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A tight fit
on December 22, 2013
In this novel, which does not pretend to be thoroughly realistic, Franzen flatly lays out what each of his creations must do. The children, Chip, Gary and Denise, fit the clichés one expects from many authors, usually male. An academic cannot be seen marking papers, attending committee meetings or serving on grievance panels. Instead, he must `transgress' against hierarchical structures and have a career-terminating affair. A successful businessman has to be married to a non-supportive wife. For a young woman who was Daddy's Girl, the future holds a string of failed relationships and the am-I-straight? routine. Enid and Alfred Lambert, the parents, must be unorthodox in a very prescribed fashion.
Franzen does not disappoint here, establishing five individual paths so relentlessly that the stereotyped Lamberts emerge on the other side as complete cartoon figures, perfectly matching the unrealistic plot. (Enough reviewers divulge plots, as if that was the only element in a book, so it won't be addressed here.) As in a sitcom, where spit-takes and mistaken identities occur all too often, in this book sexual mistakes, marital discord and illnesses come across as tired devices. So what is Franzen up to in utilizing them with such vigour? Before one can answer that, another element must be talked about, something that strikes one from the first word.
The narrative voice is rarely differentiated from the internal voice of the main figures. To the unnamed narrator the world is completely poisonous. If he was commenting on you and I having tea and coffee in a café, then the discarded brown sugar packet lying on the table would be a turd, and the packet would have been vanquished, breathing distress from its crushed brown lungs as it expired in the too chilly air-conditioning. This would chime in with what you and I would have said to ourselves, that in the sordid light from the fluorescent lights, or the waning daylight from a livid, smog-tainted sunset, the clientele look sullen and sallow. Nothing is good or restful for either the narrator or the main figures - which might come off as unfair, since the narrator just has to do the telling, not the living - resulting in an even tone that makes the work a tightly-knit piece.
_The Corrections_ is so densely woven that none of the figures has space to move. Generally, tailors leave a little room for the body to expand, say after a dinner, yet Franzen, perhaps out of a dislike of ambiguities, doesn't want readers to carry away any message other than what he has said. This is revealed tellingly in the one or two moments of freedom a figure experiences. Alfred enjoys - probably not the right word, considering his circumstances - a few moments to himself, away from the defining confines of his tics, when he can recall the quiet pleasure he took with his children in, as Franzen's narrator, or Alfred, puts it, "plain vanilla closeness." It could be either speaking because the figures and the narrator have been so welded together that for there to be a separation would be to say there was a loss of vision and crack of tone, which likely would go against Franzen's desires.
In one respect _The Corrections_ is very realistic. When the major figures are bothered it sounds close to how people think, which is no small achievement. However, this isn't enough to prevail against the uniform mind that utters every line. There is a comic's stance in the narrator's presentation, or else in Franzen's, with the narrator performing to an audience and having complete control. One minor figure, late in the book, repeats the familiar-sounding line "A tragedy rewritten as a farce," and that points to two things the book is not. There can be no tragedy when the anvil drops on the coyote, and without characters there isn't much that can be farcical in a serious way, if that doesn't come out like a contradiction. There is nothing larger than fictive lives at stake; there's no connection to humanity.
In exercising dominance Franzen must be aiming at a very specific target. It is the rare novelist who doesn't sound flat now and then over the course of a few or several hundred pages. William Gaddis' _JR_ is a magnificent whole from first line to last, as is Henry Miller's _Tropic of Cancer_. Whether or not one likes them, they are delivered in one breath, as if instead of being novels they were one line of pure poetry. _The Corrections_ exhibits the will to succeed along those lines, but instead of being a series of notes, as in Gaddis and Miller, the material is delivered in a monotone. The narrative voice is, essentially, totalitarian, coming through a megaphone and not a human throat.
Unknowingly, the narrative voice addresses its nature in a passage where Gary is thinking to himself: "But _enough_, he told himself. A too-annihilating will to specialness, a wish to reign supreme in his superiority, was yet another Warning Sign of clinical D." In _The Corrections_ the narrator's supremacy is based on Irony. Not the technical device, but the attitude, which in its ripest manifestation regards all actions, plans, scenery, devices and sentiments as ludicrous. The narrator is so much smarter and above-it-all than anyone, and this attitude is shared among the Lamberts, except when they've been outmanoeuvred.
There are risks to writing satires that mock everything without provoking considered thought on the problems or situations the author has raised, particularly when the fun is at the expense of cartoon figures who repel a reader's emotional investment. One has to think that Franzen knew those risks and was willing to be judged on his successful schematization.