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
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.
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.”
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
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).