Top 10 Books of 2010: #1

The Corrections

#1: THE CORRECTIONS, Jonathan Franzen

For the past few weeks, I went wandering back through the 10 best books I read in 2010. I conclude the year’s review with these fragmented thoughts on my favorite book of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

It’s been a year of dysfunctional family epics: Ada, The Man Who Loved Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now this: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I guess I have a thing for this genre.

I know this is not the Franzen novel that everyone’s been talking about this year, but I hadn’t previously read any of his work and so I wanted to get started before Freedom came out. My reservations about “modern” literature have already been briefly expressed, but I felt like they all dissolved after I had read The Corrections.

Franzen’s ability to inhabit the dreary, seemingly hopeless Lambert family is astonishing to me. At first glance, this sounds like a supremely boring book: This middle-class family is falling apart and the mild-mannered matriarch is obsessed with getting her whole disjointed family together for Christmas one last time. Why would anyone want to read a nearly 600-page tome about that?

Well, for one thing, because Franzen is a bit of a genius. I don’t know how he does it; I really don’t. Some critics called him a “prophet.”  The Corrections came out a few weeks before 9/11. After we recovered from the shock, we began to realize that this novel was already proclaiming the domestic malaise that we would face in the post-9/11 world; it was a quiet and almost eerie warning.

To my mind, Franzen’s most impressive ability is his skill in replicating voices. Many authors do not write convincing characters of their opposite sex (Dickens and Per Petterson come to mind). Franzen does not seem troubled by this at all. In fact, I think the most believable character is the mother, Enid Lambert. Her gestures and fears are so perfectly expressed that you feel like you might have spent a lot of time with her at a long, fluorescent family reunion.

One of the most moving exchanges for me was a passage I have already written about here. Franzen most likely did not intend for this to be read religiously at all, but I read the exchange between the Lambert siblings, Denise and Chip, as the perfect description of the Gospel. We cannot stand to be forgiven. And yet over and over again, a beneficent Franzen offers his characters forgiveness. They are unwilling to extend or accept forgiveness, but they crave it, just like we do. The Corrections is a beautiful novel about the complex web of emotions that families create, but it is also a map through the labyrinth of familial tension; it’s letting you into the secret of the way out.

In short, it is one of the most full novels I have ever read. At the conclusion of David Gates’s review of The Corrections, he writes:

No one book, of course, can provide everything we want in a novel. But a book as strong as ”The Corrections” seems ruled only by its own self-generated aesthetic: it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.

The Corrections is lovely and sad and true. What more can you ask from a genuine work of art?

With that, I’ve spoken my peace about the 10 best books I read in 2010. Thanks for reading along. Now, onward to 2011! There is much to be conquered.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #5

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

#5: EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, Jonathan Safran Foer

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be sharing some brief thoughts about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

I am not very well-versed in contemporary literature and so, as a proper literary snob, I always approach modern novels with trepidation. This novel was no different. It’s not exactly fresh or new to be into Jonathan Safran Foer and rave about him on your Tumblr, but I’d never read anything he’d written, so I decided back in February to figure out what the hype was all about.

The hype is about a novelist who keeps one finger on the pulse of the 21st-century reader and the other on the voice of his swift and witty self.

The story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is clearly designed to pluck your postmodern heartstrings. Oskar Schell is 9 years old. His beloved father, Thomas, was killed when the World Trade Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Oskar goes on a personal quest to discover the details of his father’s last moments on Earth. He scours New York City, following a trail of obscure clues and joining with a team of randomly encountered strangers. Oskar is probably the most precocious child you’ve ever met in a novel (perhaps excepting Charles Wallace) and it’s often a bit difficult to swallow the fact that this kid is supposed to be only 9 years old. However, we enjoy his adventures and his emotional odyssey through New York and through this powerful, collective memory of the tragedy of 9/11. In the end, we are not exactly sure if Oskar has found what he has been looking for, but he is content. And so we are as well.

Much of what makes Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close interesting is the book layout itself. Foer is not shy with graphic gimmicks–the book contains a number of full-page photographs, typographical absurdities (in one section, the words begin to run into each other until they completely overlap, creating an almost entirely black page of unreadable text), even several sections with red-lined edits included. Essentially, the book is a publishing designer’s nightmare–or greatest challenge. At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about this. It seemed on par with an amateur magician’s tricks to keep a waning audience interested. But the more I read, the more Foer convinced me that he knew what he was doing.

Even though I was quite affected by Anis Shivani’s scathing critique of Foer (“Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, giving us a nine-year-old with the brain of a-twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer”), it’s been a long time since I read a book that made me cry. Somehow, it was good to find one that could accomplish that. Foer probably is guilty of “gimmick after gimmick,” as Shivani says he is. But, Shivani, I’m giving him #5 on my list because he made tears fall from my eyes and because it was pretty beautiful. Whether that makes him a circus-like panderer to the masses, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll let you decide.