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Book Review March 21, 2002
 
How Beautiful You Are, My Baron!
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 

"The Corrections"

By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001

"The armies of this age are weak."
-- Book of the New Sun

The Corrections, billed as a masterpiece, is a worthless fraud, a hopelessly trite story gaudied up with tedious overwriting. The overwriting is meant to conceal the fact that this novel is a simple mix of three of the most hackneyed storylines in American fiction:

  1. The picaresque adventures of a feckless male academic, borrowed from DeLillo;
  2. The sentimental tale of the decay and death of one's parents as in Dave Eggers's "masterpiece";
  3. The old, old plot device of the family Christmas reunion to bring the centrifugal parents and kids back together again against all odds, as in every sentimental John Hughes movie ever made and about a thousand more before him.

That, folks, is all there is to this mess: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation meets dying-parents memoir meets Manhattanite satire Lite. God help me, but that's it!

It has now reached the point that I'd welcome a great book, something so good I'd have to bow my head and say, "The world is just." I used to fear that encounter, thinking I'd die of envy. But I'm dying of bitterness now, and that's no easier. How can they do it? How can people even pretend to like a novel so dull, formulaic, and unimaginative?

Well, I guess I shouldn't really be surprised, because one thing I've learned from reviewing for the eXile -- reading books I'd never've touched on my own -- is that whoever controls American publishing loves reading the same thing over and over. Fiction, non-fiction -- doesn't matter. The Corrections, which purports to be a novel, is basically the same book as David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise, a "social history" I reviewed last year. Bobos is simply a booklength rim job on the "bourgeois bohemians" who love to read about themselves in The New Yorker, where their loathsome shopping habits are teased into 5,000-word massages. The Corrections does the same thing, at much greater length. It's 568 pages of namedropping and gentle fun-poking, feather-light mockery with a maudlin affirmation of the most banal "family values" at the end.

Ugh, how they love to be stroked, the Bobos! It's like that scene in Dune where the Baron's doctor, draining his monstrous master's pustules, pauses to whisper, "How beautiful you are, my Baron! Your diseases -- love to me!" That should be the epigram for The Corrections, which uses a narrative frame as an excuse to linger lovingly on the pustules of Bobo life: wine pedantry, theory-jokes, SUVs -- the usual suspects. Nothing new. Not one fresh observation.

But the Manhattan tenure-jokes are actually well done by comparison with the novel's other plot-strand, the Midwestern family comedy. Franzen has soldered these two strands together in the most crude, formulaic manner: the hero, Chip (isn't that funny, naming him "Chip"?) is a lit-theory academic, fired from a Northeastern college for stalking a female student and now scraping a living as a proofreader in Manhattan. His mom, "Enid" (isn't that a funny housewifey name, "Enid"?) wants him and his siblings to come back to their Minnesota hometown "St. Jude" for Christmas. ("St. Jude" -- isn't that funny too? You see, it's "St. Paul," really, but "St. Jude" is the patron saint of lost causes, so it's a joke, sorta like St. Elsewhere was... 20 years ago.)

And after lots of funny misadventures, the family -- wouldn't you know it! -- DOES get back together for a nice Christmas, after all!

This plotline was old before Homer went blind. How many generations of playwrights, novelists and scriptwriters have used the holiday reunion gag to get all their characters together in one room so they can demonstrate what very different people they've become, only to draw together in family solidarity at the end?

It's not only old, it's very poorly done. See for yourself: read this novel, then watch Christmas Vacation, and tell me which does the family-reunion schick better -- which one observes and plays with middle-class manners more cleverly.

Franzen can't handle the Midwestern strand of his plot because he simply doesn't know the Protestant milieu he tries to portray -- and because he has no imaginative power, he can write only about what he actually knows, the Manhattan Bobo world. While his observations about Manhattan are merely trite, his attempts to depict Minnesota are just plain wrong.

Even his thefts are inept. Exhibit A: the recliner. Franzen spends pages and pages going on about how Al, the Midwestern husband, loves his recliner, though his wife would love to get rid of it. Sound familiar? It should. How many sitcoms have mocked the slob husband's love affair with the big, overstuffed, ugly recliner? You know: the wife just hates the darn thing! But he, the big loveable lug, just won't let her give it to Goodwill! I've seen that on Married with Children, The Simpsons -- in fact, it goes back at least to the sitcoms of the sixties. You'd think that by now, the old recliner would be so used up that even Goodwill wouldn't want it.

But it's good enough for Jonathan Franzen. In fact, it's such a selling point that the publishers actually put a sketch of this recliner on the book's cover. What hicks!

Yes, it's time someone said it outright: Manhattanites are the new hicks. The mall kids are generations ahead of them. Things that are stale jokes to the mall kids strike the NY publishing world as fresh and hilarious. Maybe they just don't watch enough TV, or they spend too much time drinking cocktails with F. Scott Fitzgerald's ghost -- whatever the reason, the Manhattanites have lost it completely. The scriptwriters of Christmas Vacation are Flaubertian chroniclers of provincial mores next to Franzen. When you compare Franzen with really talented observers of Minnesota life, like the Coens in Fargo, or even Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon Days, his incompetence stands out even more sharply.

And if one were to compare him with the great novelist of "pelagic America," Charles Portis... no, it would be an insult to Portis even to compare a hack like Franzen with him. And yet Portis is all but unknown, while Franzen is everybody's darling.... Agh, ya buncha idiots! OK, I'll try a little remedial education: if you want to see a truly brilliant depiction of provincial America, read Portis's Dog of the South. If you want to see how an ordinary reclining chair can become -- in the hands of a real writer -- an object of terror and pity, read Portis's grimmest book, Masters of Atlantis.

Franzen himself seems to know his attempt to depict Midwestern life is weak. He makes up for it with lots of "writerly writing." Franzen, you see, wrote a bold manifesto a few years ago, in favor of "writerly" writers like himself. As opposed, I gather, to un-writerly writers. Well, who can disagree with the man? I myself am in favor not only of writerly writers but hit-manly hit men, whorish whores, and bakerly bakers. In fact, perhaps the hit-manly hit men could be persuaded to do something about the whorish whores, especially those posing as writers. Bake them in a pie with the help of the bakerly bakers....

Daydreaming again. Sorry. At any rate, Franzen's idea of "writerly" writing seems to be page-long mock-heroic similes, which largely infest those parts of his novel dealing with Midwestern life. They show up on the very first page of the novel:

"Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety... by now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of 'bell ringing' but, as with any sound that continues so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their heads for as long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound...."

That's not even the whole thing; it goes on for another half-page. But the sample should be sufficient to give you an idea of what Franzen means by "writerly writing." Again, it's "writerly" in the way hicks always imagine literature: overwriting. And banal. Those two poles shape all of Franzen's most "writerly" writing: vastly overextended metaphors and similes that expand around a core of utter banality. Look at the basis of the sprawling paragraph just quoted. The metaphor is "the alarm bell of anxiety." That's... it? That's the metaphor? It's a dead trope! It's Naked Gun poetics! The mall kids would find it trite if it were spoken by Leslie Nielsen in Naked Gun XXI, for God's sake! How old is that trope: "alarm bells were going off in my head..."? Raymond Chandler would've shoved that metaphor in a cab and sent it home!

Franzen (who has clearly read Erasmus's de Copia) doesn't simply state the stale metaphor; he is so proud of it he extends it for an entire page, demanding that the reader admire a whole gallery of retakes -- again using only the oldest, most thoroughly cliched tropes. First he invokes the arbitrary-sign cliche -- the word is repeated until meaningless; then he applies that favorite prefix of seminar whores, "meta-," to make the sound a "metasound" -- which, by the way, makes no sense at all, but never mind; moving right along, we find him then displaying a bit of pop-science pedantry, defining ordinary sound waves (as opposed to "metasound") as "compression waves"; he then trots out the oldest, dullest grad-school cliche, redefining the "metasound" yet again as "their consciousness [italics in original] of the sound."

If a cliche falls in the forest, does anybody applaud? Apparently. A whole forest of dead, dry tree-tropes crashes to the ground in this novel, and everybody loves it.

"Writerly" writing abounds in the early chapters, especially at the very beginning of the novel. Here's another gem from page 1: "Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections bred." This is as "writerly" as even DeLillo could ask -- the sort of overwriting English professors love. The trouble is it's supposed to be a thought in the mind of an elderly Midwestern railroad worker -- and the "sinus" trope doesn't exactly ring true as a sample of his "consciousness."

But that matters far less to Franzen than the need to keep his very slow academic readers in tow by overdoing every metaphor, every turn of the plot, and every joke to make sure they get it. By that standard, his metaphors, which would make Chandler blush, are a success, because even an English professor -- hell, even an American Studies professor! -- couldn't help noticing a metaphor comparing free time to "a sinus in which infection bred." Short of providing his own "Study Guide" to the novel (there's an idea, Jonathan!), Franzen does everything possible to remind the braindamaged seminar victim that this is a truly "writerly" bit of writing. When he has squeezed the last drop of metaphorical juice out of the "alarm bell," Franzen dusts off a new extended metaphor, in which Enid's domestic chores are compared to "guerrilla" raids. It's an unrewarding and improbable metaphor, but that doesn't matter; what's important is that Franzen keeps it up for two pages -- two... entire... pages. That's the point: to get the reader to notice the writerliness of it all. Once that metaphor's exhausted -- and believe me, it takes a LONG TIME for him to use it up and throw it away -- Franzen begins what may be the most silly and tedious of all his extended metaphors, in which the husband's loss of mental acuity is compared, for an entire page, to a fairy-tale character becoming lost in the woods:

"...[W]hen he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he'd entered, he would realize that the crumbs he'd dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds, silent deft darting things which he couldn't quite see in the darkness but which were so numerous and swarming in their hunger that it seemed as if they were the darkness, as if the darkness weren't uniform, weren't an absence of light but a teeming and crepuscular thing, and indeed when as a studious teenager he'd encountered the word 'crepuscular' in McKay's Treasury of English Verse...."

You get the idea. The reader is stuck in these lightless woods for an entire page, and emerges having lost all track of the narrative but convinced of one thing: this is a "writerly" writer, by God. Only a very writerly writer indeed would drag you around a wholly metaphorical phorest phor an entire page, then remind you of how theory-ish it all was by ending with an allusion to "... the woods of this sentence."

If Franzen had written like this for 500 pages, not even the hicks in Manhattan would've fallen for it. He's not that stupid. In fact, like many of the authors I've encountered in this job, he's beneath contempt as a writer but beyond reproach as an entrepreneur, as demonstrated by his masterful manipulation of Oprah -- no slouch herself at publicity games.

So Franzen very quickly drops the page-long metaphors and self-reflexive poses, the instant he's convinced the naive reader that this is High Literature. This moment corresponds to the shift from Minnesota, which Franzen knows he doesn't really understand, to Manhattan, where he feels at home narrating the tale of Chip the failed academic. No more "writerly" writing here! Suddenly Franzen writes like the New Yorker hack he is, doing very chatty, accessible journalistic writing: dropping names, playing roman-a-clef games. For example, Chip has a colleague named "Vendla," which I take to be some sort of smirky allusion to Helen Vendler, a Stevens critic.

Vendla, like all the women in the NY part of the novel, is a sleazy hypocritical schemer. In fact, The Corrections is full of a violent hatred for post-feminist women, as in this account of Chip's big romance:

"His girlfriend in college and long after, Tori Timmelman, was a feminist theorist who'd become so enraged with the patriarchal system of accreditation and its phallometric yardsticks of achievement that she refused (or was unable) to finish her dissertation. Chip... stuck with Tori for nearly a decade. He did all of the laundry and most of the cleaning and cooking and cat care in the apartment he and Tori shared. He read secondary literature for Tori and helped her outline and reoutline chapters of her thesis that she was too throttled by rage to write."

See? No more page-long metaphors, no more Keillor ripoffs. We're back in Franzen's homeland: NY academia. But though his prose suddenly improves when we leave Minnesota, his imagination serves him as poorly as ever. It's just not accurate -- I mean the misogyny in this paragraph, its depiction of feminist academics as crazed hypocrites. I live with these people. Until last year I literally lived with an American Women's Studies professor; so I'm entitled to say, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson's attorney, "I know these people in my goddamn BLOOD!" They're no prizes, God knows; they're bitter and sullen and above all deeply confused; but I must say that Franzen's venomous depiction of them gets it all wrong. As any academic knows, the real surprise about Women's Studies professors is that very, very few of them resemble the firebreathing dyke stereotype. Most of them are wretchedly lonely women whose secret dream is a husband and kids. But as I've tried to suggest, Franzen cannot really observe, let alone imagine; all he can do is paste together the bits of a world already sketched by other writers, to make a feeble collage of his own.

But about the misogyny thing -- it's funny how much woman-hating you can get away with if you toss a few theory-jokes to the academic reader. This is only one sample; there are dozens of paragraphs like it in The Corrections. In fact, the only really good women characters are Chip's sister, who's a long-suffering cook, and his mom, who's simply a mom (albeit a poorly drawn one, pasted together from Edith Bunker and Richie Cunningham's mom). Franzen pretty much hates any woman who ain't a cookin' mom, in fact. His hero, Chip, actually makes the black pilgrimage to the East Bloc to find compliant, inexpensive women. Like a fool, though, he goes to Lithuania rather than Russia. And dear God, how poorly Franzen sketches the East! I thought his Midwest was bad, but it's nothing to his Lithuania! It's the worst thing to happen to the Baltic since the Teutonic Knights came a-callin.

But Chip comes home in the end. Just in time for Xmas. And they all get together, he and his Yuppie brother and victim sister, his sitcom mom and his demented dad. The American family wins out. No matter how far they may fly, they all come home for the holidays. And if that's not sufficiently sentimental or cliche enough, Franzen throws in a wedding meant to symbolize the marriage of Midwest and Manhattan: Chip marries a Jewish doctor and moves to the city. His anti-Semitic mom, Enid, learns her little Civics lesson about accepting people.

And that's it. The end. Banality triumphs; all the characters are absorbed into Franzen's very narrow conception of the real, the crucial, world; and the grumpy Dad character is sacrificed -- like Homer Simpson or Al Bundy, only not funny.

Not funny; not well observed; not imaginative; what does this super-sized bowl of prose porridge give its satisfied readers? All I can see is that it teaches what Vikram Seth's novels teach at even more tedious length: that there is no world but this one, the mingy, dim, entropic circle of tenth-generation Thurber tableaux featured in The New Yorker and TLS -- a world hermetically sealed, valuing literature only for the production of antibodies designed to repel newer, faster worlds and return the reader to the flabby bosom of the upper-middle-class family.

Long live the mall kids; may they show no mercy when their day comes.

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