Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

This book had a strange effect on me. Whilst I was reading it, it seemed unendingly bleak and the characters almost entirely unlike-able and unpleasant. But, having finished it, I'm left with an impression of warmth and humour, and I find myself missing the characters like you do with people in books you wish were your friends. Very odd. (And I don't have some sort of penchant for unpleasant friends, by the way...)

The Corrections is one of those books that has been suggested as The Great American Novel (why does no one worry about The Great British Novel? Or any other country, for that matter) and follows the lives of a Mid-Western couple, the Lamberts, as they head into old age, looking back over their lives and those of their three, now grown-up children. The novel is building to a potential 'one last Christmas together', made all the more poignant as we realise the father, Alfred, is descending into dementia and his childrens' personal problems are ensuring that the last thing they want to do is spend time with their family.

As I mentioned, for at least two thirds of the novel I think I found all the characters thoroughly unpleasant and I was unable to drum up much sympathy for them or the difficult situations they had found (or created) for themselves. They all seemed predominantly selfish and self-centred and the only real reaction I felt was wanting to tell them to pull themselves together and stop whining... Possibly this is because we constantly see them through each others' eyes, so you can't help but be aware of how much hurt and damage they cause each other. I guess this could be seen as realism, but the novel seemed rather short on the moments of love and compassion that I'm sure usually temper how selfish we all can be. Or maybe I'm too optimistic.

It's obviously a testament to Franzen's writing, though, that despite the unpleasantness of his characters, I did eventually find myself warming to them. As flawed as they were, the flaws were entirely human and they felt real. Similarly, despite the family he describes being miles from anyone's ideal, the novel left me with a lasting feeling of domesticity and warmth, and craving the sort of apple-pie Americana I've never even seen in real life!

The 'corrections' in the title refer to the correction in the financial markets, which is described in the final chapter. Having this as the title seems to give the impression that the Lamberts' lives have been following an unreal or temporary path, which is 'corrected' at the end of the novel by Alfred's removal from the family as a result of his mental disintegration and then death. I find it a slightly strange idea, both that reality could need that sort of 'correction' and that the characters lives start improving as a result but without any real development or action from themselves. They were selfish and unpleasant people, but now they're going to be nicer because the thing that was making them nasty has been taken away. I guess it suggests to me a lack of personal responsibility which I find unappealing, but does also emphasise how huge an effect other people can have on us, whether accidentally or on purpose.

I enjoyed this novel, and felt it addressed lots of important ideas. But I think it left me feeling a little unsatisfied. Possibly the bleakness left more of an impression than I realised.

I've started Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace as my next book. Might be a while before there's a review of that; there are a lot of very small words and a lot of pages.

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