Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
enchiladas verdes & freedom from topicality
“‘My affliction makes this difficult,’ he explained.”
You’re at a buffet. One of those expensive, amusement park-esque ones with crab legs on crushed ice and a violently red-lit roast beef-carving station and also an ice cream bar and an omelette station and a sushi counter and a mountainous display of European cheeses. You plunge in.
And finally, after a good twenty minutes of tonging and meandering, you sit down at your table with an oversized plate whose contents you regard with both excitement and shame: the chocolate soufflé shares an uneasy border with the caprese salad; the sauce from the tikka masala seeps beneath the enchiladas verdes. A fugue-ish half hour later you’re stuffed to the point of immobility, lightly sweating — and dumbstruck by the sheer quantity of deliciousness in the world.
And now here comes the chef to say hello!
Wait a minute, there’s a chef? You’d pictured a dozen of them, furiously collaborating.
No, no, it was all this one guy. He’s wearing dark-framed glasses. He seems to both long for and to disdain your praise. He keeps leaning too close to you. He’s saying something fervent but not quite follow-able about birding and maybe the internet.
You stand up from the table thinking not about the bounty you’ve just eaten but about the bothersome, prickly neediness of the chef. You take irritable note of the name embroidered on his jacket: Jonathan Franzen. You aren’t sure you’ll ever come back.
It took me a good twenty years to return to the buffet — the whole experience had become a blur of gastric and social unease in my memory — but I’m here to tell you: you should loosen your belt, grab a plate, and join me as soon as possible. The Corrections (as the buffet is known) is a glorious, delicious, life-affirming mess. Its occasional disharmonies (did I really need that serving of Lithuanian geopolitics? how many plots involving wonder-drugs did I serve myself?) fade by the end of the meal. It leaves you nourished for a month.
I have not — so you can calibrate your opinion of my opinion accordingly — thought much of Franzen’s post-Corrections work. Freedom gave me the feeling of being trapped in a crowded and sour-smelling elevator. I bailed on both Purity and Crossroads. The translated Austrian cultural critic thing I didn’t even bother picking up.
But The Corrections, various friends had assured me, held up. In fact, I was delighted to discover, it had done better than hold up: down there in the cellar of our vague cultural contempt it had aged into a masterpiece. Freed of the burden of capturing The Way We Live Now (one character hunts for a payphone, desperate to recover a paper document), it has much to tell us about the way we live — now and always.
Look at the stray excellence of the writing.
On New York City streets:
“… sanitation trucks with brushes like the mustaches of city cops…”
On a Midwestern thunderstorm:
“… a solitary anvil wandering through otherwise semi-fair skies.”
On hearing loss in old age:
“The partially deaf know like cellmates the frequencies at which their heads ring.”
What if, the book seems to ask, Tom Wolfe were more psychologically perceptive and less typographically deranged? What if Don DeLillo were funnier and let his characters speak like human beings rather than like computer translated undergrad term papers? There are stretches — punctuated by other stretches, during which Franzen serves up pages of undigested research about prison, say — when The Corrections is as good as contemporary novels get.
But what makes it lasting — what makes it a book not just to be impressed by but to love — is how Franzen writes about the Lamberts. They are the two addled elders and the three adult children around whom the novel revolves, and Franzen writes about them with such minute attention, such subtle understanding, that you pay him the ultimate readerly compliment: you imagine that he must be writing about his own family.
A couple of hundred pages in, Gary — the oldest and unhappiest Lambert child (though it’s a fierce competition) — is back at the family home in St. Jude, marveling at just how quickly his parents and their house are deteriorating. Gary and his Parkinsonian father, Alfred, set out on an errand.
“‘I didn’t hear where we were going.’
‘We’re going to the hardware store,’ Gary said. ‘Mom wants a dimmer switch for the kitchen.’
Alfred shook his head. ‘She and her romantic lighting.’
‘She gets pleasure from it,’ Gary said. ‘What do you get pleasure from?’”
They buy the switch (“The old man’s careful plucking of bills from his slender wallet and his faint hesitation before he offered them were signs of his respect for a dollar — of his maddening belief that each one mattered”), they drive home, and Gary, unable quite to believe that his formidable father might no longer be capable of such things, leaves Albert alone to do the installation.
But when Gary comes in to check, he finds that Alfred has hardly gotten started. “He was holding the dimmer switch like a detonator that made him shake with fear.” Think, for a second, about the crosscurrents of feeling aloft in that kitchen. Alfred — a ferociously proud and self-sufficient engineer — is humiliated by his incapacity. Gary is at once vindicated (he needs me!) and terrified (he NEEDS me!). And so think what it costs Alfred to say what he says next:
“ ‘My affliction makes this difficult,’ he explained.”
The formality of that word affliction is like a paper hospital robe, held desperately before one’s nakedness in a moment of deepest vulnerability. Alfred is admitting defeat, he’s begging for help, he’s expressing his fear — all in the form of a five-word sentence that, if you were a stranger listening in, wouldn’t cause so much as a flutter on your emotional Richter scale.
But you aren’t a stranger, by that point. You’re practically another Lambert child.
And this is why The Corrections has outlived its status as an object in the pseudo-controversy complex. In the twenty years since I first lay down on my dorm room bed and cracked it open, I’ve forgotten who lived in the room next to mine; I’ve forgotten what courses I was taking; I’ve even forgotten what I thought about Jonathan Franzen, in all his Time-gracing, Oprah-spurning unignorability. But I’ve never forgotten any of the Lamberts’ names.