Readers Review: "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:53
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For this month's reader's review, the novel that put author Jonathan Franzen on the literary map. "The Corrections" won the national book award in 2001 for the way it captured American life at the end of the century through the travails of one family. Joining us to talk about the Lamberts of fictional Midwestern town called St. Jude, Kate Lehrer, she's an author most recently of "Confessions of a Bigamist." Ron Charles is fiction editor at the Washington Post. Dr. Laura Tracy is a psychotherapist, former assistant professor of English at American and Georgetown Universities and the author of "The Secrets Between Us." Do join us, 800-433-8850. I know that many of you have read this book. I'll be interested in your thoughts, your questions, comments. Join us by e-mail, too, drshow@wamu.org or send us a tweet. Join us on Facebook. Good morning everybody.

MS. KATE LEHRER

11:08:30
Good morning.

MR. RON CHARLES

11:08:30
Good morning.

DR. LAURA TRACY

11:08:30
Good morning, Diane.

REHM

11:08:31
I'd like to know whether each of you or what you thought about this book. Did you like it, did you not like it and if so, why? Ron Charles, I'm gonna start with you.

CHARLES

11:08:47
I loved it. I loved it nine years ago and I loved reading it again this week. I think it's hilarious, witty, bitter, it's a full bracing portrait of America and its pharmacological craziness. It's a great novel about siblings, it's a great novel about family life. I thought it was heartbreaking. I spent the last few hours finishing it. I'm glad this is radio because I've been crying for about three hours now. I just think it's a real classic.

REHM

11:09:17
Kate Lehrer.

LEHRER

11:09:18
Well, I come down, I don't love it as much as Ron does, but I did really like it. I think he takes some cheap shots. I started out and I thought, oh, he's just gonna be snarky to the whole, you know, Midwestern value set. His whole thing on the cruise is just a cheap shot. It's such an easy mark, in a way. At the same time, just about the time I think he's poking a lot of fun at these people, he turns right around and shows the complexity of the person and because of that, I think it's just hard -- it was just very hard for me to dismiss all that complexity of each of these people. It's so much deeper and it's so rich. I just think, you know, the way he minds the veins, the emotional veins of the family, is unbelievable.

REHM

11:10:16
Laura.

TRACY

11:10:17
I guess I disagree with both of my colleagues on this panel. I thought it was very mechanical. The psychology is really predictable. In fact, what I came away with was clever, not wise, a lot of breadth, no question, but no depth whatsoever. It's as though he was going from a sort of guide to what happens if the parents are like this, what will the children do and, you know, very one to one correspondences. Plus, it's very mean spirited. He seems to dislike all of his characters. So situations which could be tragic, I found he was doing sarcasm, not irony, which is when we share distress, but sarcasm is when we're looking at other people and saying, no, it's they who are problematic, we're fine. And I thought the whole book was very sarcastic.

REHM

11:11:09
Laura Tracy is a psychotherapist, Ron Charles is fiction editor at the Washington Post, Kate Lehrer is a writer of fiction. Do join us 800-433-8850. Of course the name of the town itself, St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, so you get round to the feeling that what you're moving into is a family with nothing but trouble.

LEHRER

11:11:48
Yes. And I think also, Jonathan Franzen missed an important point. It's a tremendously accurate portrait of nuclear family life in the '50s and '60s so that these children would now be in their 60s, but what he missed was World War II. He seems to locate Al, the father's depression in the Great Depression and Enid -- and they're both focused having enough money, but neither of them is talking about the whole -- the calamity the country went through, the disaster of World War II, which would have affected their generation enormously and created enough bitterness and misery so that when these guys came back and married in the '50s and the wives went back into the houses, like Enid did, and all that emotional sacrifice to make the next generation -- give them all the things that the primary -- prior generation hadn't had, all that emotion sacrifice is then imprisoning the children.

REHM

11:12:55
I have to say I felt so sad that there seemed to be such bitterness among the children for the parents. We are looking at Denise, the youngest of three, we are looking at Chip, the younger of the two boys and Gary, the oldest of the three, the most successful. Yet his negativity towards his parents made me cringe. And I wondered where Jonathan Franzen was coming from. What do we know about his own background other than that he has no children of his own? Kate.

LEHRER

11:13:52
About Franzen?

REHM

11:13:53
Yeah.

LEHRER

11:13:53
You know, I don't know that part of Franzen. I've never -- you know, I just never bothered to find out (unintelligible).

CHARLES

11:14:01
Well, he did write an essay around the time the book came out for the New Yorker about his father's...

REHM

11:14:06
Alzheimer's.

CHARLES

11:14:06
...Alzheimer's, not Parkinson's Disease.

REHM

11:14:08
Right.

CHARLES

11:14:08
And it's -- you know, it's a very desperate, sad story that he writes there and it doesn't have -- it's very clear eyed, but it's not funny the way this book is.

REHM

11:14:17
Is it warm?

CHARLES

11:14:19
No. It's not warm.

REHM

11:14:20
Didn't think so. The father in "The Corrections" is suffering from Parkinson's and a certain amount of dementia and what I felt was, and perhaps this is because my own husband has Parkinson's, there seemed to be so little sympathy, so little understanding for the father in this situation.

LEHRER

11:14:52
I felt actually that as the book goes on, I felt none of the characters were likable in the beginning. If I'd just read the beginning, which I did, nine years ago and stopped reading the book.

CHARLES

11:15:04
Oh, you did?

LEHRER

11:15:04
Yeah, I read just the first and then I just gave it up. However, this time I did persist since I was coming on your show, so I thought I'd get through. But I felt as you went along, he got more and more understanding and caring and I didn't think, really, he made fun of the infirmity of Alfred. He talks about -- you know, Denise later, talks about -- and she always forgives her father anyway, but the fact that he had sacrificed a lot just for her privacy. Some incident had happened...

REHM

11:15:41
Yes.

LEHRER

11:15:42
...in the summer.

REHM

11:15:44
Yes. I recall that.

LEHRER

11:15:44
And that he had done it and all he had wanted was his own sense of privacy and, of course, at the end, the one thing he can't control -- and there's a wonderful line, I'm not sure if I could find it, but that discipline and responsibility was everything to him and he felt...

REHM

11:16:02
And that comes out of those depression years.

TRACY

11:16:07
Absolutely, but nobody grows.

REHM

11:16:09
Discipline. Nobody grows.

CHARLES

11:16:10
Oh, Chip changes utterly by the end. He's quite sympathetic...

TRACY

11:16:13
Does he?

CHARLES

11:16:13
...he stays with his father. He's the good son, he tries hard and he actually does become a better person.

TRACY

11:16:19
I agree with that because we're told that, but we're told a lot of things that are not developed in an organic way. I think what Jonathan Franzen does is decide to sort of turn on a dime. Enid, too, at the end, remember, becomes a totally different person. Why? Because Al's out of the house, so we're...

REHM

11:16:38
And she's free all of a sudden.

TRACY

11:16:40
So we're supposed to believe that because she's been his prisoner, she's been so bitter and so miserable to her children, as soon as she's free, the warmth and generosity of her personality comes out. Now, I don't accept that people are that either/or.

REHM

11:16:53
Turn on a dime.

TRACY

11:16:54
Yeah.

REHM

11:16:55
Kate?

LEHRER

11:16:55
I think, though, that she always felt judged, remember, I mean...

REHM

11:17:00
Who, Enid?

LEHRER

11:17:00
Enid did and she says Alfred...

REHM

11:17:02
Alfred's wife.

LEHRER

11:17:03
And she was always wrong. She could not herself, he was so rational, she could not make the arguments back to him. So when he is gone, it's freeing, it's freeing to all of them, I think.

CHARLES

11:17:14
Right, I've seen plenty of widows at my church whose lives are...

LEHRER

11:17:17
I've seen...I have, too.

CHARLES

11:17:17
...just transformed by when their beloved husbands...

LEHRER

11:17:19
They are.

CHARLES

11:17:19
…die.

LEHRER

11:17:20
I agree. There was one...

REHM

11:17:20
Okay.

LEHRER

11:17:21
...that came to visit me and she said, I'm so happy I could cry. She was 75 at the time. She's now in her 90s and she's still traveling. You know, I mean, it -- what we're talking about happens.

CHARLES

11:17:29
Yeah.

REHM

11:17:32
It happens.

TRACY

11:17:33
What we're talking about is a family in prison and a prison is place you're not allowed to leave. So what is the -- what are the bars made of and that's what Enid's supposed to be free of, the bars in this family are made of pity. Pity the children feel to the parents, guilt the children are made to feel for the parents because the parents are sacrificing their lives for the children. That doesn't -- he doesn't have any vision, any going beyond that static point.

REHM

11:18:00
Well, and let me interject that Chip, who I agree does prove to be the good son in the end, he's kind of nutsy, Ron. I mean, he goes off to Lithuania to...

CHARLES

11:18:15
(laugh) There's so much money to be made.

REHM

11:18:16
Yeah, so much money to be made. He almost gets himself killed in the process. I don't know how much growth is actually there. We've got to take a short break here. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Short break, right back.

REHM

11:20:03
And welcome back. We're talking about Jonathan Franzen's novel, "The Corrections," which won the National Book Award, other awards in 2001. Here in the studio, Kate Lehrer, author most recently of "Confessions of a Bigamist." Ron Charles is fiction editor at the Washington Post. Laura Tracy is a psychotherapist and author of "The Secrets Between Us." We were talking during the break about the awards he has won. Here's an e-mail from Bill who says, "Thanks for the less than glowing comments. I read 'The Corrections' many years ago and had forgotten the details. What I do remember is my feeling that the praise it received was unwarranted, so I appreciate the comments of the less positive on the panel." But Ron, back in September, 2001, you said, you tried to dislike "The Corrections" because of all the hype, but it was no use.

CHARLES

11:21:26
Yeah, I mean, the reviewer doesn't like to confess this, but you are affected by this torrent of praise that starts to come down on a novel. And it does affect the way you read a book, but I thought -- and I thought again this time when I read it, that it really is a great, funny, moving novel.

REHM

11:21:40
And we were also talking about Chip's trip to Lithuania and how Franzen seemed to have just dumped that into the middle of this plot. It in no way, to me, seemed organic, Laura.

TRACY

11:21:58
No, no. He just imported it because he was thinking, what do I do with this character, how do I make him change? And, of course, it's also a metaphor for what's going on in the world at that time. Eastern Europe's falling apart and changing and going through a correction, but it's very inorganic in terms of the story itself. You know, just not acceptable as realism.

REHM

11:22:20
And where does Denise, the baby of the family, fit in, Kate?

LEHRER

11:22:26
Well, I think she's -- she is a wonderful character and I think he does a good job -- a better job with her in a lot of ways than -- although I think he does with Gary, but the strokes are much more subtle with Denise. And she, of course, is her father's baby. Alfred vows when -- before she's born that the baby, he's going -- he's going to treat his baby better and that she's a girl, of course, makes it even easier for him. But, of course, she has her own problems because -- and I do think he was very skillful with this, showing how she becomes -- she is a lesbian, has a marriage before that, has had a couple of affairs before that, but, in fact, it's so -- I think it's -- I think it's very well drawn...

REHM

11:23:15
All right.

LEHRER

11:23:15
...how he gets to that and that seems more believable to me than a lot of the others, but she's still trying to be -- they're all trying to be good children for a long time and they try to keep it -- she tries to keep it from her parents.

REHM

11:23:32
Except that Gary is not quite what I'd call a good child.

CHARLES

11:23:38
He works for the Wall Street Journal (laugh).

REHM

11:23:39
He works for the Wall Street...

TRACY

11:23:40
No, that was Chip, that was Chip.

REHM

11:23:41
No, that was Chip.

TRACY

11:23:43
Yeah, that was Chip.

REHM

11:23:43
No, no, no, no.

CHARLES

11:23:43
Oh, Gary, sorry.

TRACY

11:23:44
Yeah, yeah.

REHM

11:23:44
It's Gary and Gary has in mind making money off his father's invention and he's going to go in any way he can. His father has received $5,000 for an invention of some sort, a discovery that he simply wants to get rid of, Alfred wants to get rid of, but Gary is smart enough to want to put money into this corporation that has taken his father's discovery. He puts tons of money into it, he doesn't tell his parents.

CHARLES

11:24:32
That's a pretty good snapshot of what was going on at the time. You think this book came out in 2001, so he had to be writing it in the late '90s. It's a good record of the kind of craziness that was going on in the stock market.

REHM

11:24:42
That's a good point.

TRACY

11:24:42
Mm-hmm, but I think the money is the binding force in this family and that means also the bondage force, so Gary, the oldest son, was the good boy when he was a little boy. He was the one who did everything right, he did everything his father and mother wanted him to. When he grows up, he seeks to be the opposite of his father and the way he gets to be the opposite of his father is to be exactly the same as his father. He's as interested in money as his father was, but his version is get as much as you can.

REHM

11:25:12
Exactly.

TRACY

11:25:13
Whereas his father was noble, moral, give as much as you can, but they're both centered on money.

LEHRER

11:25:20
And Gary says close to the end, and it's all in italics, when he's thinking of it, that Bea taught him -- not Bea, Enid.

REHM

11:25:30
Enid.

LEHRER

11:25:31
I always keep saying Bea, but Enid taught him, what -- I want what you want. She was very, very materialistic herself. I mean...

TRACY

11:25:40
They're both very materialistic.

LEHRER

11:25:40
...she tried to make everything beautiful in her house and have as much as, you know, her neighbors...

REHM

11:25:46
Right...

LEHRER

11:25:47
...but she wanted it.

REHM

11:25:48
...the Meisners.

LEHRER

11:25:48
And all he's done is pick up on that, but he also had that longing to recreate the same kind of family...

CHARLES

11:25:54
Right.

LEHRER

11:25:55
...his parents had.

TRACY

11:25:56
Right.

CHARLES

11:25:56
He's the one poring over the albums.

LEHRER

11:25:58
Yes.

REHM

11:25:58
Right.

CHARLES

11:25:58
Recreating this image.

REHM

11:25:59
Exactly.

LEHRER

11:25:59
He is, he is.

REHM

11:26:00
But there is one scene in this book and I wish I could read it but I'm not going to 'cause it's so disgusting. It's about cooking calves' liver -- cooking liver, it doesn't even say calves' liver, which apparently, poor Chip, loathes and Enid goes into her refrigerator, pulls out the liver, we hear the smack of the liver on the counter. She doesn't have enough bacon to make it appealing. She's only got three and poor Chip loathes liver and almost -- well, I won't go any farther. I'm going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. Shawn in North Carolina, you're on the air.

SHAWN

11:26:57
Hi. I love this book. I am, one of six girls in an Irish Catholic family. I grew up in New York, I live in the South now. I read the book when my child -- my second child was still a baby. I stayed up all night long. I laughed and I am a cynical person, but we have a lot of love in our family, but we were all individuals or we are. We all have life things happening and just -- I thought it was right on. I thought the whole backdrop of what was going on in the world was sort of right on and I just find it very interesting because one of my best friends, her mother is a psychoanalysis and she has a foundation that deals with psychoanalysis and creativity here in The Triangle and she hated this book for all the same reasons that your panelist hates this book. And I just thought it was funny because I come from this big family...

REHM

11:27:46
Sure.

SHAWN

11:27:46
...with all kinds of people. Straight, gay, black, white, everything and I just thought it was funny. And my parents'--

REHM

11:27:53
Okay. Shawn...

SHAWN

11:27:55
...relationship are -- is very strong. They're in their '80s, they grew up in the depression, we ate a lot of liver.

SHAWN

11:28:01
My mother is not bitter, but then I look at my mother-in-law who married an old Mayflower family man and when he did die tragically of cancer, she was freed, so from his sort of disciplined kind of life, so there were many things in this book that hit home with me and...

REHM

11:28:20
Okay, Shawn. Let me ask you a question, if I may.

SHAWN

11:28:25
Yes.

REHM

11:28:25
How old are you?

SHAWN

11:28:27
I am -- I'm 45.

REHM

11:28:30
Okay.

TRACY

11:28:30
Yeah, we...

REHM

11:28:31
And we were talking about that beforehand. Kate, you mentioned.

LEHRER

11:28:35
Yes. I felt like, Shawn, that anyone younger -- well, I was cutting the age around 40, but in his 40s, up to 50, maybe I'll have to go a little higher now, I'm not sure. I would've loved it when I was much younger and a lot. It's not that I didn't really have a good time with it and think it was hilarious in places, I just think that if I had been younger, I would've loved it even more.

REHM

11:29:03
Thanks for calling, Shawn. Now, to Fort Wayne, Ind. Good morning, Rick, you're on the air.

RICK

11:29:11
Hey, good morning.

REHM

11:29:11
Hi.

RICK

11:29:11
Yeah, I look at this book and I see some sketches that I guess I learned in college. This is what a baby boomer's like and this is what their parents are like. And I've just kind of noticed that in that discussion you guys had earlier about, you know, do these children really loathe their parents, that sort of thing, well, I noticed through the '60s and into the early '70s, baby boomers were all just kind of rebelling against the parents and then the theme of, look, I'm going to outdo Dad's earnings, I'm going to really become a tycoon, that sort of idea, so I kind of see a lot of, well, overarching boomer scenes, if you will.

REHM

11:29:51
Interesting.

RICK

11:29:51
Do any of you see that?

CHARLES

11:29:52
Sure.

REHM

11:29:53
What do you think, Ron?

CHARLES

11:29:55
Yeah, I agree and you don't have to hate your parents to think this book is hilarious and relate to it.

REHM

11:29:58
Yes.

CHARLES

11:29:59
I mean, I love my mother, but my mother drives me crazy with the tyranny of Christmas every year. It's hilarious.

REHM

11:30:04
And that is a theme that does ring true here because Enid, the mother, wants her three children to come home, she says, for the last Christmas...

CHARLES

11:30:20
Right.

REHM

11:30:20
...in that house. She really understands that Alfred's on his last legs and she wants all three kids to come home. You've got Gary, whose wife says, I ain't going near that place again. She absolutely refuses. She bribes her children so they won't go. Chip, instead of wanting to go home, goes to Lithuania and Denise has the family come in on her worse day in her life.

CHARLES

11:30:56
This is gonna take place in every family in America -- well, every family in America about the Holidays, certainly, in the next few months. I mean, everyone can relate to this and I think that's what has to do with the age of how you relate to this book, right? I mean, I'm at that inflection point where, you know, I've -- I'm moving -- at 48, I'm moving from, you know, my parents on my case about Christmas to now wanting my daughter to come home for Christmas. You know, so maybe I'm...

REHM

11:31:17
That's...

CHARLES

11:31:18
...passing over here.

REHM

11:31:18
...very interesting.

LEHRER

11:31:19
I think what we try to do with Holidays is always -- all of us, maybe, or some of us who, you know, not only when we get older, but when we're young -- Gary does the same thing -- he wants -- you're trying to recreate...

REHM

11:31:32
Of course.

LEHRER

11:31:33
...your own childhood...

CHARLES

11:31:33
That's it. Or...

LEHRER

11:31:35
...with its magic...

CHARLES

11:31:35
...a childhood that never existed.

REHM

11:31:36
That's right.

LEHRER

11:31:36
That never existed.

REHM

11:31:37
That's right.

LEHRER

11:31:38
Yes, exactly.

TRACY

11:31:39
You know, I can only...

REHM

11:31:39
And Enid wants them all there...

LEHRER

11:31:41
Yeah.

REHM

11:31:41
...for that reason.

TRACY

11:31:43
But what Enid's making is the family is a prison because a prison is a place you're not allowed to leave and that's what she's doing in terms of guilting them in terms of the need that she expresses that they be the center and the meaning of her life. If they could come and go, if they could say, hey, this Christmas, it's not going to work for us, but...

REHM

11:32:03
Right.

TRACY

11:32:03
...next Christmas, maybe we'll -- and Enid would say, gee, that's fine, that's great. We'll do something else this Christmas. Then you'd have a family in a home based on love.

LEHRER

11:32:12
But she did give up her Christmas at home for eight years. She had gone to Gary's and Carolyn's.

REHM

11:32:17
Right.

LEHRER

11:32:18
And you see Carolyn perpetuating that same thing with her family, who is married to Gary.

CHARLES

11:32:24
Carolyn is a monster.

LEHRER

11:32:25
Carolyn is a monster.

REHM

11:32:25
Isn't she. (laugh)

CHARLES

11:32:26
Ah, gosh

LEHRER

11:32:26
She's the only real monster...

CHARLES

11:32:28
Yeah, she drove me crazy.

LEHRER

11:32:29
...in the book, yeah.

REHM

11:32:30
But, well, I think at moments, every single character in this book...

TRACY

11:32:36
...is a monster .

REHM

11:32:37
...is a monster.

LEHRER

11:32:37
Yeah, you can say that.

REHM

11:32:38
Absolutely.

LEHRER

11:32:39
Yeah.

REHM

11:32:39
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning, Dan, you're on the air.

DAN

11:32:50
Good morning. I wanted to kind of say that -- I know we're talking about generational baby boomers and their children trying to outdo them, but I'm 26 and my parents are certainly not baby boomers, but I definitely identify a lot with the characters in this story being from a Midwestern family. And I think that ultimately -- I mean, there's certainly many things that you could gather from the book, but I think that one of the things that the author is trying to convey, whether he does that effectively in some opinions or not, is that we react to our parents with the information that we are allowed from them. There are a lot of things that our parents don't share with us and whether that's to make us feel easier about, you know, what they do for us or worse for what they do for us.

DAN

11:33:38
And that's the reason why that I've become, you know, best friends with my dad because it was a process of me learning the things that he's done for me and my family as opposed to, you know, just turning a blind eye to all the wonderful things that he's done for us. Had I not developed that relationship with him, I probably would resent him, but I think the book ultimately says to us, we should take the time out, you know, while we still have the chance to look at our parents and our relationship with our parents and give a second thought to whether or not, you know, they deserve the malice that we give them sometimes.

TRACY

11:34:13
I think gratitude is a wonderful important emotion for everyone's development and probably should be the center of family life. These children aren't grateful. They are, again, in bondage because of the pity they feel that the parents' unlived lives were unlived, were sacrificed so that they could have lives and basically that pity is making them recreate their parents' lives. Gary and Carolyn -- Carolyn is a portrait of Enid, so Gary's basically married his mother and become his father. Chip's become the fantasist that Enid always was. You know, how do you figure out your life? You deny it and, of course, you're over sexual. The only change, really, is supposed to be Denise, but Denise doesn't create a family. She decides she's never going to have children, although she loves them, and she's never going to get married.

REHM

11:35:07
Right.

TRACY

11:35:08
She's done with that and basically, she's alone at the end.

LEHRER

11:35:12
But happier, maybe...

TRACY

11:35:14
Definitely.

LEHRER

11:35:14
...than the other ones. Yeah.

CHARLES

11:35:16
I do think it can be cathartic though to read a bitter satire like this, recognize, you know, some of your own holiday insanity and kind of laugh it off and get -- feel better about it.

REHM

11:35:27
Here is a tiny paragraph that I don't quite get. It's as though he drops this in. He says, "Whether anybody was home meant everything to a house. It was more than a major fact. It was the only fact. The family was the house's soul. The waking mind was like the light in a house. Consciousness was to brain as family was to a home. Aristotle: Suppose the eye were an animal, sight would be its soul. To understand the mind, you picture domestic activity, the hum of related lives on various tracks. The hearth's fundamental glow, you spoke of presence and clutter and occupation or conversely a vacancy and shutting down of disturbance. Maybe the futile light in a house with three people separately absorbed in the basement and only one upstairs, a little boy staring at a plate of cold food was like the mind of a depressed person." And that came at the end of the liver scene when Chip absolutely refused to eat it and sat there at the table all night long. We'll take a short break. When we come back, more of your calls, your comments. Stay with us.

REHM

11:40:03
Well, as you can tell, the discussion is going on during the break. Here's an interesting e-mail from Susan in St. Louis. She said, "If the book had come out months before 9/11, the negative attitude toward its level of sarcasm would be different. The book suffered because of its timing. Once 9/11 happened, I had a very difficult time reading this story without finding it self-indulgent and self-important."

CHARLES

11:40:41
Yeah, I totally agree. My review ran just days after 9/11 and we had to redo the art, we had to redo the design of the page.

REHM

11:40:47
Really?

CHARLES

11:40:47
Everything was wrong about the book. A lot of us in the industry worried the book was gonna be lost because we were talking about how irony was dead in America, you couldn't be funny in America anymore. We thought the book would fade away.

REHM

11:40:58
You did?

CHARLES

11:40:59
Yeah.

LEHRER

11:41:00
I think it's a miracle that it did not fade away...

REHM

11:41:03
Here's an...

LEHRER

11:41:04
...complete did.

CHARLES

11:41:05
Right.

REHM

11:41:05
Here's an e-mail from a woman who identifies herself as 65 years old. "I read a lot," she says, "but rarely do I read popular fiction. This book was an exception for me. I was going through an extremely painful time. I found it funny, honest, ultimately redemptive. Yes, people do and think terrible things. In the end, there is some forgiveness. I'm probably a very snarky person...

REHM

11:41:40
...myself, but I'm still slightly amazed at the bitterness this book has aroused in some of you." Isn't that interesting. No comment?

LEHRER

11:41:52
Very interesting.

REHM

11:41:53
Very interesting.

LEHRER

11:41:54
No, I do think it is. I think it is.

TRACY

11:41:55
Yeah, interesting, yeah.

REHM

11:41:56
All right. Let's go to Craig who's in Alexandria, Va. Good morning to you, sir.

CRAIG

11:42:03
Good morning. The discussion so far has focused on character and storyline. I was wondering if anyone could comment on the writing in the book itself. There are some passages I thought the imagery was arresting. And I really appreciated the book just for its writing alone.

TRACY

11:42:20
I think...

REHM

11:42:21
Ron Charles?

CHARLES

11:42:22
Go ahead.

REHM

11:42:23
Go ahead, Laura.

TRACY

11:42:24
I think there's no question he's a really good, good writer. Myself, I found it extremely overwritten, by which I mean pretentious and as I was reading it, I'm sorry to say this, but he would give us a symbol and then explain it within two to three pages. And this happened consistently throughout 500 pages of text as though he couldn't allow the reader just, you know, play with it, figure it out for the reader's -- by the reader's own self, he had to explain.

REHM

11:42:54
Kate?

LEHRER

11:42:55
Well, I thought he does a wonderful job with imagery. I love it -- he starts out -- I love -- I think it's just a third -- I know it's the third paragraph in 'cause I'm looking at the beginning of the book. When he's talking about that ringing of the alarm bell in both Enid's and Alfred's head at this point in their lives, they've had that forever. They're anxious. They're anxious about life. They've always been anxious on some scale. They're not -- they are not living up to what they think they should be. Mostly what Alfred thinks he should be. And Enid sort of needs to live up to Alfred. And of course all that's just transmitted to the children.

REHM

11:43:38
To Grantham, N.H. Good morning, Carol.

CAROL

11:43:43
Good morning. I wanted to fill all of you in a little bit on Jonathan Franzen's background such as I know it. He grew up in an upper middle class suburb of St. Louis...

CHARLES

11:43:56
There's nothing wrong with that.

CAROL

11:43:57
...Webster Groves. And the other thing I know about him is that my aunt was his teacher in either fifth or sixth grade and he was a very good student and my aunt was a very good teacher.

REHM

11:44:17
Well, that's terrific. So have you -- do you think your aunt maintained contact with him?

CAROL

11:44:26
Pardon me? I didn't quite get the question.

REHM

11:44:30
Well, I'm afraid it's because you have your radio on and there's a little delay there, but I was just wondering if your aunt had maintained any contact with Jonathan Franzen.

CAROL

11:44:43
You know, I honestly don't know, but I'm making an effort now to try to get a copy of his latest book for her. She's still alive.

REHM

11:44:55
Oh, good.

CAROL

11:44:55
She's 95 years old.

REHM

11:44:56
Oh, good. Well, I hope she enjoys it. I do not...

LEHRER

11:45:01
Did she enjoy "Corrections?"

REHM

11:45:04
Carol, did you read "The Corrections?" Did you enjoy it?

CAROL

11:45:07
Yes, yes, I did. And I have since heard a number of radio interviews with Jonathan Franzen and I find that his use of the spoken language is every bit as arresting as it is in writing.

REHM

11:45:26
Good.

CHARLES

11:45:26
Yeah.

REHM

11:45:27
I'm glad to hear that. Thanks for calling. To Delray Beach, Fla. Good morning, Joan.

JOAN

11:45:36
Hello?

REHM

11:45:36
Yes, go right ahead, please.

JOAN

11:45:39
Oh, thank you. I read this book quite a few years ago and I'm in a book -- I was in a book group and everyone else liked it and I really disliked it 'cause -- because I thought, you know, he was -- as had been said on the show, he was bitter, he had a total lack of emotional feeling. I found the scene where the youngest child sat at the dining room table until they all came up from the basement, that was so painful and awful. Having -- I live in a family where we have a disabled person. I didn't think anything was funny about that, about the father, the comments. And I thought the ending was very superficial. I almost felt like somebody else wrote it. It just seemed completely out of the context of the rest of the book. So -- and I've read a short story of his in The New Yorker awhile back and he hasn't changed his style at all, I guess you either like it or you don't.

REHM

11:46:52
Exactly.

LEHRER

11:46:53
Again, and I said this earlier, I think, but I did not think he wrote about the father's disabilities in a -- he -- don't think he was trying to make fun of Alfred at that point. That I felt that he -- that was kind of hands off that he was not -- he didn't take that kind of cheap shots.

REHM

11:47:15
Except, Kate...

LEHRER

11:47:15
His were mostly the middle class.

REHM

11:47:17
Except, Kate, that he did through Enid's eyes think of Alfred as a blob sitting in that blue chair.

CHARLES

11:47:30
People do, though.

REHM

11:47:32
Exactly.

LEHRER

11:47:32
Yeah.

REHM

11:47:33
So he was writing about Alfred through her eyes.

LEHRER

11:47:37
But that's through her eyes...

REHM

11:47:38
Yes.

LEHRER

11:47:39
...not through any -- not -- I didn't feel it was through the author's eyes. Enid would see him as a blob. Enid is furious with him. And remember, after she's forgiven everybody else, as long as Alfred's alive and by that time, he can't even talk back to her...

REHM

11:47:55
Right.

LEHRER

11:47:55
...she tells him how he's been wrong...

CHARLES

11:47:58
Yeah.

LEHRER

11:47:58
... you know, wrong about everything.

REHM

11:47:59
Wrong about everything.

LEHRER

11:48:01
She can't give that one up.

REHM

11:48:02
To Peter in Silver Spring, Md. Good morning, you're on the air. Peter, are you there?

PETER

11:48:10
Oh, I am, yes.

REHM

11:48:11
Go right ahead, sir.

PETER

11:48:14
I'm sorry, say it again?

REHM

11:48:15
Go right ahead, please.

PETER

11:48:17
Oh, yeah, I'm 25, so I'm sorry, I guess I fall into your demographic of people who probably would find this funny and everything, but I just -- as -- you had a comment from somebody earlier, a 65-year-old woman. I forget who you said -- where you said she was from and she just talked about how redemptive it seemed and how much she got out of it and I couldn't have agreed with her more. I mean, I felt like such a huge part of the book was about depression itself and that, I mean, these characters had a whole lot of stuff that you could hate about them, but then things that you'd love about them, too. And I mean, if you hate one of them, then I mean, it's almost like you end up hating depression and you hate depressed people. And I mean and I can -- you can read into a lot of the writing especially as (unintelligible) that there's a lot of self-loathing in there with -- especially with Gary who seems the most -- or not the most, between him and Denise, they are both, like, much more sort of self-aware than Chip was.

REHM

11:49:34
All right, Peter. Thanks for your call. I think Peter's comments about depression are interesting.

CHARLES

11:49:41
And I wanted to say, you know, someone who doesn't have -- an author who doesn't have emotional depth or sympathy can't create those kind of painful scenes to make you feel so bad for these characters, so to say the book is unfeeling, 'cause you thought that scene, you know, of the boy at the table was so painful, well, who else could create a scene that would make you feel that pain...

REHM

11:49:57
True.

CHARLES

11:49:57
...except for a person who felt that sympathy?

REHM

11:49:58
True. True.

TRACY

11:49:59
I think that's right. He -- and some of the scenes are very, very powerful. You know, in terms of Jonathan Franzen's portrait of depression, it is very accurate, but it's not only Alfred who's depressed. Each character in this book is deeply depressed. The house -- the passage you read before, Diane, the house is depressed because the family is depressed. And I don't see that he gives us any way out of it. The person who just said that the ending was out of context was exactly the way I felt, not earned, just sort of decide he -- Franzen decided depression was gonna lift and that's not the way it works.

REHM

11:50:37
Or Jonathan Franzen decided to end the book and that's how he ended it.

LEHRER

11:50:43
Well, yeah, and when you read it, you can almost be like Enid and think yourself a happy Enid because she's willed herself a lot of ignorance as the years go along, but remember Alfred tells Gary -- and he does go down that path of depression. Alfred tells Gary, you're depressed. And Gary says, no, I'm not. Argues with him. And Alfred said, you are. Alfred knows because he sees Gary going exactly his route. Gary now is going to go back and it seems like a redemptive thing or a good thing that Gary's gonna go back and get his own hobby, but what's he gonna do? He's escaping the same way Alfred escaped. He goes to the top of the garage and gets out of the house. I mean, he's gonna get out of his own house with his nuclear family and in the same way that Alfred went to the basement, same deal. And you could say in some ways that Chip is -- he's still working on his manuscript that he's been working on now for years and years and it's...

REHM

11:51:50
That's right. And he's gonna go back and work on it more.

LEHRER

11:51:52
He's gonna go back and work more, but I think it's there. And there's also I think -- and we can't forget, it's almost thrown in a little too easily, but the idea of Gary and Alfred -- it only comes up with those two and I thought, well, they're all fighting. It is the sense there's death. I mean, Alfred faces death. Gary, in his own way, faces death and that's mentioned, but I'm thinking, oh, we need more than just the one throwaway line about that.

REHM

11:52:19
Here's an e-mail from Emily, who says, "I remember finding the women in "The Corrections" very obviously written by a man. Caricatures of females with all the most obvious flaws and quirks. The depth of the men and the quality of the writing was fantastic and fascinating, but I had so much trouble getting past his facile and surface view of his female characters." Laura?

TRACY

11:52:55
I would absolutely agree except that I think the men are caricatures, also. But yeah, as a woman reading it, it's very uncomfortable. The -- Alfred is given some sympathy and there's some compassion, but basically, Enid is horrible. And Denise is given some compassion, but not as a woman, per se, a female. You know, if I may, there's one line in the book I think explains exactly what Jonathan Franzen's trying to do about women, which is when he -- Al takes Enid back to Kansas to visit his parents and we're told they went to McCook, Neb. to visit his aged parents. His father, Al's father that is, kept a slave whom he was married to and the book is just a version of that simplified notion that women were mistreated and fought back. It's too simple. It's not complex enough.

REHM

11:53:54
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." That word slave sort of hits you in the gut. I mean, he simply was married to this woman, but used her.

LEHRER

11:54:12
And Alfred is very dismissive of women, just very, but I don't feel like it's the author, I just felt like it was Alfred that's dismissive. It comes up -- I don't think the others are. I didn't feel that his -- I loved Enid, actually, in her own way. I could see where she came out of a generation and a time. Remember, she knows she's better with finance than he is. She simply knows it.

REHM

11:54:37
But she's a denier.

LEHRER

11:54:39
She is a denier.

REHM

11:54:41
She denies just about everything that everybody...

LEHRER

11:54:45
But the...

REHM

11:54:45
...says. Ron?

CHARLES

11:54:47
But she's devowed about her ornaments.

REHM

11:54:49
That's true.

LEHRER

11:54:50
She's devowed about her ornaments and she doesn't deny the fact that she needed more physical satisfaction and Alfred simply would not grant it to her.

REHM

11:54:58
All right. We've got one last caller. Karen in Athens, Ohio, very quickly, please.

KAREN

11:55:06
My name is Karen and I wanna tell you that I'm a baby boomer. I study baby boomers. I agree that it was the quintessential baby boomer novel, but I can hear your panel talking about the timelessness of the novel as well. What my larger point is, however, is that "The Corrections" tries to tell us that we should feel better about our own families (laugh) I think.

REHM

11:55:32
That's interesting.

REHM

11:55:33
We should simply feel better about our own families. Well, I'm gonna take that in my head and mull it over. Kate Lehrer, Ron Charles, Laura Tracy, thank you so much.

TRACY

11:55:48
Thank you.

REHM

11:55:48
And for next month's Readers Review, we're going to turn back to a classic, Charles Dickens "A Tale of Two Cities." It dramatizes, of course, the nobility and peasantry in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. That'll be on October 20, so I hope you'll join us. Let me also say I'm off to have another voice treatment this afternoon, then flying to Denver for a public radio conference. I'll be off for the next week or so. My good colleague, Katty Kay, will be sitting in for a few days and then Susan Page. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

ANNOUNCER

11:56:44
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