So I was perusing Tumblr this week and stumbled across a question from one person I follow to another: “Curious about something: I often have this attitude towards contemporary fiction. I’m reading Steinbeck now with great joy. Are there current writers that are worth it?”
Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this attitude from fellow readers. I suppose there’s something natural to looking back on books written fifty or a hundred years ago—let alone Shakespeare—and seeing in them something you want to believe hasn’t been replicated or improved upon since. At the same time, really? Should it not strike all of us as ludicrous to suggest that the art of writing fiction somehow disappeared in the 21st century, or that people born after, say, 1975 are somehow inherently incapable of producing literature of the same quality as John Steinbeck?
I could also argue the other side here—that upon reflection, books like The Great Gatsby, or Catcher in the Rye, aren’t really that good. (Confession: I couldn’t even get through Catcher in the Rye. I know; I’m sorry!) But that’s not nearly as important as the fact that even without shitting on traditionally celebrated classical authors, the 21st century has still produced some bombass fiction, and some incredibly talented and prolific people upon whom I can only hope silver-clad space-dwelling humans of the 23rd century will look back and say, “Man, remember when people could write like that?”
Which brings me to Jonathan Franzen.
Now, I know Franzen has a reputation for being, well, a bit of a dick—see Oprahgate 2001—but since I don’t have to interact with the man (and, truth be told, have always envied people who let show their disdain for the general population) it frankly doesn’t matter to me whether he’s unfailingly polite or a huge asshole. What does matter to me is how he writes, and I would be hard-pressed to compile a list of my Top 10 authors that didn’t have his name on it.
This is my second tour with The Corrections, Franzen’s 2001 novel (and the subject of Oprahgate). The book follows through the years a perfectly dysfunctional Midwestern family and the dissolution of the relationships therein. (You know, as Franzen does.) There’s Enid, the overbearing mother, who lives for the moments when her children and grandchildren return home, only to nag them incessantly about various life choices when they’re there. There’s Alfred, whose descent into Parkinson’s plagues Enid and the children, but who still refuses to give up his old-world need for privacy in the interest of improving his health. There’s Gary, the successful older son; Chip, the wayward middle child; and Denise, the troubled youngest, whose consecutive affairs with married men (and women) are perhaps the most riveting portions of the book.
Now, I know I’m not making this sound like an upbeat novel. And it really isn’t. I remember little about reading The Corrections the first time except liking it. I cannot, for instance, remember whether certain scenes with Alfred—scenes documenting his incontinence, his worsening hallucinations, his inability to distinguish between his right and left leg—provoked in me the same unapologetic sobbing my cat witnessed whilst I finished this book last night. I can’t remember if the passive-aggressive dialogue between Enid and her children resonated with me as much then as it did this time around. I can’t remember if Gary’s need to feel superior, Chip’s self-destruction in the face of perceived inadequacy or Denise’s uncertainty over her own inherent goodness felt as real in 2001 as they did to me this time. Considering the differences in my own maturity, priorities and emotional status between ages 15 and 25, I would be surprised if they did.
Ultimately, I’m happy I reread this book (I am, for the record, a very infrequent re-reader.) The Corrections isn’t really for teenagers, though Franzen’s prose is a joy irrespective of a reader’s age. It’s about getting older; about kids becoming adults and seeing their parents differently, and about parents becoming elderly and seeing their children, and their lives, differently. It’s a fantastic and beautifully written book, and it’s also an undeniable downer. This fact alone may turn some people off, and that’s okay; I can respect anyone’s desire to not cry all over their pillow (seriously, if I had roommates, they would worry). But books aren’t always about feeling good; sometimes they’re just about feeling understood. So at the end of the day, Franzen may be a dick, but the dude totally understands me. For that, I’ll read it again in 2021.
I picked up The Corrections because I, like so many of us, bought into the Freedom hype and devoured that monstrosity in hardcover a few months ago. I had a very similar reaction to that book, in part because it is a very similar book—Franzen is nothing if not adept at describing the esoteric malaise that accompanies being simultaneously smart and emotional. He’s a master at describing relationships—spouses, siblings, parents—and equally skilled at writing dialogue for any age or gender (exception: The book-within-a-book featured in Freedom, ostensibly “written by” a middle-aged housewife, which still sounded a lot like a middle-aged professional author). He is also great at throwing beautiful phrases into his writing, seemingly careless lines that it would likely take me (and who knows, may very well have taken him) weeks to dream up. To top all of it off though, Franzen seems to get people (impressive for someone who appears not to like them very much); every time I read something of his, there’s at least one thought, at least one character’s fleeting observation, that not only resonates with me but makes me think “Fucking yes; exactly!” So I’m sorry, readers who love Steinbeck and Fitzgerald at the expense of Franzen and Foster Wallace, if an author can make me feel that, it doesn’t really matter whether they’re writing in 1950, or 2011, or 2050. Sometimes good is just good.
*Note: I’m going out of town tomorrow, so you’re welcome for my early review this week. I plan to spend my time traveling mostly on alcohol, with a side emphasis on romantic comedies and food, but I will try to get some reading in as well.
TITLE: The Corrections
AUTHOR: Jonathan Franzen
PAGES: 566 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Freedom, How to Be Alone
SORTA LIKE: Freedom meets The Believers
FIRST LINE: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.”