The Corrections, By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar Straus Giroux, 568 pp., $26
Fury, By Salman Rushdie
Random House, 259 pp., $24.95
Jonathan Franzen's new novel The Corrections weighs in at more than twice the size of Salman Rushdie's new novel Fury, and, if ever size counted, it counts here. Both books have to do with up-to-the-headlines life as it is lived in these post-millenial, post-dot-com United States, and both books have as their subject what's making us tick but still sick at heart. The prime suspects? The usual list: The media. The market. The Internet. Advertising. Temporal forces -- as in, too much, too little time on our hands. Or is it still a matter of the old standbys: our families, ourselves? But what of ourselves when every drop in serotonin means another half-increase in our pharmaceutical of choice, when "self" itself becomes a guessing game of who's who and what's what?
Salman Rushdie's Fury is, true to its title, fast and, well, furious -- the better to plant a finger on the pulse of a half-crazed nation and the better for Rushdie to rant over it (when he isn't riffing on it). The Corrections isn't exactly slow-going either, but it does take its own good time across a multitude of characters and intersecting plots, side characters and secondary plots, over hundreds of pages and orders of importance, the better to count as a novel that is positively great: smart, smart-alecky, silly, wise, and, while we're on the subject, heartfelt and heartbreaking.
One measure of greatness in fictional works of Franzen's and Rushdie's kind, the "social" as opposed to the "literary" novel: kindly reminders of the recognizably day-to-day that stick and stay stuck in the reader's brain, as in Franzen's Lambert family of five: father Alfred, suffering the onset of Parkinson's but true to himself to the bitter end, losing out on the big bucks he stood to make from his retirement and losing out on the chemical patent he holds on a discovery that could one day cure his very illness, thus driving nuts ... wife Enid, suffering from a lifetime of cluelessness and seriously standing in the way of the moral determination shown by her husband, but whose one wish, that her family gather for one last Christmas in the fine, upstanding, fictional city of St. Jude, somewhere in the Midwest, USA, is seriously jeopardized by ... son Chip, former fancy (and sex-starved) academic, former screenplay writer on the skids, newly a member of a highly questionable Internet operation in the dangerous business of selling post-Communist Lithuania (the world's first nation-state-for-profit) to the highest bidders, which leaves ... Chip's responsible brother, Gary, a highly bankable Philadelphia banker, to try to capitalize, handsomely, on his own father's suffering even as he stews inside the Chestnut Hill life he's made for himself along with a fed-up wife and a trio of next-to-fed-up sons, who together insist that Gary is suffering from depression, that he needs "help," when what his true problem is is a version of cluelessness to match his mother's, which ... sister Denise, a hard-bitten but basically soft-shell cook in one of Philadelphia's chicest restaurants, barely has time for, since she's tied up herself at the moment having an affair with her millionaire bankroller's wife at the same time as she's trying her best to ... take care of, long-distance, her ailing father Alfred (mother Enid she's never much seen eye-to-eye with).
Complicated, confusing? You bet, but Franzen gives himself the space to make it all-too believable, in additon to funny, frustrating, humane, and within the realm of possibility of every reader he's got, and with this book, every new reader he deserves.
Consider, now, Rushdie's protagonist in Fury, Malik Solanka, age 55, mastermind of a thinking-man's TV puppet show but with a marriage on the rocks and currently on the verge of losing his mind on the Upper West Side. Solanka's problems as an ex-academic (what's with these unhappy teachers?) turned media powerhouse are no less humiliating and no less outlandish than what Franzen's characters go through but with this major difference: lack of space, breathing space, so that when the climax clue to Solanka's hang-ups comes to light, it comes round to the reader as imposed by Rushdie rather than by the free play of his protagonist.
Still, Fury delivers on what it so plainly sets itself to do: concoct a really smart, take-no-prisoners lampooning of English Lit. hogwash, big-business skulduggery, high-level Web foolishness, murderous high-society sexual shenaningans, the cult of celebrity, and every other thing Solanka encounters (Rushdie too) under a New York City sun. The cure, as explicitly called for by Rushdie? You gotta have heart. Fury makes the case. The Corrections, at length, makes it more memorably.