This was one of those books that lingered on my Kindle forever and a day. It just always terrified my with its bulk. And for a book to do that on Kindle it really has to be long. Two years ago I read How To Be Alone, Franzen’s collection of essays. And I really enjoyed it. Yes, he is very self assured, but it was engaging and I like when someone sometimes forces me to disagree.
So finally, as the pandemic calmed a bit in Europe over the summer, in August I was able to travel home to Poland. For two weeks of glorious dolce far niente. Which usually ends up in me reading a lot and eventually tackling the books I’ve been dreading.
I was aware that there was a lot of hype around The Corrections and it possibly being ‘the great American novel’. And trust me I do like a good great American novel, no one tells stories like the Americans. So I tuck in. Slow start, ok, it’s a long book it deserves time to warm up, I thought. And soldiered on.
The book tells a story of the Lambert family, the parent Enid and Alfred, still living in St. Jude in Midwest. The children, Chip, Denise and Gary all moved away towards the East Coast. Alfred has Parkinson’s and slowly loses his mind, which in turns he lashes out about or falls into apathy. Enid is generally disappointed with life and specifically with Alfred. Chip lost his chance for university tenure for stalking a student and now tries to write a script. Denise is a chef, reeling from a broken marriage. Gary, on the face of it the most conventional of the siblings is a fund managers, with what you’d describe as a ‘wholesome family’ that utterly suffocates him and exacerbates his mid-life crisis.
It basically feels like everyone in this book goes through a mid-life crisis. I saw is described as darkly funny, and maybe it is for some. For me this book was a load of miserable whining. Waiting for someone to fix our problems. Each of the characters miserable, a ton of bad, ugly or toxic sex. The classic family tension. All that in a syrup of metaphysical and psychological babble, trying ot justify how it is the society and consumerism that destroys people (which is a point I do agree with, it just doesn’t have to made this way).
But what really got me thinking is how annoyed I was because this book for me was basically a bunch of white, privileged men moaning about how tough and bad their life is while not doing anything to improve it. On the contrary, they were actively making it worse. On the flipside I did see a slight affinity between this book and some of the books by Philip Roth I read. That got me thinking, because I really like Roth, so what changed that this book got me so wound up?
And it isn’t Franzen’s execution, this is spot on, I do think he wanted to write it exactly as it came out. What changed then? I did. And a book is as much made by the author as by the reader. While few years ago I was swept away by Roth’s narrative, now I am utterly annoyed by Franzen’s. The obvious privilege, and yet continuous dissatisfaction. Lack of any action or even responsibility. The wallowing in misery, that takes you nowhere. Ruminating the past, as if it was a paradise, while it really was purgatory at best. The onslaught of white, male mid-life crisis drowning out any other voices.
As it sometimes happens my annoyance grew as I read on. Then I got to what in my mind is the highlight of the book: the moment Alfred plunges from the cruise ship. The only moment that made me smile with some kind of release. I decided to leave it at that. Reader, I did not finish!
Please share your thought in comments, I do have a few more of Franzen’s books and am willing to give him another chance, so if you liked any of them let me know!