Brilliance can’t overcome muddle

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Brilliance can’t overcome muddle

Jonathan Franzen’s “The Connections” opens with Enid Lambert, 75, who wants nothing more than to have her three children in her home in the U.S. Midwest for Christmas, but they are busy making messes of their lives.
The saga of the older son is kept within some bounds, but the second son, Chip, comes across as someone so incompetent and self-destructive that it’s a wonder he can tie his own shoes. A long section of the book is set in Lithuania, where Chip flees, and the farce here is so broadly written that the reader begins to suspect that the whole book is a put-on. Enid’s youngest, her only daughter, seems sane but is having an affair with both her boss and his wife and ends up tossed out of her job at a hip Philadelphia restaurant, perhaps another literary stretch.
Enid’s husband Alfred is losing his sanity to Parkinson’s disease; she’s painted as an obsessive pack rat, just to make sure no character gets off scot-free. But in the end Enid is liberated and the children all find Inner Peace and Satisfaction. Character development relies too heavily on “Omigod, what’s he going to do next” sequences, rather than anything that tries to show how this family got this way. Franzen’s only substantive attempt in that direction ― an explanation of why Alfred gave up two additional years on the job and a much larger pension ― is either very subtle or very muddled, and subtlety is not this book’s strong point.
But the book is extremely well-written, full of brilliant touches that are alternately delightful and jarring. Mr. Franzen is talented, and his prose often soars, despite the occasional page-long sentence. Yet it jars rather than inspires or reveals, and Franzen’s well-publicized feud with Oprah Winfrey just adds to my personal feeling of having been conned.

by John Hoog
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