Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top 60 Novels of 2000-2009 Countdown, No. 2

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I’m not sure how Jonathan Franzen got to be the voice of my generation – late boomers, born of Depression-scarred parents and raised in front of the television at a church or synagogue and on family trips and outings Nor am I sure how The Corrections became a lightning rod, first for effusive praise (it was hawked by rival publishers at the Frankfurt book fair) and then for revisionist, sometimes snide criticism (it became fashionable to rag on the novel or to revise one’s opinion of it down). But I am sure that The Corrections encapsulates what it means to be a child of difficult parents (and all parents are difficult) and a parent of difficult children (all children are difficult).

I first read about Franzen when The Twenty-Seventh City was published. I noted that he had gone to Swarthmore, where two of my old friends had gone and which I had visited, briefly, in 1980. He seemed to be at the tail end of the wunderkind group of writers getting published right out of college – Jan McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace and Ethan Canin, among others. I bought City for my in-laws, who lived in St. Louis, and I borrowed it from them. I loved it – Franzen seemed to be expressing something lurking in my own head about the world and success, and I enjoyed reading about a city I was learning more about on each visit. In the early 1990s, I receved Strong Motion as a present, and although that book was less focused than City, I found the relationship between the main characters romantic and fascinatingly baffling. Plus, both Motion and City had great plots that pivoted on conspiracies, and they came with a lot of historical details, in what James Wood called hysterical realism, for some reason. The raccoon passage in Motion was particularly powerful. Then Franzen wrote his essay about writing novels and reading, which crystallized my own thoughts about this strange habit of mine – reading literature – and provided valuable insights into the writing life.

So when I found out The Corrections was coming out in 2001, I thought I was one of a few fans who would be eager to read it. I had read two stories in The New Yorker based on chapters of the novel, and I was looking forward to the whole thing. Then came the waves of hype, and I realized Franzen was going to be the hot author of the year. Not only did he make Oprah’s list, he dissed Oprah so badly that she took him off her show – earning him the awe and envy of journalists everywhere. Then 9/11 happened, and The Corrections sealed off the frolic that was the 1990s. The hype was so thick that I put off reading the novel after I received it as a gift, because I was afraid it was bound to be disappointing. I finally read it on a trip back to St. Louis and Kansas City in 2003, and it met my high expectations – from the father falling into the ocean, to Chip scoring drugs at Wesleyan’s Gingerbread House, to the sister’s opening a restaurant in a converted power plant in Philadelphia. And there was a whole lot of plot, including affairs, suburban ennui and the economic meltdown in the Balkans. Yes, it was stuffed with stuff, but I like stuff. Bring it on. If we do read to break out of our own heads and look into the thoughts and feelings of others, then let those thoughts and feelings be big, to make the trip out of our skulls worthwhile.

So now Franzen apparently will publish another big novel, called Freedom, and if I’m good, I might get it for my birthday.

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