I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I never thought I could be so absorbed by a book about such despicable people.
I used to think I’d have to root for at least one character in a story in order to enjoy a work of fiction. The character could be an anti-hero, even a truly evil person who makes a turn for the better around the story’s mid-point. Just give me a scrap of likeability and I’ll lap it up if the writing is good.
But Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections gave me an entire family of persistently miserable creatures. These people aren’t just flawed—they’re morally depraved, shallow, greedy, weak-willed, manipulative. Sometimes what makes reading about and despising characters like the Lamberts so jarring and titillating is simultaneously recognizing glimmers of yourself in their despicability. And that’s what makes this book such a great read. Its honesty is naked and raw. The lack of a true hero and the bluntness of the family’s prejudices and meanness may be unpleasant, but it’s also real. When I read the thoughts of the characters I sometimes wondered if the author had tapped into the undercurrent of my thoughts–the unfortunate things I whisper in my mind when I think I’m not listening. Franzen taps into the modern American consciousness and, with his seemingly effortless way with words, puts its bad face to pen and paper.
The Corrections broaches so many topics: consumerism, sexual repression and expression, the decline of rural America. At the base of it all is the family struggle—the clash between eras, the rejection of childhood and disgust with aging. I felt like a therapist puzzling together the pieces of my patients’ lifetimes to find the root of the evil possessing them. Their personal problems and relationships were so compelling, I couldn’t put the book down even as I ground my teeth to a fine dust.
I think you should read this book. Yes, I think you should brace yourself for discomfort, big laughs, seething sessions, frustration and the kind of deep satisfaction that comes with clarity.
I used to read a lot in my youth. I mean, a lot. I avoided many an awkward social situation, such as homeroom (the high school equivalent of a networking function), by sticking my nose into whatever book I had in my backpack–and I always had at least one book in my backpack. Then, I chose English as my college major and I was reading great stacks of books. At UCLA, I took the obligatory (and infamous) 10 series, and carried around a 10-lb. book of canonized tales at all times. Let’s call it “The English Major’s Bible,” since I can’t recall its actual title and it was often mistaken for a bible.
My reading habits took a fall when I began writing more. I guess it was a combination of not having the drive to make time for reading and writing, new priorities, and a budding social life. I also had this strange idea that I would become a more original writer by reading less. I tend to absorb writing styles. There was a time when all of my high school essays read like letters from the Regency Era. This year, I decided to get back into the swing of reading; to squeeze a little more time out of my day for the practice. As in high school and college, I’m back to being a voracious consumer of words, but I’ve noticed a difference in the way I read now.
I find myself consciously noting the author’s style, their word usage and phrasing. The narrative voice and dialogue. I’m reading like a writer. In other words, I’m not just reading to get a quick fix of fantasy, to escape or relax; I’m reading to learn more about writing. And it has helped me through some challenges.
For instance, I’ve been trying to cut back on the use of adverbs (read this quickie from the NY Times Collections), but I started to worry that the “saids” were taking over my page and everyone would notice. I later cracked open a book, started reading and skimmed backward to find a million “saids” peppering the dialogue–I hadn’t even noticed as I read.
In consequence of my new habit, I’ll be posting book reviews here after each reading, and adding a reading list page with links to each review. I’ll also note anything new I learned from the reading. First book on the list: Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” (unless I get a book for Christmas).