Review: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

At first, I honestly suspected that The Corrections has been delivered with a blizzard of media and social hype that I personally found a little off-putting, and perhaps repellent to the very readers the publishers want to reach, i.e., people starved for serious, readable, moderately intelligent fiction with the contemporary naturalist bent (and anti-Capitalist underpinnings). That’s precisely what kept me from opening the book for 2 years, until I finally got ahold of it and just attacked. In the end, it came as a surprise how I managed to devour it in a week’s deterrent-filled but still frenzied reading.

The Corrections is a welcome chunk of Americana to my reading repertory. Despite focusing on fairly unpleasant events, despite being populated by largely unsympathetic characters – and despite my aversion to books that emphasize human frailty and flaws and folly and the mundane, or, to be more precise, despite my aversion to books that attempt to locate the “poetic” or the “sublime” in the mundane as its authorial premise – I’m quite surprised to have consistently enjoyed reading The Corrections. It is hardly wearing (and, appealingly, hardly taxing), and despite being near 600 pages long, it is one of those books that I wouldn’t have minded to be a few hundred pages longer.

On one level, The Corrections is a good, “old-fashioned” novel, the writing and presentation seemingly effortless (with only a few sententious and too-clever slips where Franzen tries to do more than he can carry off), and the characters and their stories are recognizable, if not (gulp) painfully relatable. There is pathos and humanity, humor and tragedy. The small, deeply personal tragedies of the characters’ lives, especially, Franzen captures well.

A little bit of synopsis: Franzen tells the story of the Lamberts – Alfred and Enid, retired in their hometown, Midwestern St. Jude, are growing old. Alfred, in particular, is having difficulties, mentally and physically. Their three grown children live on the East Coast: Denise is a chef, Gary a banker, Chip is between jobs. Gary is married and has three children, while Denise and Chip are less tied down.

St. Jude, as one of the characters notes, is “the patron saint of hopeless causes,” but living in a city named after him hasn’t much helped the Lambert clan. Alfred has seemed determined to avoided success for years: he took retirement just short of the point when he could have collected a much larger pension (for no good reason, as far as long-suffering wife Enid can tell). A second possible windfall is also avoided: Alfred used to tinker in his basement, and even patented some of his discoveries. One substance now seems to be a key ingredient in a revolutionary neurobiological agent, Corecktall, that pre-IPO company Axon is developing. It promises to be a wonder drug: “Simply put, Corecktall offers for the first time the possibility of renewing and improving the hard wiring of an adult human brain.” But Axon initially only offers Alfred a token sum for his patent – and he is willing to accept it, rather than ask for more.

Alfred’s growing debilitation as his hardwiring fails him and Enid’s attempts at creating an atmosphere of what she believes familial normality dominate the flow of the story. Enid wants to assemble the family together for at least one final Christmas in St. Jude, a long-term plan that doesn’t look very promising. Almost entirely oblivious to the failings and failures of everything around her, Enid focusses largely on this one goal. The story moves between present and pasts, as the focus shifts from child to child and the story of each of the five Lamberts is recounted.

This is how Franzen weaves this tapestry of past and present, building up to the Christmas get-together. As the pieces of the past are revealed, the present makes more sense. There is, after all, a Lambert Christmas, and a coda of vaguely happy endings as Franzen ties and patches things up fairly neatly.

A part of me, the snarky impatient personality that dislikes reading about unending emotional turmoil, depression, dementia, people messing up their lives, awkward family scenes, and the views of the well-educated, self-satisfied towards everyone else in a slowly developing story, had a familiar disinclination to this book.

On the other hand, and in the same vein, I enjoyed recognizing some thematic and stylistic elements in The Corrections. It is, after all, fiction writing that takes its characters to the edge and tests them thoroughly with temptation and challenge in order to let their actions describe their personalities. Part of me enjoyed the satirical treatment of foibles of the “Greatest Generation” and the “Baby Boom,” the capsulizing of the politics and manipulation within families in an extremely convincing and revealing way, and part of me was relentless in its curiosity to read about a family with more problems than my own. On a more superficial level, I enjoyed seeing see new forms of narration, and appreciated Franzen’s ability to switch smoothly between stream of consciousness and straight narration.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The theme of The Corrections (whether in financial markets, in dealing with misbehavior, adjusting to new circumstances, or choosing the right path) is a good one for a novel about families, and I thought the theme was imaginative and quite well developed. But like my experience with Franzen’s Strong Motion, the theme’s full relevance did not hit me until the last 100 pages or so. Yes, there is a lot in this hefty book – quite laborious for me to isolate – and the lot of it does not always proceed on an even keel.

Franzen is an extremely observant writer, I will say that. He can capture and dissect people with a perception and thoroughness that any writer aspires for. He notices and describes the actions and manipulations of relationships, the effects of needing love and recognition, the sometimes funny but often unkind interactions between people who do not understand themselves or the closest people around them.

The book is a series of stories of the main characters, each of whom are “correcting” what came before. They want to correct each other, their parents, their partners, their siblings and themselves. Each of them seems to think that if he or she changes a behavior, the outward appearance of their lives, then he or she will be successful in becoming the person he or she wants to be — or, more accurately, avoid becoming the person he or she does not want to be. One of my gripes is that the inward journeys of the characters do not go deep. These are not thoughtful people. There is no moral basis for action, no questioning, no intellectual component to their lives, no weighing of choices, no wrestling with larger themes. Their lives and decisions are nearly always a reaction to something else and Franzen just coolly, coldly watches.

The result is like being at a cocktail party, listening to an intelligent, perceptive and well-spoken drunk skewer everyone else in the room. It’s entertaining, to a certain extent; after a while, you begin to hope he will either reach a conclusion or just go home.

Yes, Franzen sees everything in the lives of his characters, yet he understands a good deal less. Or maybe he is cleverly telling us that modern society understands nothing – in which case he could have done a good deal more briefly. For me, the book becomes distasteful in its lack of sympathy for the characters who are largely all flaws. Perhaps the requirement of “contemporary fiction” is terminal cynicism. Perhaps it is Franzen’s own belief or conviction that there is little redeeming about any person at all. Or perhaps The Corrections is a clarion call to deepen the public psychological discussions of ourselves. If that is the case, the snide, sarcastic and superior tone and lack of empathy overwhelmed a larger message.

Whatever the case, with The Corrections, it’s as if Franzen has taken the somewhat inaccessible avant-garde concerns of writers such as Don DeLillo or Jeanette Winterson or the David Foster Wallace of “Infinite Jest” and placed them in the traditional literary context of a mainstream American novel about family and how it prepares you to function (or not) in the larger world. Chapter by chapter, Franzen manages to create this little universe that mirrors what he interprets as the world (his world) at present, yet he makes the madness more comprehensible.

There is no doubt that Franzen writes well, can sustain a narrative or, rather, a series of narratives barely tied together by a single Christmas. And then that fateful day finally arrives, and for no reason, Chip’s behavior changes, Enid is reconciled to her martyrdom, Gary fades away entirely, and Denise continues on. The father’s physical and mental unraveling is carefully detailed but left unresolved. That fateful day which is supposed to be the novel’s denouement carries very little weight, no heavy lifting.

At one point, I ended up saying to myself, “Yeah? So…? And…?” Is it the writer’s obligation to tie up, find conclusions, illustrate important things, simulate thoughts of what might have been, or what really was, or anything beyond the surface of the story? Perhaps not. The Corrections has been hailed as a masterpiece. To me it is a very good act of observation – nothing much else. And because Franzen does little else but observe, I found it hard to actually care about the book, its characters or its author’s agenda.

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

  1. Mmmm. Liked what you had to say here. I think I liked the characters because I know them – or, rather, I know people just like them. This lends a familiar sympathy which balances out their flaws.

    It’s definitely lit lite, but that’s something else I admire about Franzen – his stories are not buried beneath the layers of artifice of, say, an Infinite Jest. It’s the same reason I like Cormac McCarthy’s ‘airport novels’ (No Country, The Road). The meatier novels (Blood Meridian, Suttree) are wonderful, too, but for different reasons.

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    • Thanks for reading, Rhys. I enjoyed this one, but the whole book kept me at an arm’s length, as if I were reading an extended logical problem, despite the fact that I also know people just like its characters (hi mom.) I always like a smart book. But I also want to care. And in the end I didn’t care: not about Chip or Denise or Gary, though I see (parts of) myself in them. Maybe I’m cold? LOL. Or maybe I did care – I just hated them precisely because I saw myself in them. Ha.

      Anyway, I’m reading Freedom now, and I think I’m enjoying this more. I’ve only read McCarthy’s The Road, back in 2009 I guess. I enjoyed it as well.

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  2. Pingback: Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen | Tongue Sophistries

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