Friday, 11 March 2011

The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections is one of the best novels I have read in a long time (surely this author should get a little hype... oh wait....) It's the portrait of a family, painted viscerally and sentimentally, and written with a welcoming brilliance that nearly matches its cast. 

I'm reminded of one of the first conclusions I came to on this blog, from that old master, David Lodge: great writing is great characters, who care about each other.

I have a thing for long, sprawling, virtuoso novels at the moment. It's a relatively new thing, and I'm still exploring it. One thing that has struck me already, however, is how badly these beautiful, fat children end.

Seriously, I can count the number of heavy novels that ended well on the fingers of one knee. There's no single factor to blame, but a few that coincide:

1. The longer the book, the bigger the expectations of the pay-off.
2. The more an author sprawls -- ie, ignores direct linear plotting and things like The Main Character, The Single Story -- the harder it is to tie things together or even decide what needs tying.
3. The more virtuoso a writer is (whatever that means right this second) the less emphasis there is, generally, on exterior plot events -- the very things that make endings paint-by-numbers easy.

Franzen, I think, answers all these with typically literary non-answers. He overcomes them with limits.

He limits the expectations on the ending by telling us very early on what it will involve -- a Lambert Family Christmas either happening or failing to happen. He limits the distance he can sprawl with that same promise; he cannot go beyond this family, or that Christmas. And his virtusosity is, clever clever, showing how far he can go within those limits.

Now, that's not the real solution to the great-big-novel/piss-poor-ending conundrum, but it is certainly a neat sidestep. So, I should read Freedom?


  1. The first part of Freedom is brilliant, but after that I found it really hard to care about the characters or their stories.

    It's proably just me though. Everyone else seemed to love it.

  2. I have read The Corrections too, during Christmas time. I have to admit that you are right about the great characters, taking care of each other. The conflict can be monotonous (hell, most times it is), but seen through the eyes of different people, it takes a meaning of its own.

    That said, it's a real downer though. It depressed me for a few weeks.

  3. I think you might enjoy Freedom while having some issues with it. Sprawl is the main thing. Franzen skips around in chronology in what is a much looser story structure. And it's a lot more thematically ambitious than The Corrections, so he has to do more to deliver (you can put me down as mostly satisfied by Freedom, but by no means entirely).
    I'll take your word for it in this nice post, though, that I ought to pick up The Corrections at some point.

  4. I've had this on my shelf for years, but have yet to pick it up. Glad it's (still) living up to the hype.

  5. Jonathan Franzen is a well read author and a talented writer so his narrations dig deep into a variety of literary sources.