“The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen
By Jonathan Franzen
576 pages. Audio: 21 hours and 53 minutes.
It was the first truly great novel of the new century. It is most unfortunate that it was launched in controversy (though that didn’t seem to hurt sales much) and that, to this day, its author is sometimes thought of as a sexist literary twit.
Once upon a time, the most famous and powerful woman in the world, Oprah Winfrey, had a book club on her television show. To have Oprah feature your book would guarantee rocketing sales. And once upon a time, Oprah picked the The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Who wouldn’t want that? Answer: Jonathan Franzen.
He opined on NPR that having the Oprah insignia on his book would keep male readers from picking it up. That led Winfrey to cancel his appearance on her show. This all turned out to be excellent publicity, and The Corrections became a runaway bestseller. It was also chosen for the National Book Award and was a Pulitzer finalist for fiction.
But now to the book. It is a long, sprawling family drama which, despite a few postmodern tics (for instance, there is a scene with talking feces but I assure you it’s not quite as bad as it sounds), is actually a straightforward accounting of a dysfunctional family coming together for one last Christmas.
It is that rarity—a brilliant literary novel that also manages to be a compelling page-turner. While the tone of the book is melancholy at best and tragic at worst, Franzen also has a wonderfully humorous light touch. There is a scene in the book where one of the characters is trying to steal frozen meat from a store, and it’s one of the funniest laugh-out-loud episodes I have read in a book of great literature.
The book basically brings us up to speed on what is happening in the lives of the parents and each of their grown children who are coming together for what will be an undoubtedly awkward and tense holiday. Happily ever after is a very unlikely outcome.
So why would a preacher read this book? Well, for one thing, if you’re going to bother to read modern fiction, you ought to read the very best, and this book falls into that category. In some ways, I consider it the consummate 21st-century novel—it’s filled with the angst, the tensions, the love, and the commitment that modern families must navigate. Franzen is surely one of the great chroniclers of the modern American family and culture.
Franzen has followed up this book with two other mammoth novels with one-word titles, Freedom and Purity. Freedom is highly esteemed, and I have friends who think it better than The Corrections. I will leave the enterprising reader to decide for herself, but I personally prefer The Corrections. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has read this book and does not admire it. Move it to the top of your fiction list.