Tuesday, September 18, 2007

the last book I read

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

I haven't read a real big doorstop of a novel for a while - Riven Rock was probably the last one that might qualify, but this is bigger (650+ pages). For all its thumping weight I zipped through it pretty quickly, though.

Enid and Alfred Lambert live in the fictional midwestern town of St. Jude; Albert is increasingly in the grip of Parkinson's disease and dementia, Enid is in denial about the whole thing, an increasingly difficult position to maintain in the face of Alfred's increasingly slender grip on reality, not to mention more mundane things like being able to make it to the toilet in time.

Meanwhile their three children have some problems of their own: investment banker Gary is an uptight control freak increasingly in the grip of depression and paranoid about his wife and children ganging up on him behind his back, chef Denise is simultaneously sleeping with her boss and his wife, and feckless Chip has been sacked from his cushy academic post, dumped by his girlfriend and is now doing PR for a shady character in Lithuania. Meanwhile Enid harbours somewhat unrealistic fantasies about getting the whole family together for one last big Christmas celebration in St. Jude.

It's one of those novels that starts off by sketching some brief details about the present, firing off into the past to fill in everyone's back-story, linking them all together as it goes, and then emerging back into "now" to tie up all the threads at the end. This can result in a bit of reader frustration as you wait to get the discursive bits out of the way and get on with what you feel, instinctively, is the "real" story. I had some problems in this area with, to name but two, John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany and Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, highly entertaining books both, but in both cases by the time the back-story was out of the way there was only a handful of pages to tidy up before the book ended. Clearly this is a problem with my expectations, and them not being met by the books' structure, but there it is. The Corrections just about avoids this by emerging into the present in the nick of time to make you care about the stuff that, by the book's internal timeline, hasn't "happened yet", if you follow me.

Apparently this is grouped, by some at least, into a genre called "hysterical realism", along with a few other authors I'm familiar with; I can see the sense of the grouping to some extent, though I think the comparison with Thomas Pynchon is stretching it a bit. Franzen is actually interested in people in a way that Pynchon isn't, for a start, though I should point out that this opinion is derived from reading Vineland only and not any of Pynchon's other stuff.

Anyway, I digress. It's very good, and it'll take less time and effort to read than you might think. Give it a go. If you want a bit more analysis straight from the horses mouth, as it were, try this Salon.com interview.

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