Have you ever read a book that didn’t pull you in right away? Maybe by the 50th page you find you’ve already convinced yourself that you aren’t going to like it but that you’ll finish it anyway, only to realize that it crept up on you and suddenly…mind blown? If you have, you’ll understand why I am having trouble putting what I thought about this book into words. If you haven’t, read this book. I’m going to give it a try in any case. Bear with me.
The premise of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a woman, Enid Lambert, trying to get her three children home for Christmas, a holiday made especially poignant by the fact that her husband, Alfred, is quickly declining into the encroaching darkness of Parkinson’s and dementia. The novel switches perspectives and narrators often, giving each of the main characters their minute in the spotlight. This narrative style helps the reader understand the dynamics of a very distant, incommunicative family whose members are often so wrapped up in their own lives that they neglect to maintain their familial relationships. Sound familiar? What I particularly liked about this style was that it allowed the reader to understand the family from every perspective, allowing an analysis that would be impossible were there to be only one narrator, only one version of events. Each new perspective begins with a brief overlap of the perspective before, so that the novel functions like a network of interweaving stories, daily experiences, and sentiments that come together to make a whole.
One theme that I noticed immediately was the novel’s constant mention or critique of consumerism, usually in the form of evoking brand names and the value of things. What’s interesting is that different takes on consumerism are evinced by different characters. For example, Gary, the eldest Lambert child and a frequent patron of the Church of All Things Monetary, thinks of consumerism as the great equalizer. He’s none too happy about it either, because Gary wants to believe that his abundance of wealth makes him different from, say, the overweight Walmart-shopping denizens of his parents’ über-Midwestern town, St. Jude:
Oh, misanthropy and sourness. Gary wanted to enjoy being a man of wealth and leisure, but the country was making it none too easy. All around him, millions of newly minted American millionaires were engaged in the identical pursuit of feeling extraordinary–of buying the perfect Victorian, of skiing the virgin slope, of knowing the chef personally, of locating the beach that had no footprints. There were further tens of millions of young Americans who didn’t have money but were nonetheless chasing the Perfect Cool. And meanwhile the sad truth was that not everyone could be extraordinary, not everyone could be extremely cool; because whom would this leave to be ordinary? Who would perform the thankless work of being comparatively uncool?…. Gary wished that all further migration to the coasts could be banned and all midwesterners encouraged to revert to eating pasty foods and wearing dowdy clothes and playing board games, in order that a strategic national reserve of cluelessness might be maintained, a wilderness of taste which would enable people of privilege, like himself, to feel extremely civilized in perpetuity–
In Gary’s mind, consumerism should be segregated, so that the individuals who are on the top, the 1% if you will, can feel their superiority. I feel that this is a harshly accurate view of consumerism in the world. Money gives you entitlement, automatic respect, “individuality”. Lack of money, on the other hand, makes you part of the faceless, seething masses. Personally, I find that money, rather than the lack of it, seems to make the individual conform to an idea of “what one does when one finds oneself possessed of inordinate amounts of money”. When things don’t come as easily (and I’m not disputing that it’s difficult to make a lot of money, too), I find that people often become more innovative, more determined to get what they need to survive. The other Lambert brother, Chip, for example, in order to dig himself out of the financial hole he puts himself in, moves to Lithuania to commit a little bit of investment fraud at the request of a mysterious man. That’s nothing if not innovative, all question of morals aside. Desperation often breeds imagination.
Now I’m trying to keep these blogs around 1000 words, because I’m not trying to write novels here (not yet!) and I want people to read them, but I’ve never had more that I could talk about than in this book. Nevertheless, I am going to limit myself to one more topic. If any of you have ever read The Chronicles of Narnia, you’ll definitely remember the God-lion, Aslan. You may or may not also know that this series was actually one big biblical allegory, with Aslan being the God that created the Earth (Narnia). In The Corrections, Aslan is the name of a shame-suppressing drug. Quite the opposite of the actual God, who tends (especially in Catholicism) to be a big fan of the shame. I just found that hysterical. Of course, it turned out to be even funnier when Enid, who was taking Aslan in order to quell the shame she felt for having an infirm and incontinent husband, finds out that it is actually a club drug, commonly know as Mexican A, which seems to be a diluted form of Ecstasy.
I think this entry is seriously lacking. My head is all over the place. New job, new (old) city, late nights (re)connecting…it’s exhausting. But I think the overall feeling I gained from this novel is this: children villainize their parents for their shortcomings because they can never be truly aware of the sacrifices made for their sakes. It’s a simple, semi-universal truth, but the way in which everything comes together in this book to bring you to that conclusion is truly inspired.
I’ll try to get myself together for the dinner entry. I’m thinking either swanky, New York, nouveau riche food…or Midwestern Christmas, jello molds and all. The latter truly intrigues me… Maybe it’s time to get in touch with my Missourian (or Misery-ian, as my Papa calls it) roots.