by Emile DeWeaver
I like to think I learn a lot about a person by reading their work, so I’m not surprised when people tell me Jonathan Franzen is an asshole. I read The Corrections, and it showed up on his pages.
I like him. Some of my best friends are assholes. Beneath their sarcasm and sexism (and they’re really working on their sexism), these earnest men are in touch with life’s absurdities.
The Corrections is a comic saga about a tragic family trying to collect itself, reconnect, and heal—all in time for Christmas. Expect no surprise conclusions; the novel ends without tying bows around the characters’ lives. What distinguishes The Corrections from other well-written novels is Franzen’s gift for absurdity. From a sex-obsessed professor turned hack playwright to a family patriarch who stores his urine in cans secreted in his basement, the characters are absurd. The narrative voice, which relies on quirky tangents, is absurd, and some plot points are so absurd they read like the kind of nonfiction that prompts comments about reality often being stranger than fiction. Even the sentences themselves are absurd.
Absurd and masterful. My favorite sentence, purely for craft reasons, begins, “He [Chip Lambert, the sex-crazed playwright] had time for one subversive thought about his parents’ Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bags—” After the em-dash, Franzen launches into a 102-word parenthetic commentary about corporate advertising and how Chip’s parents, Edie and Alfred Lambert, might have come by the shoulder bags before landing on the other side of his em-dashes on a 32-word clause that stretches to breaking across five ands. Franzen is Evel Knievel Houdini because I’m halfway through 102 words before I realize that he’s crazy, yet my eyes don’t stop flying across the page. When I arrive at the sentence’s last clause, the sentence’s first clause jumps into my head without me having to glance back at the top of the page, and my eyebrows climb Mount Incredulous. I should be distracted by the sheer feat of it all, but my eyes continue to eat the words as if they’re starving. I read it two more times to scrutinize Franzen’s techniques for patterns: 12 conjunctions, alternative clauses that allow me to enjoy them as they come then mentally discard them once I’ve moved on to the next, and the echoing of “shoulder bags” in the first clause with “shouldered the bags” in the final clause.
Reading the next page, I smile at a 308-word sentence because, yes, it’s ridiculous, but, I’m impressed by the risks Franzen takes. Because I read late at night but have to rise early in the morning, time didn’t permit me to read it twice more, and this relates to my first caveat to this novel.
If you have a busy work week, I recommend you put off reading The Corrections until your leisure time isn’t worth its hours in gold pounds. Otherwise, you may grow frustrated the 100th time Franzen takes you on his 100th masterful tangent. They’re entertaining: sometimes I’m chuckling at what I’ve come to call Franzen’s artistic masturbation, but when it’s 11pm and I have to wake up at 5am, I’m thinking, Dude! Finish already.
Franzen is Evel Knievel Houdini because I’m halfway through 102 words before I realize that he’s crazy, yet my eyes don’t stop flying across the page.
That said, I’d read this book again if only for one scene. Early in the story, during the romantic break-up of Chip and his girlfriend, Julia, Franzen treats readers to the low points of Chip’s screenplay, “The Academy Purple.” The play’s protagonist, Bill Quaintence, is a professor of Textual Artifacts and gives “effulgent lectures” when he’s not struggling for the young soul and naked body of a student who turns out to be the “diabolical lesbian lover” of Bill’s ex-wife Hillaire. The script begins with a six-page lecture about the “anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama,” and in a 124-page script, Chip describes breasts 23 times.
Franzen uses the break-up dialogue to frame the hilarious catastrophe that is poor Chip’s brainchild. As Chip chases Julia, who is pissed off about the breasts, onto a New York street, he’s mentally assailed by the offending passages and page numbers (and here is the litmus by which I encourage you to decide if The Corrections is worth your time):
3: bee-stung lips, high round breasts, narrow hips and
3: over the cashmere sweater that snugly hugs her breasts
4: forward raptly, her perfect adolescent breast eagerly
8: (eyeing her breasts)
9: (eyeing her breasts)
9: (his eyes drawn helplessly to her perfect breasts)
11: (eyeing her breasts)
12: (mentally fondling her perfect breasts)
13: (eyeing her breasts)
15: (eyeing and eyeing her perfect adolescent breasts)
23: (clinch, her perfect breasts surging against his
24: the repressive bra to unfetter her subversive breasts.)
28: to pinkly tongue one sweet-sheened breast.)
29. I like your breasts.
30. absolutely adore your honeyed, heavy breasts
33: (Hillaire’s breasts, like twin Gestapo bullets, can be
36: barbed glare as if to puncture and deflate her breasts
44: Arcadian breasts with stern puritanical terry cloth and
45: cowering, ashamed, the towel clutched to her breasts.)
76: her guileless breasts shouldered now in militaristic
83: I miss your body, I miss your perfect breasts, I
117: drowned headlights fading like two milk-white breasts
As I’m reading this list, I’m laughing at Chip’s obsession. I’m laughing because the producer to whom he’s trying to sell this script is a woman; and I’m laughing because I’ve written some horrible shit but never anything this overwrought and … bad. And I have to laugh quietly because it’s midnight in prison, and there are certain etiquettes concerning noise that must be observed when you live in a pillbox with another man. Though delighted, I’m slowly suffocating in mirthful whispers.
Here’s where Franzen demonstrates his gift for absurdity. He might’ve rested on the laurels of the script and the list, but he continues:
It seemed to Chip that Julia was leaving him because “The Academy Purple” had too many breast references and a draggy opening, and that if he could correct these few obvious problems, both on Julia’s copy of the script and, more important, on the copy he’d specially laser-printed on 24-pound ivory bond paper for Eden Procuro, there might be hope not only for his finances but also his chances of ever again unfettering and fondling Julia’s own guileless, milk-white breast [emphasis added].
I lost it. I howled and spit laughter, and the more I tried to quiet myself, the more I exploded. It proved difficult to apologize to my cellmate because I couldn’t explain why I was laughing so hard without laughing even louder, but he’s familiar enough with my eccentricities that once I pointed at the book, he shook his head like a disappointed father and went back to sleep.
Chip is so hopelessly trapped in who he is that at this point I’m as much laughing at myself as him. Yes, he’s ridiculous, but this is why his humanity plays so clearly on the page. We’ve all been in desperate need of a jailbreak from the prisons in which we place ourselves, and this theme plays strong in The Corrections. Chip is trapped by his obsessions; his father, Alfred, constructs his prison out of pride and sexual repression; Chip’s mother, Enid, walls herself off from the world by being too judgmental; and his oldest brother, Gary, builds his bars from martyrdom and purist convention.
The reader could—like Gitanas, The Corrections’ resident Lithuanian diplomat who survived torture by lit cigarettes in a Soviet prison—dismiss the characters who choose to create prisons for themselves. When Gitanas spies a cigarette burn Chip gave himself in a moment of despair, he remarks, “Self-inflicted. You pathetic American.”
Chip’s response: “Different kind of prison.”
Reminds me of a conversation I had with a good man—we’ll call him Jacques—who volunteers at my prison. Jaques was talking about how he and many free people are in prisons even though they live in the “free world.” Generally, when someone starts with anything that even verges on the freedom-is-in-the-mind speech, I smile and resist the urge to slap them and then say, “That pain is in your mind, not burning your face.” But I understood Jacques. Sitting next to him, experiencing his story, his sincerity, I couldn’t dismiss him as easily as Gitanas did chip because Jaques reminded me of myself.
He was apologetic as he told me his truth because he felt absurd grieving his lack of freedom to a man nearing his 20th year in prison. “I know it’s different,” he said.
It is different. It’s not necessarily any less traumatic.
In my experience, traits like cruelty and ruthlessness aren’t qualities you gain through accretion. They are what remains after grinding away their human opposites—empathy, compassion.
I’ve experienced a lot of oppression in my life: domestic violence, incarceration, racism. But nothing more traumatic than the ways I have oppressed myself, transformed myself into the “gangsta” that others wanted me to be. My mother still tells stories about what a sensitive child I was, but, to become a gangster, I had to learn ruthlessness. When we think about learning, we imagine an accumulation of some quality of body of knowledge. In my experience, traits like cruelty and ruthlessness aren’t qualities you gain through accretion. They are what remains after grinding away their human opposites—empathy, compassion. And no one can do this to you or for you: you have to choose this self-directed violence repeatedly. It’s like killing yourself over and over again.
So when I hear Jaques talking about people who imprison themselves, or I’m reading Franzen’s cast of dysfunctionals destroying themselves amid a surfeit of opportunity, I don’t see “pathetic” Americans. I see one more commonality.
The commonality that defines the human struggle: to stet a subversive breast, before we’re all marched to prison by twin Gestapo nipples.