I mentioned the other day that I like to wait for the buzz around restaurants to quiet before going in and sampling the menu. The same applies to how I feel about books; if everyone is talking about a certain book, I can’t read it. Too much market saturation, I suppose. I’ll happily wait a few months or even years to go to the bookstore.
(Strangely enough, this isn’t how I feel about films. I have to see them before the hype builds, otherwise I end up terribly disappointed.)
Jonathan Franzen‘s third novel, The Corrections, is precisely one of those books. It was absolutely impossible for me to read it during the frenzy of The Oprah Incident, let alone the novel’s winning of the National Book Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. There were just too many people talking about this book, and I didn’t want my opinions to get colored by the reviews, by the prizes or by Oprah. So I went on my merry little way, and read everything I could get my hands on that wasn’t written by Franzen. It wasn’t until I saw Franzen speak at Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference last month that I realized it was more than time for me to hunker down with The Corrections.
And hunker down I did. At 576 pages, The Corrections is by no means a light read. This is the kind of reading that, should you read while riding public transit, causes you to almost miss your subway stop and makes you bolt madly for the doors before they zip firmly shut on your foot. This is the kind of reading that compels you to put off cooking dinner, feign a headache and not feel guilty about ordering in some greasy pizza, as a slice is easily eaten one-handedly as the other turns pages. This is the kind of reading that, at the risk of sounding altogether cheesy, leaves you breathless.
Franzen’s writing is funny; it is clever; it is charming; it is painful. With almost maddening ease, he tells the story of the five Lamberts: father Albert, mother Enid, older brother Gary, middle child Chip, and little sister Denise. Each Lambert’s past and present swirl around them like so much mist, but Franzen carefully directs us through their chaotic lives with an assurance that is truly enviable. Each character, for all their faults and deep flaws, is allowed moments of true likability. It would have been so easy to turn sensible Gary into a cold-hearted brute and yearning Chip into a pervy academic, but instead, Franzen gives his cast something truly special: humanity.