In the wake of the buzz surrounding last year’s release of Freedom, I knew it was about time I checked out Jonathan Franzen. But instead of diving right into Freedom I decided to start with the novel that earned Franzen his place among contemporary literature’s elite, The Corrections: a sprawling critique of modern American living, told through the lives of the members of the dysfunctional Lambert family.
While the breadth of this novel is vast–it covers 568 pages and seemingly introduces just as many characters–its argument is decidedly succinct. Franzen alleges that it is our prerogative as contemporary Americans to “correct” our faulty attributes. Ultimately, however, despite the many tools, gadgets and pills that contemporary living provides us, our attempts will prove futile. To make this point, The Corrections is broken down into several sections, each dealing with a different adult member of the Lambert family.
Introduced first is Chip, the middle child of parents Alfred and Enid. When we first encounter Chip he is a man in crisis, dealing with the aftermath of losing both his prestigious college teaching job and his wealthy, well-connected girlfriend. Despite the fact that his family makes themselves available for support, Chip considers himself profoundly alone. Revelations of the past then reveal a son who interprets his father’s parenting style as cold and disinterested, and therefore now, as an adult, wants nothing but distance between them. However, by way of Alfred’s crumbling veneer as a result of his severe bout with Parkinson’s, Chip learns that his interpretation of his father, as well as various other truths he once believed in, is terribly wrong.
Next is Gary, the “responsible” eldest son struggling to admit that he is clinically depressed. Growing up in a booming economy, Gary believes that Americans of his generation have to try not to succeed. As a result, Gary considers his high-paying portfolio management job and beautiful wife as boiler-plate acquisitions of anyone living in the same bull market. Gary is therefore incapable of understanding how his modest Midwestern parents can be satisfied with what he believes is a mediocre existence and takes it upon himself to manage their lives as he sees fit. However, as the novel (and his depression) progresses, Gary finds himself questioning his “corrections” and slowly comes clean with the man he truly is.
Finally there is Denise, the Lamberts’ only daughter and youngest of the three siblings. Denise’s personal life has been in a state of disarray since adolescence. Her need to please her doting parents–coupled with her sheer confusion regarding her sexuality–has turned her relationship with them into a farce. Since her first romantic encounter Denise has shielded her parents from the subversive nature of her love life, thus disconnecting them from her. A desperate need to confess and come to terms with her true identity plagues her in the later stages of the book, signifying the failure of “corrections” she attempted to make earlier in her life.
While the action of The Corrections is compelling, Franzen’s masterful prose arguably outshines its content. Most memorable is the perfectly articulated dialogue, with extra kudos going to Enid’s passages. Though the characters are rarely likeable, great credit goes to Franzen for making them always believable.
My final impression of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is that overall, it is a very good book. While certain aspects of the novel (its dry lectures on subjects like Lithuanian politics and the railroad industry come to mind) keep it from “five star” status for me, I am greatly intrigued by the author and look forward to reading Freedom very soon.