The Corrections, By Jonathan Franzen, 2001
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Corrections is the kind of book members of the black-shirted young intelligencia will bring up at a casual drink-fest in an attempt to sound cultured and knowing without sounding disconnected and/or pretentious (first years take note: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky will only provoke the latter impression; avoid discussing anything even vaguely Russian at an Ori meet and greet). Think of Franzen as a kind of thinking man’s Dan Brown – entirely readable, yet not trashy and misleading.
Book blurbs compare The Corrections to Don DeLillo’s White Noise. What makes this novel equal to – if not better than – DeLillo’s (and Don is certainly a guru of culture-criticism-as-fiction) is that it didn’t take an overstated sense of confusion and disconnection to portray the qualms this author has with contemporary America.
Franzen’s is a cynical view of society in which university students no longer think being overtly rich and disgustingly exploitative really deserves criticism. It’s a world where a drug that shares its name with a common laxative is set to become the cure-all for every social ill. “CorrectAll” is the novel’s super drug: it can make the most banal tasks (cleaning the toilet bowl at the local McDonald’s, perhaps) feel pleasantly satisfying. One of the signs of depression (so the book tells us) is ANHEDONIA: an “inability to experience pleasure in normally pleasurable acts.” Each of Franzen’s characters is just trying to get a little pleasure (yes that’s right my little first years, these characters are easy to relate to). How they ‘get some’ is up to the corrections they make in their interactions with a central family; one that displays more than your average degree of modern fucked-upness (S&M fetishes, sexuality issues, drug abuse, capitalism and hallucinatory conversations with faeces). Franzen manages to draw what appears to be the whole world – his sheer wealth of knowledge is, frankly, intimidating – into this domestic illustration. Then he makes you relate to it.
Does this man simply know too much? The novel reeks of his understated intelligence. You can try hard to fault him: By page 150 you might decide his female characters are badly rendered male fantasies, but 100 pages later you’ll repent and start calling them convincing, apparently effortless. When an American man who’s written what’s considered a ‘modern classic’ actually writes women well, you can’t help but be nice and want to stand around at parties talking about him. So this year, instead of wearing a beret to impress the smart folk, why not casually drop the words ‘irony’ and ‘The Corrections’ into sentence? Of course, I’d recommend you read the book first – the only thing worse than people who don’t suit berets is people who bullshit about irony.