Monday, April 13, 2009

Book #22: 'The Corrections' by Jonathan Franzen

To be completely honest, I don't think I have the eloquence to do this book justice. I'm not that good a writer. It's too good, and I don't think I have the words to tell you why. But I'll try. I'll buck up, try my best and hope I don't come up too short on my praises.

Because this book needs to be praised. To the high heavens. This might sound like a cliche, but I've honestly never read anything like it. There were several moments as I read where I had to stop, mouth open in awe, and re-read a sentence that was so beautifully crafted that it almost made me tear up. Franzen's really is some of the most perfect, heartbreaking writing I have ever read, and the book is a wonder.

The Corrections is the story of the Lamberts, an outwardly typical Midwestern family. The elderly parents, Enid and Alfred, live a sad life; Enid spends her time waiting for things to come, disappointed and saddened by her children, whom she has never truly understood. Alfred, battling Parkinson's and paranoia, is a hard, strict man who prefers to be left alone and shows almost no emotion besides anger. The children--Gary, Chip and Denise-- have spent their entire lives trying to get as far away as they can from their parents and everything that they represent. They each resent one or the other parent, seeing Alfred and Enid as the principal reason why their lives are falling apart.

Gary, who should have the perfect life (he is rich, has a beautiful wife and perfect, modern children),is battling depression as he constantly tries to make himself noticed and enviable. Chip is a disgraced ex-professor whose every move in life has brought him a new catastrophe. Denise is a chef, a workaholic trying to survive a string of bad relationships with both married men and married women. It's a disunited family whose members are disintegrating.

The book follows each of the characters as they try, and largely fail, to correct the course their lives have taken. The theme of 'correction' is brought up throughout the book; the children are trying to correct the mistakes their parents made, only to fall into even bigger errors. Franzen also works in themes of betrayal, disappointment of expectations, the normal troubles of families, envy, and greed. Featuring large throughout is the theme of the American culture of consumerism and the expectations that come with the American Dream. For all their struggles to correct the mistakes of their parents and to get the things they think they want, not one of these characters is truly happy.

It's fascinating to read. Franzen connects each of the stories so artfully that it took a second reading for me to really understand everything that he was going for. It's a tragic book, really, full of sadness and heartbreak, but Franzen also brings a great sense of humor to it. He writes dialogue and characters that are recognizable and hilariously familiar; this could easily be your family talking. In fact, Enid reminded me so strongly of my own grandmother that it became almost surreal to read.

Franzen doesn't shy away from anything. His characters are deeply flawed and make horrible decisions, but they are the actions of real people who go through real tragedies. There's no flash to their stories, but the book never feels slow or forced. Franzen fleshes out fears and motivations, and we come to know these characters perfectly, understanding them if not always liking them. From start to finish this book is about people, their dreams and their failures.

And again, the writing. God, it's beautiful writing. Franzen's prose is thoughtful, often hilarious, moving, and just perfect. The book is hands down one of the best things I have ever read, and this review doesn't even come close to doing it justice. I loved this book. Even now, two days after finishing it, I'm still in awe of everything Franzen did with it. I keep wondering How did he do that? How do you write something that insightful and beautiful?

It's the kind of book that reminds me why I love books. Sometimes, just a collection of words make you feel like you've experienced something completely new and almost magical. I know I'm gushing here, but believe me, The Corrections is worth it.

PS: I found this book thanks to Pajiba's 'Best Books of the Generation' List:

In fact, just about every book I've read from that list hasn't disappointed--it's the reason why I trust the staff and commenters on that site so much. Read Phillip's blurb on this book, it's just perfect.

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