Thursday, September 8, 2011

Making The Corrections

Might I direct your attention to the far right side of this blog.  (No!  Not that right!  This right!)  Do you see that column that indicates all of the books I've read so far this year?  It's a pretty long list so far, huh?  Are you impressed?  Don't be because if I'd had my way, this  list would stretch the length of my arm. Allow me to explain why it isn't.

Every summer, before I head to my top secret retreat, I build a pile of reading materials that I try to get through in between trips to the washing machine.  This summer, however, in a joint effort to both improve myself and purge my shelf of some unwanted material, I made an effort to take out and read only those books that I owned and had not yet read.   There were books I'd been given and told to read by pain of death, some had been picked up on the road while travelling, with a few birthday presents from year's past and garage sale finds sprinkled in for good measure. It was a very big, very daunting pile but, no matter! I piled them into a Land's End boat tote and headed off to the land of  washing dishes by hand and worrying about the dump schedule.  Good times.

The project got off to a great start.  By the end of the first week, I had knocked three books off the pile.  Yay me!  I'm gonna eff you up list! The next week brought two easy reads before Wednesday.  This is like shooting fish in a barrel, I thought, as I reached towards an Ann Tyler novel paperback that'd stolen from the dentist office.  I was getting cocky. I needed a challenge.  And then I saw it.  The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  Hadn't the entire world crapped themselves over this book? Isn't he the only author to have spurned Oprah?  Wasn't it time that I discovered just how good/bad/indifferent I should be to this novel?  Why not I thought, as I removed the book jacket and started to read.  And so began my trip down the rabbit hole that is The Corrections. 

How do I begin to describe just how depressed I became while reading this book? How do I begin to dissect a book that left me in a state of intellectual torpor for weeks afterwards? So much so that I couldn't pick up anything deeper than US Weekly (What's the point of reading, I kept telling myself.  It all pointless, isn't it?).  And more importantly, how do I begin to explain that despite all of this, it is really the only book I have thought about for two straight months? 

The Corrections is a skillful, disquieting examination of a severely dysfunctional Mid-Western family - The Lamberts - as they make an effort to fulfill their mother's desire to have one last perfect Christmas with their Parkinson's afflicted father. To say these people are messed up is really understating the case and they are, each of them in their own twisted way, looking towards ritual and routine to provide any vestige of happiness or sincere emotional connection to their already shaky foundations.  And so Christmas hangs over the family in this book like mistletoe but, it ends up, by books end,  causing them more grief than joy. The happy family reunion that Mama Lambert ends up hoping for never materializes, of course.  Same goes for the rest of the family members whose lives are heaped with turmoil of one kind or the other. Characters medicate themselves with  happy pills or sleep with married people in order to feel connection of any kind.  Gary, the family's eldest, looks for joy in cooking for his children which, in the beginning starts as a weekly family event, but later turns into yet another cause of his growing depression. What Franzen confronts about our modern world is how the rituals we have embraced have become disorienting and empty.   We take our medication to be happy, but are unsure of whether our happiness is really a sham. We encourage sociality in our families with special dinners around the table, but those dinners might end up feeling like mere pageantry disguising unhappy lives. 

Buzzkill, right?  

And then I got it. Like the Lamberts, most of us are committed - ambivalently or otherwise - to some pretty miserable routines.   What Franzen suggests is that this is our modern dilemma:  creating stability in a deeply unstable and contradictory world. Just as Enid Lambert eventually learns from her vacation with her husband Alfred on a cruise boat, to avoid tumbling overboard, we are compelled to constantly adjust our balance. 

Certain books have that uncanny, almost, magic ability to speak to us about our time.  They prop a mirror up to our culture and speak to us in a way that, to be perfectly frank, can lead  to uncomfortable resolutions about ourselves.  And that's why I dropped that book full of unread shiite off at the dump on my way home for the summer.  I had to make the corrections.  I have Jonathan Franzen to thank for that.

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