Dear Jonathan Franzen,

The Corrections

Who knew I’d ever write to thank you for The Corrections? I almost put your novel down shortly after I started it. Your bleak description of that aging, anxious, and afflicted couple, Enid and Al Lambert, scared the hell out of me. It conjured up memories of my own parents’ sad and slow declines. But even more disheartening, your portrait of Enid and Al mirrored my worst fears for my own future and that of my husband Phil. Like Al, Phil suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, and after ten years his meds were far less effective than they had been, so his symptoms were very troublesome and becoming worse. I imagined the day when my brilliant husband would, like Al, “lack the neurological wherewithal” to cope, when Phil too would pee in paint cans and his occasional naps would “deepen towards enchantment.” As I read, it was hard not to see Phil turning into a less belligerent version of Al while I played Enid. For like her, I find “empty hours a sinus in which

Some Parkinson's Symptoms

infections breed” and live with the “alarm bell of anxiety” always tolling in my head.  Your indelible word pictures confirmed my grim vision of the days to come. I was too upset to be amused when you introduced Enid and Chip’s narcissistic, snotty, and misogynistic son Chip. Only my vindictive desire to see which woman would dump Chip next kept me reading. In spite of myself, I was hooked.

Oprah Promoting Reading

Then before I could finish the book, you pulled a Komen and dissed Oprah.  Now, unlike you as you describe yourself in your 02/13 & 20/12 New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton, I don’t usually let a novelist’s extra-literary misbehavior─ “posturing” drinking, using drugs, making politically incorrect slurs, being unfaithful and/or promiscuous, or committing suicide─ influence my literary preferences or experiences. No, for me, what happens outside the books stays outside the books. But for nearly forty years as a high school English teacher and then as a community college English prof I busted my hump to get students to read more and had only limited success. Then, seemingly overnight, Oprah made reading and writers hip. Thanks to her, many of my students did begin reading more, and to this day I remain grateful. So when I read of your gaffe/stunt, I was glad I’d gotten The Corrections from the library instead of buying a copy. I didn’t want a sexist, racist, and classist snob like I figured you must be to profit from my purchase. But because I wanted to find out what happened to the Lamberts, I read on. I was amazed and relieved when you granted most of the beleaguered family and this overwrought reader a fairly happy ending.

But by the time I got to that ending, I was worried about my library fine. As you know better than most, The Corrections is long and took you seven years to write. I was writing one Bel Barrett mystery a year, often while teaching full-time. Later, after I had spent five years researching and writing The Bones and the Book, the still unfinished manuscript was longer than the longest book I’d ever written. I felt as if I were twelve months pregnant. Over and over I reminded myself, “Not to worry. The Corrections is much longer and Franzen spent seven years on it.”

Very Pregnant

Freedomis long too. But, perhaps because I recognized the characters without over identifying with any of them, I got the satire right away, and this time around I enjoyed

Freedom

the wealth of wit and attention you lavish on our world. One of my favorite scenes finds Joey in the bathroom of a hotel room he’s sharing with a beautiful woman who is not his long suffering wife. To rescue his wedding ring, which he’s swallowed and expelled, he gropes for it in the toilet full of his own turds.  The fact that a similar scenario

figured in an episode of Two and a Half Men leads me to believe that maybe Chuck Lorre shares my enthusiasm for scatological fishing expeditions. We’re not alone. A half century ago, J. P. Donleavy wrote The Ginger Man which includes a scene featuring an overworked and under appreciated housewife ironing in the kitchen below a bathroom in which her husband is shitting. When the ceiling gives way, the poor, beleaguered woman is showered by excrement. I find it noteworthy that in our more egalitarian era the shit that so often happens to the married is now shared by husbands as well as wives. This just may be a sign of progress, and I’m not surprised you picked up on it.

It’s really hard to write serious fiction that is also comic, but you are very accomplished at it. Thanks for your provocative and witty books (and for apologizing to Oprah).

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

6 Comments

Filed under American classic

6 responses to “Dear Jonathan Franzen,

  1. Wonderful letter, Jane.
    There is an optimism in The Corrections that peeks through all the dysfunction like the sun hinting at its presence and finally burning away the clouds – guess that’s why I too love that book!

  2. Jane- I started reading The Corrections a few months ago and put it down after 25 pages because it seemed relentlessly bleak. Well, now I believe I will be picking it back up tonight ! Thanks-

  3. Jane, though it wasn’t the focus of your piece, you did mention your husband suffers from Parkinson’s. I am so sorry to hear that, and I know even the simplest things can become challenges as his medicine waxes and wanes. You are a strong and brave woman. Please know that you both will be in my thoughts and prayers.

    As for the author you wrote about, I am at a loss. And clearly, out of the loop. I am learning each facet of this author’s work and public persona through your essay, and can easily feel the twists and turns you went through while absorbing his words both in and out of the books. I don’t feel overly compelled to read one of his stories now, but I do appreciate your candor. Satire is one field which can in the blink of an eye cut through to the heart. I’m glad you enjoyed the second book you read, and as always, I so enjoy hearing your opinions.

    • Thanks for you concern, Melissa. After we moved from Hoboken, Phil had brain surgery which helped minimize his worst PD symptoms, tremor, freezing, and falling. This surgery was not a cure, but has greatly improved his quality of life and, of course, mine too. As for Franzen, you’ll get to him. He’s a great American author with insight into modern life and wit to make that insight palatable. As always, I’m glad you enjoy my notes and take the time to comment on them. It’s interesting to know what blog readers make of one’s posts!

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