“No British writer is currently writing at this pitch.”
Way to hoist a reader’s expectations, Financial Times.
This bombastic quote sits proud on the back cover of Franzen’s famous (if you’re in the know… which I wasn’t) 2001 novel The Corrections. American fiction is a beast which with I am only vaguely familiar. It is a whole world of its own – Faulkner, Roth, Bellow, DeLillo, Wolfe, Foster Wallace – with its own obsessions and inter-references. Since it’s going to be landing with a thump into next’s year Booker Prize, I may as well have a wrestle with it.
It wasn’t a prospect that filled me with hope. There are only 2 books in the last 10 years that I have found so impenetrable that I gave up on them, both (relatively) modern US literary fiction, and I despised DeLillo’s cold, inhuman White Noise. I would have been comforted to learn earlier that Franzen set out from the start to differentiate The Corrections from this:
The Corrections announced itself five years ago, with a curious personal manifesto. In a long, compellingly arrogant essay in Harper’s magazine, Franzen wrote of the necessity of uniting the polarities in the ambitions of novelists he wanted as his peers.. In particular, he noted the need to combine the mesmerising dramatisation of the connectedness of America in DeLillo’s Underworld with the authentic humanism of, say, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres or Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. He envisaged a novel charged with contemporary critical anxieties but which pulsed with the heart of the heart of the country, and proposed himself as the man who could write it. Five years on, he has, in mostly thrilling fashion, made good that boast. (Source)
And how. This novel has an alchemy that spins an initially mundane – and certainly extremely bleak – mid-Western family tale into something remarkable.
The humour and observation softens a tale which at face value is relentlessly negative. It documents the Lambert family as the repressive patriarch descends into Parkinson’s and dementia. All 3 grown-up children are thoroughly messed-up in their own ways. The eldest son is obsessive, anxious, depressed, borderline alcoholic. The daughter is self-destructive and out of control. The youngest son is directionless, shamed, lost. The wife is sniping, pained, despairing. At one point Franzen actually seems to be advocating medication as the best way out. But the writing, the observation, the humour – all soften this outwardly miserable set-up into something full of sparks, interest and humanity. The acuteness of the observation of each character in turn makes you come around to them, only for the novel to switch to another perspective from which that character is unbearable. I found shaming glimpses of myself in alcoholic Gary’s despising approach to certain environments that he wants to distance himself from. I’m confident that any reader would find similar shards driven into their interior life from self-association with one of the 5 intricately observed protagonists.
This is a family saga, but it isn’t a Victorian novel for the modern age, as some have suggested. At least, it is if you recognise that the modern age comes with a lot of self-reflexive writing, indeterminacy and psychological mindgames. There has actually been some debate as to whether it is intentional that Franzen made the first 50 pages or so discouragingly slow-moving and unsympathetic. One of the characters says early on: “Putting something off-putting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.” And this is one explanation for it which surely only a modernist writer would play with. The writing frequently extends and extends a metaphor almost to breaking point, which can seem heavy-handed but also provided me with some of my favourite passages. Gary, for example, keeps a constant and paranoid internal track of his mood and mental health, likening it to the financial markets in which he works, with a very amusing effect:
“As he entered the darkroom, he estimated that his levels of Neuro-Factor 3 (i.e., serotonin: a very, very important factor) were posting seven-day or even thirty-day highs, that his Factor 2 and Factor 7 levels were likewise outperforming expectations, and that his Factor 1 has rebounded from an early-morning slump related to the glass of Armagnac he’d drunk at bedtime … his seasonally adjusted assessment of life’s futility and brevity was consistent with the overall robustness of his mental economy. He was not the least bit clinically depressed.”
Ultimately despite the elements of tricksiness, this novel comes down in quite a simple place. In the words of the New York Times, “If you don’t end up liking each one of Franzen’s people, you probably just don’t like people. And by the way, assuming the book really does speak to our condition, it doesn’t pretend to know more about it than we do.” The characters are flawed but each has a history and background which makes their position reasonable, giving the book a human and level message at its heart. Combine this with this intensity of its observation and the finesse of the writing (Franzen has said that he wrote parts of the novel blindfold, wearing earplugs “shutting out the here and now so that his writing could recreate it all the more tellingly.”) and you have something extremely special indeed.
The Financial Times was right. This is the best novel I have read written since 2000.