Book Review – The Corrections

Recently, at a realtors’ training session in Toronto, participants were told that it takes eight contact points between a realtor and a ‘prospect’ (a prospective buyer or seller) before they’ll decide to work with that realtor. That’s a lot of contact. (It perhaps explains why there are so many flyers, brochures, calendars and magnets in your mailbox.)

It made me wonder how many times I need to hear about a given book before I’m persuaded to buy it. Three, I think, is the magic number. And so I’ve decided that from time to time, I’ll post a review of a book that was recommended to me three times and tell you what I think.

Be warned, however, that I’ve stopped wading through books I don’t like. Maybe that’s something that comes with getting older, but if I’m not engaged in the first fifty or so pages, I stop trying.  (Agents, by the way, stop reading after five or ten.)

Unfortunately, one of those books was Jonathan Franzen’s, The Corrections.

I really enjoyed Franzen’s book of essays. A number of people whose opinions I respect told me that I would love The Corrections. And so I bought it. But I didn’t.

Try as I might, I could not get into it. I started reading it, and kept putting it down. A few days later, I’d try again. This went on for weeks. The kiss of death, I think, was when I took it upstairs to the bedside nightstand to read before I went to bed and was too bored to continue beyond a few pages. Three weeks later, I gave it away.

I know Franzen is brilliant. His essays had fresh ways of looking at life that kept me reading despite my stylistic quibbles with his overly long and frequently (in my view) overwritten paragraphs.

But those were essays. In a novel, his writing style completely turned me off.

Now, I’ll give him credit: his voice is certainly his voice. But he writes long, winding paragraphs that segue from the present into the past, and that invoke random connections, in an almost James Joyce-ian stream of consciousness.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I found myself thinking more than once as I kept plodding through The Corrections. “Where was your editor?” (A friend of mine who loves this book pointed out that with Franzen’s success, he may not be edited the same way that other novellists are. Maybe so; I don’t know. But if he isn’t, he should be.)

Here’s one example of what drove me nuts : a passage that I honestly think is so bad that it could be an entry in the Bulwer-Lytton contest:

“Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety. It was like one of those big cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that send schoolchildren into the street in fire drills. By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of ‘bell ringing’ but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their heads for so long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound. Which consciousness was particularly acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood. Then Enid and Alfred — she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table — each felt near to exploding with anxiety.”

That paragraph is the antithesis of the tension that anxiety should provoke. It made me anxious for Franzen to either get to his point or discover his ‘tab’ key.

Here’s another:

“Six days a week several pounds of mail came through the slot in the front door, and since nothing incidental was allowed to pile up downstairs — since the fiction of living in this house was that no one lived here — Enid faced a substantial tactical challenge. She didn’t think of herself as a guerrilla, but a guerrilla was what she was. By day she ferried matériel from depot to depot, often just a step ahead of the governing force. By night, beneath a charming but too-dim sconce at a too-small table in the breakfast nook, she staged various actions: paid bills, balanced checkbooks, attempted to decipher Medicare copayment records and make sense of a threatening Third Notice from a medical lab that demanded immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneously showing an account balance of $0.00 carried forward and thus indicating that she owed nothing and in any case offering no address to which remittance might be made. It would happen that the First and Second Notices were underground somewhere, and because of the constraints under which Enid waged her campaign she had only the dimmest sense of where those other Notices might be on any given evening. She might suspect, perhaps, the family-room closet, but the governing force, in the person of Alfred, would be watching a network newsmagazine at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, and he had every light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligible possibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade of catalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch statements would come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred’s wrath. There was also the possibility that the Notices would not be there, since the governing force staged random raids on her depots, threatening to “pitch” the whole lot of it if she didn’t take care of it, but she was too busy dodging these raids to ever quite take care of it, and in the succession of forced migrations and deportations any lingering semblance of order was lost, and so the random Nordstrom shopping bag that was camped behind a dust ruffle with one of its plastic handles semi-detached would contain the whole shuffled pathos of a refugee existence — non-consecutive issues of Good Housekeeping, black-and-white snapshots of Enid in the 1940s, brown recipes on high-acid paper that called for wilted lettuce, the current month’s telephone and gas bills, the detailed First Notice from the medical lab instructing co-payers to ignore subsequent billings for less than fifty cents, a complimentary cruise ship photo of Enid and Alfred wearing leis and sipping beverages from hollow coconuts, and the only extant copies of two of their children’s birth certificates, for example. ”

Tell me honestly that you didn’t skim through that one paragraph.

Interestingly, for a book described as one of the best books of the decade, the Amazon ratings are tepid. A three out of five. Since I gave the book away without finishing it, I’ll decline to rate it at all.

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