The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is a novel written in 2001, which tells the story of the Lamberts who live in St. Jude. The Lamberts are not far away from being called, justifiably, a dysfunctional family. The novel is known, by some, as the greatest twenty-first-century novel and by others as one of them if not the only one. It is unanimously regarded as the great American novel. It won the National Book Award and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. In much of the postmodernist fiction, there is one aspect which constantly tires me out, the element of hyper-accentuated realism; the barrage of nouns and objects and subjects describing the overloading sense of reality to be more comical, and sharp yet verging on the annoying, the irritating and overwhelming. Strangely, also fortunately, this is a realist novel which verges on the modernity and postmodernism.
I had heard about Jonathan Franzen, seen him on television, read about him, heard about his great masterpieces but had never read him. I began this book expecting another difficult, fragmented and distorted prose novel with complex and overwhelming sentences but, yes, Franzen is too good a writer to give us, his readers, the liberty to satisfy our predictions. The opening sentence is phenomenally long and beautifully welcoming to the reader who dives into the conflict since the beginning; for me it is a sentence which ranks along with some of the greatest opening lines in literary history such as Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: ‘All happy families…’
What fascinates the reader or rather what should fascinate the reader about this five hundred sixty -five-page novel is that it goes back to the roots, from where great writers have written their masterpieces; writers such as George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, and Thomas Mann. It is the story of, to borrow from Buddenbrooks, the decline of a family; yet it is also about the corrections that have to be made to, a certain extent, redeem the lives of its characters. The contemporary novel, in my view, can not just paint a tragedy on the canvas, it needs a redemptive force to drive it, to provide a breath of fresh air to the novel form. How pointless in today’s time would it be to write a sad novel without giving meaning to the painful events or the sadnesses in the lives of characters?
To clarify further, by redemption, I do not mean that a happy ending should come forth to satiate the reader’s taste but a counterbalancing narrative which holds things on the brink of entirely falling apart.
I was excited to read this acclaimed novel and also anxious that it might not meet my high expectations or that it would be so American, that it would be elitist in a way, to put it mildly. But, no, the novel not only met my expectations but also exceeded the boundaries of my imagination of how well written a novel could be in this time.
It uses all the masterful linguistic kung-fu of another postmodernist/modernist novels and remains simple to read with a conversational prose full of sentences to savour, to be read and reread. Franzen’s prose which, in the beginning, seems to be un-literary later, through multiple facets, reveals the complexities of voice and narratorial authority putting forth a new literary and sensational writing voice which differentiates itself from his elders such as Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy. The opening sentence is one of the most remarkable I have ever encountered in a book. It completely sets the tone of the novel, puts the reader into the right anxious mood, and gives us a small taste of what the story is about. It works well; as well as Anna Karenina’s opening sentence, the beauty of it stays throughout the novel and haunts the air a little bit.
Like most great American fiction, the novel, enragingly, in fits and spasms, rambles on for pages about the cynicism, the despotism and the tyranny of the injustices, both, in the political and social/societal system; but what makes the novel so great is the fact that, in the end, it comes down to its beautifully fleshed out love-able and despicable characters. The reader towards the thinning out pages is left with utmost sympathy for Franzen’s bittersweet people.
One of the significant aspects of this novel is that whilst it has its roots deep into the regions of classic nineteenth century novels; it redeems the genre to modernity due to its visceral quality. The novel is not a long story, not a long story at all but a short story which uncovers the characters’ lives. The reader enters into a transforming picture, somewhere between the beginning and the ending; where they realise the lives of characters falling apart. It doesn’t begin from the beginning, it begins from somewhere in between and traces an unforgettable family portrait on the canvas.
In my view, I never expected that a twenty-first century writer would have possessed such a great talent for characterisations and meditations on life. Writing had become more about the language, the theme and the idea of the world rather than the shameful emotional impulses of its characters. What differentiates this novel from its ancestral roots in Tolstoy, Mann and Dostoevsky, is the fact that its greatness doesn’t lie in its length, dimension or scale but the inner workings of the characters’ psychological mechanism. It pictures a small time period in their lives with flashes of memory similar to a collage, appreciating non-linearity over linearity of time and space which the characters inhabit.
The dialogue is, to put it simply, wonderful. The voice of the characters sounds amazingly humorous, full of anger, and heartbreakingly vulnerable when it needs to be.
Stylistically and narratively, Franzen nails the psychological twists and turns of the labyrinthine mind of his protagonists. One more aspect of this novel which cannot be praised enough in my view is how problems, the tragedies and triumphs of characters mirror each other in a very strange, mesmerising fashion. Denise’s problems vaguely resemble a part of Enid’s confusion and anxiety and helplessness of the responsibilities that the world has thrown on her back as the woman of the house. Gary’s problems largely mirror his father Alfred’s dysfunctionality and downfall as a man, as a human being and that is what makes this novel so gut-wrenching at times, because you, the reader, the spectator, is continuously watchful and alert and aware of whatever is happening to these characters, and how strange and how horrifyingly resentful the portrait seems, because the portrait is somewhere on a deeper level, on the darker side, a resemblance of you and the life that surrounds you.
To conclude, I would highly recommend Franzen, because of the greatness of his writing, the conversational tone of his literary prose, the contrasting dilemmas that drive our protagonists into damnation and downfall and finally, a poetic sense of redemption. The Corrections is a long, sprawling, heartbreakingly emotional and reassuringly rewardingly that demands to be read to be believed.