In considering my favourite novel of the noughties, it was perhaps inevitable that my mind should alight immediately upon a weighty work that captures the inescapable sense of disappointment that has epitomised this decade. I am, to those who know me, an arch miserablist, especially when it comes to cultural matters, and what really impresses me about my chosen piece of fiction is that, despite it being released back in 2001, it succeeded in foretelling much of the misery and broken dreams that would go on to characterise this period of time. Technology has made islands of us all; consumerist demands have ruptured families like only civil wars previously could; our ageing population gets away with bad decisions; an increasingly strained youth must pick up the inevitable cost. For me, only one novel has dealt with these issues in a compelling manner.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, as endorsed by New Yorker readers and Oprah Winfrey viewers alike, takes a group of people with a vague semblance to the traditional family unit, drags them into the twenty-first century, and catalogues the ensuing multi-generational, globe-spanning saga in a vibrant, sparky style that veers into the surreal but never escapes from its grounding in black comedy, tinged with sadness and regret. The Corrections follows the Lamberts – a Midwestern family spanning three generations, blighted by Parkinson’s and dementia (Alfred, the father of the family), marital constraints (Edith, Alfred’s long-suffering wife), consumerist demands (Gary, the eldest son, a successful banker), and failed romance (both Denise and Chip, the other two children, suffer from this). Though their lives are plotted along increasingly disparate vectors, Edith is determined to re-unite the family for what may be their final Christmas together – Alfred’s ailments seeming increasingly terminal.
Franzen doesn’t make it easy for us to like his characters. He doesn’t even make it easy to like his style of writing – numerous friends of mine have given up after the opening chapter, which refers to a silent alarm bell signalling the ever-present state of panic at the heart of the dying couples that inhabit small Midwestern towns. All of the Lamberts are blessed with loveable qualities, but each worsens their situation by dint of their more screwed-up character flaws, making it tough to sympathise with them. At the same time, we see that they are, at heart, good people, screwed over by modern society which, for one reason or another, they cannot adapt to. It is there in Denise’s bizarre relationships which challenge our perceptions of sexuality and the ease with which we can just fall in love. It is present too in Alfred’s undoubted intelligence, which is kept at bay by an inability to express modern values. The Corrections is a deeply unhappy novel about our insatiable desire to correct parts of our life – whether through food, people, money, or possessions – and yet it does not posit the strong family as the solution to this unhappiness either.
Franzen’s masterpiece is my novel of the decade not only because of its prescience and thematic weightiness, but also because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, written in a hyperthyroid style that flits between made-up science, wry perceptions and social commentary, political discourse, and frequently fascinating, clipped dialogue. If this new decade is to bring us any hope at all, we should endeavour to make it nothing like the world of The Corrections. Which is exactly why everyone should read it.