Book Review: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (without spoilers)

The Corrections was not my favorite novel. And even that is an understatement. But I didn’t not like it…er, um… Well… I guess I’d have to say that, like all of the bloody relationships in the book (and here I’m being quite literal for once), my relationship with the book is complicated.

Complication number one: I don’t remember why I first put the book on my To Read List, but I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that it was about family dysfunction (check) and a parent suffering from Parkinson’s Disease (checkcheckcheckcheckcheckcheck). Sound familiar? Yeah. Of course, I had forgotten all about the book by the time my ColleagueWhoReads mentioned she was reading it, except I was all, “Hey, I think that might be on my List?…” When she finished it – six months later – and handed it to me, she mentioned it was one of those books you trudge through, but that it was worth it. I read the back of the book again – “Oh.” – and this time felt a little differently about the Parkinson’s effect. Would I be able to handle it? Would it strike too close to home? Dysfunction I was used to handling and reading about, but Parkinson’s – that’s still raw. Of course, by this point I was locked in. I had accepted the book from ColleagueWhoReads – that’s practically a signed-contract. So in I waded.

And here it’s a bit spoilery, so you might want to skip down to Complication Numero Two-o. Okay. So At the beginning of the novel, boy was I pissed at Alfred. He was supposed to be all Parkinsons-y. All debilitated and tragic. THE DUDE COULD STILL WALK AROUND! Oh, boo-hoo, he fell down a stairwell. Big deal. My mom can barely make herself cross a room with a walker. Her muscles don’t respond. She can’t give herself a freaking enema, Alfred, because she can barely hold a cup with a straw in it to drink some water. I was pissed (to put it mildly) that Alfred’s quality of life was better than my mother’s.  But then you saw how far gone his mind was, confusing sunflowers for children’s faces in the living room, mistaking the floor in front of the door for the shower, and OH GOD, we won’t even talk about the paranoid dancing poop scenes. So, um, yeah, I decided that while Alfred might have better mobility (falling overboard off cruise ships notwithstanding), my mom has more of her marbles. Marbles trumps movement. For now. Ahem.

Complication number two: I only finished the book because I had to. I used to be the kind of girl who finished any book she started. Couldn’t help it; I hated not knowing the ending. I like knowing things – no, strike that, I NEED to know things. It’s a compulsion. But I’ve progressed to a point where I can set aside a book I really hate. (Oh don’t start clapping for me – I still have to google the book summary so I can find out what the bloody hell happened. What step of the program does that make me?) This book – this book I would have given up on about the time Chip abandons lunch and forces his sister to deliver them to the dock. I mean, I understand that the writing is brilliant; I critically examined the text the entire time, hoping to discover why exactly it won the National Book Award back in 2001 and I decided Franzen’s genius is in the details. He crafts each sentence as if his life depends upon the mad abundance of detail. And yet it’s not just volume: you wonder how in years of pondering (nevermind an afternoon of writing) someone could thinking of a turn of phrase so effortlessly realistic and pin it to paper with such finesse. And it’s not just one brilliant passage here and there – it’s the entire novel done up in perfect little vignettes. Enough to think, hey! this is so realistic! Until you turn the page and sink over your head in irony, into situations (cough:Lithuania:cough) so utterly bizarre and unbelievable, you wonder what the hell just happened. The problem is just… piling moment after moment after scene after scene of such detailed writing that by the time I finished the book (or each day’s allotment), I was utterly exhausted. I couldn’t enjoy the trees for the frakking forest that had no ending. It was just trees and trees and more trees. Beautiful trees, but I was so sick of trees by the time I found daylight.

So, yes, I am glad that I read The Corrections if only so I know what JFranz is all about – nothing is cooler than being able to talk about The Franz right now. But I still cannot say I liked the book, even if I did enjoy the brilliance of the writing.

So, yes, I can see the brilliance. That’s partly why I finished: because I know this book is going to be relevant in twenty years. This will be one of the classics thrown onto high school AP reading lists. Instead of the barren wastelands of the dust bowl, they’ll read about the barren desolation of family life. Desperate. Depressed. Full of misdirected feelings, rage and anxiety. But not unbrilliant. Still, I think most students will loathe The Corrections like I did Grapes of Wrath. It doesn’t erase its relevance or even mute its deserved honors. It just means the book will gather a lot of dust sitting of my shelf.


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One Response to “Book Review: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (without spoilers)”

  1. Gayle Says:

    I don’t think my brain could handle it! I’m reading stuff written by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk right now, hoping to shed some light on my family’s disfunction! It makes me feel good when I’m reading it but then when I look up from the book at my real life, everthing is still all messed up! Sigh…

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