realist literary practices; between a radical and a pragmatic political outlook; and between a rejection of, and a persistent adherence to, traditional distinctions between “high” and “low” culture.’

The novel tells the story of the Lambert family – father Alfred who is falling into the terrifying void of Parkinson’s disease, his put-upon but grasping wife Enid and their three grown-up children, who are living their lives in a ‘spirit of correction’, aiming to break free from the rigidity of their upbringing. Indeed, on the surface, each of the three is radically different from their straight-laced parents. Denise marries young, to a much older man, divorces him and has a number of affairs, including two lesbian liaisons; Chip is a fading academic who is sacked for conducting an improper sexual relationship with a student and eventually becomes embroiled in an extensive internet fraud operation in Lithuania; and Gary, although ostensibly a more conservative individual than his siblings, working as a banker and living in the suburbs with his wife and three children, is equally flawed, an incipient alcoholic who refuses to conform to the conventions of his profession by working long hours or actively seeking preferment. At the same time, however, each of the three also displays unmistakeable similarities to their parents: Denise’s protestant work ethic is a clear echo of her father’s, as is Gary’s almost irrational stubbornness, and his meanness is hilariously counterpointed with that of his mother while, at the end of the novel, Chip is the one who remains to look after his father and adopts the role of responsible adult.

What is most impressive, but also most unsettling, about The Corrections is that despite Franzen’s (at times simplistic) renunciation of the capitalism and market forces which serve to alienate individuals and dehumanise society, this is not a plea for humanism which is blind to the faults of humanity. However alienating modern society may be, much of the problems of the Lambert family are caused by their own foibles. Hutchinson suggests The Corrections is ‘a novel imbued with the feeling, particularly evident throughout Western society since the 1980s, that a precious sense of collectivity has been eroded, if not lost completely.’ He goes on to suggest it is a ‘critique of libertarian individualism in the context of a consumerist economy.’ This is the sense in which the novel must be read – with the focus on the individual and not wider society – and if one does it is a fine piece of work. Others, however, take a different view. Suzanne Rohr, for example, calls it a ‘novel of globalisation’, but that is not, for me, its true focus. Certainly, as a self-proclaimed social novelist, Franzen aims to explore issues affecting contemporary society, but nonetheless the focus remains on the individual members of the Lambert family, and their concerns are as much personal as they are social. This is a novel about human beings, not about globalisation; its intent is deeper than simply a corrective for society. James Annesley, in describing the novel as being restricted in terms of its “social” ambitions, suggests, it ‘offers a critical image of contemporary social and economic conditions. Malign, inhuman, and corrupting globalization is seen as a destructive force.’ Yes, perhaps, and Annesley’s is a relevant interpretation of the novel, but his focus is too much on the its ‘critique of corporations’ and not enough on its analysis of human frailty.

James Wood considers this focus on the family to be a fault of the novel. The travails of the Lamberts, he suggests, are not substantial enough to be equated with the corrections in the global financial, social and health markets. Thus, for him, the central conceit of ‘corrections’ is no more than a play on words. James Annesley concurs, suggesting ‘some of the difficulties identified by Wood could have been resolved had Franzen been able to produce a more convincing blend of the private and the public.’ I believe both Wood and Annesley underestimate the power of Franzen’s domestic narrative. The ending, remember, reverts almost entirely to the family: that, then, is the real focus of this novel, its central driving force, its raison d’etre. Annesley’s contention is that the lives of the Lamberts are ‘‘informed by a sense of determinism’, in which ‘[p]rivate lives are tied to social change, with the stock market providing a dominant and defining corection. The result is a homological novel that sees capital, technology, politics, and industry as parts of a base upon which the superstructures of individual lives are built.’ But that is only partly true, and there are many episodes which do not conform to this interpretation. Enid’s decision, for example, to destroy the Aslan ‘personality optimiser’ drugs suggests a strength of individual will, rather than a dominant correction by the health superstructure. Chip’s conversion at the end is not in any way correlative to determinism, and the touchingly complex nature of Denise’s relationship with her father, when she discovers the true extent of his sacrifice for her sake, feels convincingly real, highly emotional and truly personal. She changes, she is changed by experience, by knowledge, by the hard, stark truth. This is not a deterministic change, but one of those reassessments – corrections – that life occasionally forces on us all. Annesley’s reading of the novel is premised on it being a social realist ‘novel of globalization’ and, having established that, he goes on to suggest that in this pursuit it is a failure, but he is underestimating the importance of the Lambert family to Franzen’s themes, and he is underplaying the powerful family dynamics which are evidenced in the narrative. Annesley does concede, however, that in the ending of the novel Franzen does transcend some of the perceived weaknesses:

When Franzen’s conclusion eschews determinism and inclines towards a more subtle reading of private lives and social experience, he gestures towards a more complex and dialectical sense of the relationships between the literary text and material conditions, The conclusion is that if Franzen can pursue the implications raised in his ending, he may yet muster the “cultural authority” needed to write a “social novel” that offers an effective engagement with globalization.

I believe that, in insisting on describing The Corrections in terms of an engagement with globalization, Annesley is not accurately reflecting what the novel’s intentions are and, thus, his contention is flawed: since this was not Franzen’s aim it is unfair to criticise him for not achieving it.

The Corrections is a good novel but it is not a great one. Many of the narrative strands verge on cliché and some of the characterisation is stereotyped. It is also far too long, with the feeling, at times, that the reader is being beaten over the head with the message. In the section featuring Gary and his family, for example, although the writing is uniformly good, every possible nuance of the characters and their position has already been relayed to the reader long before its conclusion: Franzen, one feels, does not realise when his work is done and a scene has been mined of its full potential. The first section featuring Denise, too, suffers because it comes immediately after the crisis with her father when he falls (to his death, we erroneously suppose) from the upper deck of a ship. The reader is reluctant, at this stage, to be drawn yet again into the past for another series of corrections just at the moment when the narrative has taken a dramatic leap forward in the present. It feels a curiously clunky transition and the subsequent description of Denise’s early life is, to be honest, rather dull. That it subsequently becomes an essential piece of the narrative makes it doubly unsatisfying. But these are minor quibbles. There is no doubt that The Corrections is an impressive piece of fiction.

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