Bro Jackson’s resident literary expert counts down his personal Top 100 list of greatest books. He’s not even including Dr. Seuss. Check out No. 100 here.
Number 99: “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen
Everything about Jonathan Franzen screams elitism: his refusal to take part in Oprah‘s book club, his essays on the demise of contemporary fiction, and those glasses that make him look like a genetically flawed test-tube baby spawned from Woody Allen and Buddy Holly. And yet I love the guy, especially for his refusal to take part in Oprah’s dog and pony show. He seems like the kind of guy who knows he’s smarter than everyone else, a Buckingham-go-your-own-way kind of fella. For these reasons it’s easy to enjoy his work.
I read his “The Twenty-Seventh City” shortly after college. I don’t remember much of it, but I remember liking enough to keep Franzen on the radar. He would eventually lead me to Jonathan Lethem and David Foster Wallace, two discoveries that drastically changed the way I viewed writing. All of the sudden it was okay to be outrageous and complex, something I suppose they all learned from Thomas Pynchon, though I didn’t know it at the time. The real joy of reading is discovering authors through other authors, the tree of which grows indefinitely and has sometimes led me to my favorites. But that’s another kettle of fish altogether.
I first read “The Corrections” in Japan. This shitty little post isn’t the perfect forum for me to dig in on the parallels of consumerism in Japan and the United States; with that said, however, ostensibly it’s easy to say both cultures are obsessed with material objects. Gadgets are the obvious tie-in. The Japanese have taken televisions and cell phones to new levels.[ref]I wear this story out, but for the year I was there—which was 2006-2007—I had the cheapest cell phone on the market. And I might have charged it a dozen times. Insane to think I have to charge my iPhone three times a day.[/ref] It’s probably safe to say that at this point it doesn’t matter who learned the bad habits of consumerism from who. It’s easy to blame it on the United States, for we not only like our gadgets and cars, but we also consume food like we’re worried about a worldwide famine. When I got off the plane returning from Japan, I had actually spent almost 18 months out of the United States. And the first thing I noticed: The disgusting and disturbing enormity of everyone around me. It wasn’t the cars or the expanse—both of which were salient—but the fat that blobbed and bobbed right in my face.
“The Corrections” took on new meaning for me then. The book is rampant with allusions to the consumer-obsessed lunacy of the people of our Great Nation. Fill the pain of marital infidelity with a big sonofabitching automobile. Your father never hugged you? Buy a gawdamn flat-screen that is so big it feels like Tom Hanks‘ under-chin might engulf you. There’s nothing we can’t have and we try to own it all. I fucking despise the whole idea, but I’m not immune to it. I own two cars, one a classic car I only drive a few dozen times a year, and if I buy one more book I could potentially open a library in a mid-sized metropolitan U.S. city.
It’s almost as if we need to buy shit. It gives our lives meaning. Franzen’s depiction of the “consumerist cesspool” of the U.S. focuses on a dysfunctional Midwestern family trying to get together for one last Christmas. The patriarch, Alfred Lambert, has Parkinson’s. We’re taken through the lives of his three children, Gary, Chip, and Denise, dipping back and forth between memories and present time. Structurally it’s magnificent, but it’s secondary to the depth of the characters. By book’s end, you’ll be convinced Franzen’s realism is on par with a guy like Anton Chekhov.
“The problem was money and the indignities of life without it. Every stroller, cell phone, Yankees cap, and SUV he saw was a torment. He wasn’t covetous, he wasn’t envious. But without money he was hardly a man.”
There is this wonderful scene where Chip—who is probably the protagonist of the novel—goes into a grocery store and can’t afford to buy salmon. He proceeds to stuff in his pants in attempt to steal it. In a world where we can have anything we want and here’s Chip from an upstanding, hard-working, American Fucking Dream sort of family, too broke to buy a salmon for a dinner. It’s such a wonderful irony and one that Franzen beats to death—in a good way—throughout the novel.
I honestly hesitated putting it here since it seems low for a book that has stayed with me for so long. There is something poetic about a story about a seemingly mundane family that goes much deeper. Franzen, despite his smug superiority in the face of us peons, is a great American writer. And this is probably his finest work. Or, at the very least, one that everyone should take the time to read.
“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?”