January 16, 2002
Apologies, Mr. Franzen, but Mr. Carey is Eating your Lunch.
Two different people gave me The Corrections for Christmas. So, it was right there winking at me. I had heard great things about it. I had heard, from one particularly invigorated cowgirl, that this book was The Book, that I would be changed, evolved, that I *must* read it immediately, that all would be explained within its pages, all would be revealed. At one point she expressed the feeling that she could not continue to discuss writing with me if I did not have The Corrections in my head for use as a reference point. So, eventually, after a decent interval of negligent resistance, I read it. And it is a great book.
A few people I know who have read The Corrections and are writers have shared the same feeling after reading five or six chapters -- the feeling of wanting to put a steak knife in your head because you can never accomplish what he has accomplished, so you might as well lie down and bleed yourself into the unforgiving soil, rather than scratch your uninteresting pen over another ream of dull, shitty paper, producing another inferior text that will only make you sorry you ever lived, especially since every airport, every corner store, every Walmart, is packed to the tentacles with glittering shining copies of The Corrections, and apparently will be for the next hundred or so years.
You see, what we have all tried to do at some point or another is to create a realistic character, a very round character that tastes as good as he smells, a complex character. And we have tried to do this with showing not telling, because we're sposed to do it that way doncha know. And this is one of the HARDEST things to EVER do, and this is what Franzen does with absolute mastery, again and again with character after character, until you really start believing the book, and you can't believe it came out of someone's head. Okay, so, he is great at that.
Now, another feeling that writer-readers commonly share, fortunately, is the feeling around two thirds of the way through the book that you actually might want to live, possibly even write again, that the book might actually have flaws. And if you're like me, by the time you get to the end, you're flogging yourself through the last few chapters, telling yourself with sadness and also triumph that you're really freakin' tired of reading about these depressing people and their horrible lives. By the time I was watching Franzen accept the National Book Award on CSPAN, I was actually filled with hope that someday when I am older and wiser, I might write something better than his book.
Franzen is a competent writer. And "competent" is by no means a faint praise as a means to damnation. When you think of what the writer of realistic fiction attempts, the idea of competence becomes quite grand. I'm certainly not competent at what Franzen does -- capturing people so accurately, with such withering skill, so completely and in such an interesting entertaining way. He has presented in his book a collection of real lives. That is amazing. They really do seem real. The parents, particularly, are amazingly lifelike. Competence, in this field of work, is a fabulous achievement.
However. Ultimately, one yearns for brilliance. And that is what I got, in heaping buckets, from Edward Carey's book Observatory Mansions. Because where The Corrections is something familiar, represented with startling accuracy, Observatory Mansions is something new, represented with glowing imagination. I cannot even begin to tell you the depth of Carey's vision -- from the first page of the book to the very end, I was never expecting what I read, never anticipating any description or action, it was all brightly new, something I had never seen before.
As such, it was a bit more stressful to read than The Corrections. I felt like I feel when I hear a brilliant but temperamental violinist attempting a very difficult piece. I'm on the edge of my seat with nerves, thinking, "He can't POSSIBLY go that fast, he WILL screw up, he CANNOT maintain." But Observatory Mansions, in all its bizarre surrealism and its completely unprecedented characterization, went off flawlessly, perfectly. Where The Corrections faded into depression and foregone conclusion, Observatory Mansions leaped from crag to crag, getting colder, starker, fiercer, and braver. Truly, truly, an amazing book, and a NEW book. A very lonely book, I think.
The books are both about families. Both are ensemble pieces. But where The Corrections made me initially gasp with shock at the fine prose, and eventually yawn and hurry as the inevitable international political farce set in, Observatory Mansions had me clinging to every page, wringing out all these original images and details, plumbing this bizarre, unfamiliar character for everything he had to give me, paying the closest attention to the smallest phrase.
So, thank god, I have still got a reason to feel bitterly inadequate as a writer, and with that, I can go on.
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