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March 21, 2005

Review: The Corrections

The Corrections

The short version of this review is that while this is really quite a good book, it's not as good as the author thinks it is.

Much was made of Franzen's refusal to have The Corrections selected for Oprah's Reading Club. Honestly, other than him thinking that his book was better than it was, I can't see why. After all, Oprah has since had Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and East of Eden, to name but a few -- very good company, elevated company for Franzen, in fact. A bit above his place. In the end, I think, he acquiesced -- some time after his initial selection.

At one point, I was listening to this book alongside All the Names, and I couldn't help but draw some comparisons. One was a quiet little book that I mightn't have heard of if not for the New York Times Book Review, the other was this publishing behemoth that had been generating buzz (including a profile on the author in the New York Times Magazine) for months. And yet the former is by far the better book, with lasting, timeless value.

It's hard to know where to start with The Corrections; it is large and boisterous, very American in its sensibility, a sprawling book in plots, subplots, tragedy, comedy, characters, places. I was laughing out loud more frequently than I would have expected, with Franzen's clever turns of phrase, or spot-on characterization, the perfect pitches of the voices and motives of his creations. I was heartbroken at spots. I was as frenzied as Denise in my wanting more book at points, at my desire to just keep reading even though I had arrived at work (a few minutes more permissible here) or at school to pick up Luc (nope, no spare minutes there). I was bowled over by changes in circumstance amongst the characters. I was impressed by the narrator. I burned with embarassment for his characters when he degraded them¹. Like I said, it's a sprawl -- very very American in its sensibilities, like a suburb that in its enormity embraces both conformity and hidden perversions.

The book reminded me quite a lot of A Confederacy of Dunces -- like that book, it had great bouts of humor, but it also came off as fairly confectionary. It was a sweet that I loved consuming, and indeed frequently longed for more of, but which ultimately left me seeking something with more substance and sustenance. I thought often of David Foster Wallace, that amazingly talented young man who I feel often squanders his talents on trickery and gimmicks, who must have something more to say, given his amazing abilities at saying things. Franzen doesn't stoop quite to such gimmicks as Wallace, and he also reminds me a bit of Chabon² -- his novel actually has a plot, and though enormous, a good one.

In the end, I've come away glad to have listened to it, and also somewhat glad that it takes Franzen a while to write his books. I'm not going to be ready for another one for a few years.

¹Moderately unforgivable, in some cases. There are things I don't need to think about, and he lavishes some attention on them. If you read it, I'm sure you'll feel the same way, and probably about different things.
²Albeit without Chabon's fondness for gay men emerging from their shells, and also without Chabon's charm.

Posted by Brett Douville at March 21, 2005 08:15 PM


I congratulate you on finishing it. I was overcome by inertia about halfway through. Same for Wallace and *Dunces*, now that I think about it. Chabon, though. Chabon I can read.

BTW, if you haven't read any Jonathan Lethem, I urge you to start.

Posted by: Jamie at March 21, 2005 10:51 PM

Actually, I've read quite a bit of Lethem; I read his first novel (Gun, With Occasional Music, review forthcoming, see the upcoming section of the sidebar on the main page) just a week or so ago, and I read his new collection of stories, Men and Cartoons, in January (before I started blogging). I read Motherless Brooklyn two years ago. At one point, I started Fortress of Solitude, but the beginning was fairly dense and the due date was close by, so I returned it without really starting. I'm going to get back to it, it's been on my list for a while.

Posted by: Brett Douville at March 22, 2005 07:26 AM

Man, it's good.

Posted by: Jamie Fristrom at March 22, 2005 01:08 PM

I hear ya, I hear ya. The new library I go to is pretty poor -- of the 120 books or so on my fiction list, they only seem ever to have a few of them. I'm going to have to get in the habit of requesting books that get sent via interlibrary loan. Maybe I'll request that next -- and probably only get that one, since it really was very dense reading.

Posted by: Brett Douville at March 23, 2005 07:27 AM