Review

The Corrections

by Jonathan Franzen



In his now infamous Atlantic Monthly article, "A Reader's
Manifesto," B.R. Myers attacks literary fiction for becoming
hopelessly quagmired in pretension and affected, meaningless,
impenetrable prose. Why are serious writers "so contemptuous of the
urge to tell an exciting story," he begs, particularly when it
comes to edgy fiction rife with "America, that consumerist
cesspool" commentary? Well, halleluiah, Mr. Myers and the rest of
us apparently deeply bored and befuddled readers may have found a
savior in Jonathan Franzen. An epic tragicomedy, THE CORRECTIONS
follows the alternately divergent and convergent paths of two
generations of the Lambert family from mid-century through the
technology-saturated economic boom and crash of the late 90's.
Franzen's third, and no doubt best novel, it goes a long way toward
bridging the gap between the ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness
of socially motivated fiction and the timelessness of a simply good
story.

An infinite well of personal and interpersonal dysfunction, Alfred,
the Lambert's unyielding, compulsively upstanding patriarch is fast
losing his white-knuckled grip on reality and succumbing to
Parkinson's-induced dementia. His entropic mind leaves him betrayed
by propriety and victimized by his arch nemeses --- smut, filth,
sentimentality, the helpless and the hapless. A deeply sad but
fitting irony, in the end (his end) Alfred is plagued by violent
sexual impulses, reduced to soiling his pants and is haunted by
distant and painfully sweet memories of his children, who he had
once hoped would help "correct" the mistakes of life but now holds
them at an intractable emotional distance.

Meanwhile, Alfred's chirpy wife Enid spends her days waxing poetic
about the wonderfully idyllic homogeneity of suburban St. Jude
while insisting that Alfred's illness is entirely psychosomatic. An
artful amalgamation of the stereotypical Jewish nudge, the easily
scandalized and moralizing Catholic and the lonely, unfulfilled
wife of a passionless Protestant, she builds an unrelenting,
childlike excitement over the prospect of having "one last
Christmas in St. Jude." Hers is a desperately "up" disposition, a
preternatural optimism, so contrived that when it begins to wane in
the face of the creeping reality of her empty life, she takes a
short-lived foray into the world of personality enhancers and
starts popping experimental happy pills. Like Alfred and their
children, Enid is "tragic" in her utter lack of self and
world-awareness. But society's Wonderbreadification  and
Consumerland's Rasputin-like effects leave Enid especially ravaged.
From keeping up with the Joneses to money hungriness to sound
Christian values without an ounce of actual belief, there isn't a
negative symptom of 90's modernity that Enid doesn't embody.
Frankly, there are times when she is so patently annoying she
teeters on becoming a cartoonish parody of vices.

Forced from St. Jude by the exasperating admixture of Enid and
Alfred, the three Lambert children move clear across the country.
Geography, however, proves an ineffective weapon in the fight
against malcontent and malaise. Gary, the eldest, is a tightly
wound, yuppie banker drowning in unhappiness and wracked by
paranoia but unwavering in his refusal to admit to "clinical
depression." He is skeptical (and rightly so, which is the
reoccurring anti-quick-fix message that comes across) of
surrendering himself to the meta-personality offered by
antidepressants. Moreover, many of Gary's anxieties stem from the
fear of becoming like his father --- a remote, inflexible, truly
clinically depressed man. Here, Franzen employs a mirroring effect
to underscore the unmitigated blindness pervasive in Gary,
specifically, and the Lamberts, in general. In the grand tradition
of turning into your parents, it's Alfred's very image and likeness
that Gary finally appropriates.

A neo-Foucaultian, antiestablishment soapboxer who maxes out his
credit card on posh restaurants and leather pants, Chip is
essentially a capitalist in disguise. After being fired from his
professorship for sleeping with a student just weeks before his
tenure review, Chip moves to NYC and sets his sights on
screenwriting, at which he is also turns out to be a colossal
failure. Deeply in debt, Chip's agent (the villainously named Eden
Procuro) pimps him out to a clever Lithuanian who needs help
bilking moronic, manifest destiny-minded Americans out of their
money by launching Lithuania.com, a website that allows
investors to buy a piece of the economically unstable country and
turn it into a bonafide "for-profit nation-state." The site's
tagline --- "Democracy Pays Handsome Rewards" --- may as well be
the mantra for Franzen's entire book, particularly in light of its
innumerable ironic twists of fate, the most hilarious being that
Chip is eventually run out of Lithuania, penniless and under threat
of assassination.

If Chip (like Enid) is a wannabe social climber, his sister Denise
is a genuine hipster. Head chef at a trendy restaurant in
Philadelphia, the beautiful Denise travels in all the right
circles. That is, until she falls into dueling affairs with her
boss and her boss' wife and is summarily dismissed from her job.
Having cut herself off from soul-baring intimacy --- dating back
to, or perhaps born from, her first sexual encounter with a man who
was both much older and an employee of her father's --- Denise is
self-destructive in her compulsively physical sexuality. But her
newfound bisexuality is not a feckless act of passion but rather
the simple result of her desperate search for love precipitated by
her father's illness and finally leading toward her most profound
realization of "the extent of the correction she was
undergoing."

It is with unremitting scrutiny that Franzen lays so patently bare
the pretensions, greed, self-deceptions, insecurities and folly of
the Lamberts --- and, by extension, the greater culture --- as they
swallow whole the quick-fix comforts and profitability of today's
technology laden, commerce-glutted global society and conveniently
sidestep all accountability for self or neighbor. Yet, Franzen's
satirical edge is not the true triumph of THE CORRECTIONS; there is
certainly no shortage of literature offering piercing insight into
society's devolution. Rather, THE CORRECTIONS is remarkable for its
seamless fusion of domestic and global dysfunctions into a
deceptively simple yet utterly compelling story of one family's
collective but colliding struggle toward finding meaning in their
lives. Even more than that, Franzen --- unlike so many other
hopelessly cynical social novelists --- is genuinely empathetic to
the plight of his cast of fools and imbues them with a fundamental
human decency and their screwed up lives with a faint but
unmistakable glimmer of hope. In the end we realize that "the
corrections" are not, as we along with the Lamberts once assumed,
an unattainable, cruel irony. We have been indicted, yes, but still
we are filled, in Enid's words, with a "strange yearning sense of
possibility."

Reviewed by Sarah Brennan on January 21, 2011

The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312421273
  • ISBN-13: 9780312421274