Monday, June 28, 2004

My Two Cents

A book review that really isn't a book review but is a long, jangling piece of writing I cooked up in order to get all twelve of my steady readers reading again and don't you just hate long subtitles like this? well tough, it's my forum

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is one of those novels I've been meaning to read for years (ever since the book came out, in fact) but was always reluctant to set aside the time for. You've got a 568-page novel sitting on your shelf, perhaps a novel you spent $26.50 for, and it quickly beomes a venial sin not to pick it up and get to work. However, given the day-to-day of an English teacher, if you want to keep up with your paperload, the best you can hope for is a couple hours at a stretch, two or three times a week. It takes me about a month to finish a novel at that pace, and from what I'd heard about Franzen's other two books, it would be a tough month at that. As one of Franzen's characters says, regarding a nursing home he's been put into, "Better not to leave at all than to have to come back."

That kind of mindset is appalling yet agreeable logic for an invalid, but it sucks ass for someone independent, financially stable, and with free time that, even though he can't always enjoy it, still has it, dammit. And yet I waited.

Then last week, while waiting for new glasses at the local mall, Kim shows me the discount shelves at Waldenbooks (you remember them, don't you? they used to be the conglomerate Satan of booksellers before Barnes and Noble and Borders took over that title), where The Corrections was going for a mere $7.50 (including tax). Seven dollars and fifty fucking cents! That's the price of my movie ticket to go see The Chronicles of Riddick, a true piece of shit, or a pint and a half of Guiness (always worth it, but still, you know?). You can't argue with such logic. I bought it immediately.

Of course, it was a couple of days before I got to it--I was finishing Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, enjoying the story yet getting incredibly tired of Wallace's fondness for descriptive detail (I'm betraying my professors here, I'm sure, but "The grass was fresh and clean...The trees did not crowd each other; and they were of every kind native to the East, blended well with strangers adopted from far quarters; here grouped in exclusive companionship palm trees plumed like queens; there sycamores, overtopping blah blah blah" when you could just write "There was a grove of trees" occurred to me more than once) and religious idolatry. It probably took me, all told, ten or fifteen hours of my life to read that book, and while it was time well spent, I decided to be more picky about the next amount of time I would dedicate. On my shelf, as yet unread, are several books I know would be well worth it: Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (which I always start, always love, and always have to put away), Lewis' The Middle East, and Friedman's Free to Choose (the New Yorker commented that even Governor Schwarzenegger knew of Friedman's book, though he'd taken the time to watch the television series). And yet, Franzen was sitting right there. And so I picked it up last Wednesday night, and just put it down after an afternoon of doing laundry at the laundromat, R. Kelley blaring through the loudspeakers and little kids playing tag/bumper cars with the laundry baskets.

The first thought out of my head at that point was: "I wonder if there's a story in this laundromat."

That's the kind of effect Franzen had on me. He wants me to go out and do it.

"Okay, fine. What's the damned book about, anyway?
The Corrections is almost a "sprawling" novel but not quite. It covers the travails of the Lambert family, based in the midwest: There's Alfred and Enid, Al a retired railroad worker in the throes of Parkinsons and dementia, Enid a homemaker, and their three children: Gary (in Pittsburgh with a wife and three kids), Chip (a recently fired professor) and Denise (a famous chef). The book skips around chronologically, but in a completely coherent fashion, and Franzen's social critiques are in plain sight for even the most casual of readers to ferret out, even as he couches them in a deeper philosophical meaning.

Whatever that means.

Basically, Enid is trying to put together "one last Christmas" at the old homestead where everyone grew up, in St. Jude, Ohio (St. Jude, by the way, is the patron saint of hopeless causes. I learned that in The Atlantic Monthly writeup on the book). Before embarking on a "pleasure cruise" which Enid is determined to enjoy, come hell or high water, she and Alfred stop to visit Chip in New York, where he's been writing a screenplay. Chip, unfortunately, has to run out the door to rescue his screenplay from the agency because of flaws he's aware of only too late. Denise shows up and winds up cooking lunch for everyone, but unbeknownst to her family, she's preoccupied with a sexual/romantic trist of a complexity even the Victorians couldn't have cooked up. Enid suspects she's involved with a married man. Gary, meanwhile, is back in Pittsburgh, fighting a losing battle with depression and another losing battle with his family over a) whether or not they can return to St. Jude (a place his wife Caroline and 2/3 kids rank slightly below the Seventh Circle of Hell) and b) whether or not he (Gary) is chronically depressed.

"Okay, fine. Why the hell should I read this damned book?"
I'm not exactly a professional book reviewer, and even if I were, this is hardly the place to write up what I got out of the text in the way of symbolism, thematism and historicisim (there's a ton there, though--the book would have been composed during the dot-com explosion of 2000, despite the eight year interval between its publication and Franzen's last novel). I will say, though, that while it definitely qualifies as a "deep read," it's still a relaxed read. They're characters you can know and understand. They're settings you know, even if you've never set foot in New York, Lithuania, or the Midwest in your life. They're issues that, while you may not have gone through them yourself literally, you still know. And the novel has a conclusion that is not without ambiguity, which is something I absolutely love about fiction. It causes you to think. It may cause you to debate. And you can form your own opinion (something Michael Moore critics, for example, seem to think the American public has forgotten how to do--hint hint? I'm talking to you, Tso) about the merits of that ending.

In short, it qualifies as literary fiction with a broad market appeal. Probably just what Franzen had in mind (see his essay "Mr. Difficult" in How to be alone for clarification).

Go read the book. You won't be disappointed. And your TV and stereo will never be quieter while you do.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

From today's Tribune:

Ulysses is... and Bloomsday festival in Dublin. James Joyce's Ulysses is that book that probably every English teacher should read. I taught Portrait of the Artist last semester, and it was brutal, but the story of Bloom, Molly and an older Stephen Daedelus is something I just never found time for. Maybe this summer. That novel and probably Moby Dick are the guilty confessionals of my profession. I have read Moby, and I stand by its literary merit, even though I had some snot nosed classmates who voiced off about it: "I wanted to read it, but life's too short." "Oh, it's overrated...I guess. I haven't read it either."

You gonna talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. Get your culture, dammit.

Now please excuse me. Real Sex IV is on.