Wednesday, September 10th, 2003
On the train this morning, I started reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and loving it. And it serves well as a counterexample to my complaint about The Life of Pi -- from the first paragraph, the illusion is complete. I am inside their house, inside Alfred's senility, inside Enid's nervousness, inside Chip's discomfort. What does this betoken? Well, primarily excellent craftsmanship on Franzen's part, is what. And I just had the thought while writing the word inside, that maybe there is a tie-in to bicameral thinking and the nature of story-telling; but I am not up to getting into that right now. Anyway -- only 32 pages in but my hunch is that this is going to be a great book.
Friday, September 12th, 2003
More Corrections this morning -- what a mesmerizing book it is! It blows me away how Franzen can slip effortlessly from sincere (if mildly ironic) characterizations into full-on satire, without my even noticing it has happened until I'm back out of the satire -- and of course he uses many shadings of voice in between these two poles.
Alfred and Enid anchor the story and their characters are drawn very sympathetically -- but at the same time you can see their failings -- Alfred's character in particular seems to me to be a successful drawing of the character that About Schmidt failed so miserably to present. Fewer than 100 pages in and I have already met 5 fully human, fully sympathetic characters! This is about as good as a novel can be by my own standards.
I think I am going to start over from the beginning today or tomorrow with pencil in hand -- I am catching a lot of stuff worth underlining and commenting on but don't have any implement to do it with.
Monday, September 15th, 2003
Today I started the chapter entitled "The More he Thought About it, the Angrier he Got", in which Gary is introduced -- and as soon as I started it I felt a huge wave of disappointment. "So this is where it stops being a wonderful, insightful portrait and turns into a well-written, amusing, predictable parody of middle-class materialism and neurosis... Oh well, it was great while it lasted..."
I plodded my way through about 10 pages and gradually stopped plodding -- 15 minutes later I had forgotten my complaint and was gripping the book like it was a life preserver -- Gary's character is on one level the subject of broad satire but (a) the satiric points are not the ones I expect (not all of them at any rate), and (b) Franzen is not using him to draw satire -- he is (another) fully human character in his own right*.
I described the book to Gabe as "mind-blowing" and that is exactly what it is doing to me. Even without the eerie, radically imprecise parallels with my own life and family, I think The Corrections would be making me reconsider how I think about my life and how I go about my daily business.
*This makes me think in a funny way of magical realism -- it is just marvelous to me that Franzen can lampoon Gary in such a way and yet keep him substantial, connected to the reality of the story.
Wednesday, September 24th, 2003
I finished The Corrections this morning and am a bit sorry it's over. In the second half of the book -- mainly the chapters "At Sea" and "The Generator" -- I was simultaneously enjoying the read and feeling a bit disappointed at Franzen for losing the greatness that the earlier chapters had. But in the final two chapters he was able to pull it together and get back on track.
The great thing in this book is the characters. The portion of the book that is less than great is the part where the characters are neglected in favor of telling a story -- a funny story and interesting, but not beautiful and moving in the way that the rest of the book is.
I found a discussion in Slate of Franzen's rejection of the proffered Oprah Winfrey seal of approval for The Corrections. (That link will take you to part I of the discussion; part II is here.) Snobbery comes up a lot in the discussion in various contexts, and I suddenly think, yeah, a lot of what this book is about is snobbery. I don't have anything more concrete than that right now but will be looking over the discussion some more and try to come up with something. A key statement, from Slate associate editor Eliza Truitt: "I think it's a mistake to translate the sympathy one feels for Enid as a reader to a lack of snobbery on the part of the author."
Update: The final bit of the discussion comes from Jodi Kantor, who writes what I would if I were perceptive enough to formulate my thoughts properly, starting with: "The Corrections is a veritable opera of aspiration and snobbery." Read her whole post; there is no direct link but go to Part II and scroll down to her name.
Wednesday, February 25th, 2004
I started reading House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III, yesterday evening. It is nice, at least two very strongly drawn characters (Massoud and Kathy) -- the blurb description of it as "tragic" (I see this term in two of the quoted reviews) seems accurate. I am identifying very much with Massoud and a bit with Kathy as well, and feel a sense of dread hanging over the book at the thought that their dreams will be thwarted...
This is the second-and-a-half Oprah's Book Club selection that I have read; the other two were The Poisonwood Bible, which I enjoyed not at all but made a good gift for my mom, and The Corrections, which I enjoyed a great deal but which only counts as half an Oprah's Book Club selection.
I bought House of Sand and Fog at Clovis Press bookshop, a fine used and new shop at 229 Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn. I have poked my head in there several times before -- nearly every time I'm in Williamsburg I stop in for a few minutes -- but had never bought anything there. I saw a sign on the front door announcing a memorial evening for Clovis the Dog, after whom the bookshop was apparently named.
Monday, September 15th, 2008
In the video that A White Bear linked yesterday, Mark Leyner is asked his thoughts about the audience he's writing for; he responds to the effect that he does not think about audience at all -- writing for him is an obsessive activity like chess for Bobby Fischer, with no object other than the text. David Foster Wallace takes exception to this:
Sometimes it's an act of communication. What makes the analogy ok but also makes it break down, is that
part of the Fischer-like obsession Mark's talking about consists in a kind of mental and emotional dance
with a constructed reader that you figure has a life more or less like yours, and whom in a weird way
you're talking to. Again, I'm like totally with you about 50% of it; the thing about it is that the
light and fun and all that stuff is definitely, that's part of what makes art magical for me; but there's
another part. There's the part -- and I'm afraid I'm going to sound like a puritan or a critic -- but there's
this part that makes you feel full. This part that is redemptive and instructive, where when you read something,
it's not just about -- you go "My God, that's me!" you know, "I've lived like that, I've felt like that, I'm
not alone in the world..."
I felt excited listening to Wallace saying this because it matches up with some things I have been thinking about since last year, specifically to describe my experience of reading Pamuk and more broadly as a way of talking about art in general -- I wrote a brief note about this last November.
A White Bear says,
Wallace is grasping to understand the possibilities of art as transformational, connective tissue between all these lonely people. For most 20th-c writers, that possibility is a sentimentality that died out around the time that Romanticism did.I want to find out more about this idea in a Romantic context. Were Romantic authors making this argument explicitly or is it something critics read into their work -- or is it an argument made by Romantic critics? And which ones? It's an argument I've been grasping around at for a while and it would be really useful to hear it from someone else's mouth.
Update: and I guess obviously, duh, this is a strong sign that I should read Wallace's essays and criticism. Will get right on that.
Sunday, January 8th, 2012
The first chapter of The Corrections makes Alfred Lambert seem very much like José Arcadio Buendía; I wonder if there is anything to this parallel, if it will be further elaborated upon in the rest of the book. I certainly did not notice that the last time I read The Corrections; but then I would not have been looking very closely for such a parallel... When I'm reading about Alfred's metallurgy lab in the basement and about Enid's clearing away of his features from upstairs, and about the growing distance between the two of them, it seems to be shot through with echoes of García Márquez.
The gray dust of evil spells and the cobwebs of enchantment thickly cloaked the old electric arc furnace, and the jars of exotic rhodium and sinister cadmium and stalwart bismuth, and the hand-printed labels browned by the vapors from a glass-stoppered bottle of aqua regia, and the quad-ruled notebook in which the latest entry in Alfred's hand dated from a time, fifteen years ago, before the betrayals had begun.
Wednesday, January 11th, 2012
He'd had the sense, moments earlier, that Caroline was on the verge of accusing him of being "depressed," and he was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never win an argument.
Digging The Corrections, finding Franzen's voice fits my psyche like a glove. I'm finding all of his characters easily inhabitable, Chip's anxiety, Denise's frustration, Gary's irritable paranoia... even the parents are easy to understand, identify with.
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