CLS: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

This is probably the most impressive book so far in my Contemporary Literature Survey: I got to page 66 before giving up on it. My motivation for yielding was the usual: boredom; a consideration of the waste of my life which reading this novel constituted; an acceptance that, in spite of some better passages, there were still another 500 pages to go and I couldn’t envisage the circumstance which might lead to me reading them.

As a stylist, Franzen is a cut above the writers I’ve read so far. As a thinker, he is too. Unfortunately Franzen belongs to what I like to term the Theodore Dreiser school of American realism: for him realism consists in relating the trivial lives of dull grey everymen. What has after all happened in 66 pages: an old couple have come to New York to visit their son and daughter; they have been met at the airport by their son and they have gone back to his flat. A few other things have happened, it’s true – and there’s even been an interesting interlude (see below) – but in the main the aforegoing is the sum of it, described in slow and painful detail – detail which, in the end – particularly with reference to the old couple – led me to giving up on the work.

There were, however, some pages which made me believe at the time I might even persevere and read the book the whole way through. I had managed to get over the tedious opening passages (does Franzen even knowingly allude to the tediousness of his opening in the screenplay that our hero’s writing?), and suddenly found myself unaccustomly engaged by the offshoot of a backstory: our hero, whilst teaching literature at a university (what else would the hero of a contemporary American novel be doing?) – an older man, then – was having an affair with one of his students (what else would the hero of a contemporary American novel be doing?). Well, cliched as it is, it does still have an intrinsic interest – the precise sort of intrinsic interest, indeed, which isn’t to be found in the banal chatter of two old people discussing their everyday problems.

I know, who’d have thought two people having sex would be more interesting than two people discussing an armchair? But it’s more than that, I feel: it’s that Franzen has introduced in this episode what might even be described as a story, something with which the reader might be engaged, might even become enthralled. And perhaps, having tasted of the fine fruit, it was being offered once again the gruel with which we’d begun the meal which decided me to finally end it.

As I say, Franzen is often a fine stylist, but that doesn’t withhold him from the odd, what I shall call, Ted Hughes-moment, in which a fine piece of writing is marred by the intrusion of a single inapposite word. (If only I’d noted down a few examples on the way, eh? – this might even be a worthwhile review). He also has a good appreciation of the nature of humanity – which is a pleasant change to the other books in this series: the dull grey everyman who populate the book are at least well observed, even if this makes his account of them no more bearable.

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12 thoughts on “CLS: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

  1. I take it, then, that you won’t be reading The Greatest Book of the Century (or was it Millennium), i.e. Franzen’s Freedom?

  2. No, possibly not. Something tells me that Franzen isn’t one of those novelists who produce remarkable different works. On the other hand, there are good passages, so maybe he’s a young novelist to watch out for in the future.

  3. Thank you for that! I felt exactly the same about it and gave up very quickly, so I’m kind of glad to hear I’m not alone. I was bored to tears by “The Corrections”. It also didn’t help that the German translation (I tried my mother’s copy) was absolutely terrible and I could “hear” the English original through it all the time. Not my cup of tea.

  4. I’d be interested to hear, in fact, from anyone who has actually finished this book (if there are such people) – see if they can confirm whether there are any more interesting episodes later on. Flicking through, it just seemed to be the same kind of stuff. The Corrections seems part of an experiment in Anglo-American literary fictions (both realist and avant-garde) to see who can come up with the dullest narrative possible.

    I do think it’s an issue of subject-matter – and even wonder at times if it’s just my fault; that I just don’t find these kinds of things interesting. Perhaps other people are interested in reading about everyday trivia.

  5. They are, although I think they replace “trivia” with “life.”

    I thought the best episode by far belonged to the older brother, Gary. It is a domestic story about a husband who is succumbing to depression and finds himself at war with his wife. This is Part 3. If you didn’t want to finish Chip’s story, there was no way you were going to make it through the sister’s (Part 2), which is even dimmer – not written or imagined as well.

    Franzen is a talented domestic novelist who unfortunately wants to be Important, like Don DeLillo or whoever it is he has in mind. He should embrace the trivial. It is what he is good at.

  6. I can take writing about everyday “life” if it’s well enough written – if it’s interesting enough. It usually tends to be the more avant-garde, though, that gets this right (although, of course, there are plenty of counter-examples). Why Chekhov actually works is for me one of those eternal mysteries? – Perhaps it’s easier to take in short passages.

    For a moment then, I thought you meant that Don Delillo was also a talented domestic novelist who unfortunately wants to be Important. I suppose it’s pretty much my opinion of him.

    I was going to mention a few other writers in this, like Dreiser and James T Farrell – other American realists I’ve found too tedious to read. (And then, of course, there’s Flaubert. But some people unaccountably seem to like him!).

  7. I finished this, many years ago, and it wasn’t a painful experience but not a particularly thrilling one either. There’s an episode about internet start-ups in Latvia, I think. And the domestic war Tom mentions. Fact is I can remember practically nothing about the book otherwise, and the hype about Franzen had grown to such repulsive levels by the time his new one came out that I actively avoided reading it (or about it).

    Tom’s right – he can write, that’s the mystery. Some of his essays are really good. But he seems to think that in his novels he’s creating modern replicas of 19th century originals, and supplying a Tolstoyan vista of bourgeois existence in the US while he’s at it. Perhaps the mistake he’s making is that even Tolstoy would have struggled to make the existences of commuters and pensioners in Buttfuck, Minnesota a thrilling read, as compared to (say) the Napoleonic Wars.

  8. Ah, I see – writing c19th novels with c20th subject-matter. I wonder then if he isn’t too avant-garde: if he only stuck to foolproof plots – love stories, war, accounts of childhood – his works wouldn’t be so boring. Maybe he should try his hand at a thriller.

    I do have a terrible problem, I know, with novels about the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans.

  9. You could be right about avant-gardism: at the time of his Oprah imbroglio he described himself as “solidly in the high-art literary tradition” of writers. Others have demurred in this regard.

    I wonder what you’d make of James Salter.

  10. He’s a bit like Tom McCarthy then? – claims to be avant-garde, but actually writes dull sub-c19th novels.

    I’ve never read James Salter, and will become wary of him if you’re implying he’s anything like Franzen.

  11. I might check him out then. I seem to remember seeing his books in those nice Harvill editions I used to collect.

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