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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I’m never one to admit that feminists have a point, but it’s almost unquestionably true that Jonathan Franzen is lucky he’s a guy. Had he two x-chromosomes instead of an x and a y, it is easy to imagine his novels, especially The Corrections, being taken far less seriously. One can even picture the re-designed cover for this novel, by the prospective “Johanna” Franzen. Pink and teal in place of austere black and vivid red; curly script in place of bold block letters. They’d probably change the title, too. Something like One Last Christmas, maybe.

All of which would be a dreadful shame, since The Corrections deserves the huge, gender-gap-spanning readership it has attracted in the near-decade since its publication. Franzen writes about universal themes which have somehow been shoe-horned into the dreaded chick-lit ghetto of contemporary literature. The Corrections is fairly exclusively about family, and one of the best things that can be said about it is that it doesn’t apologize for this narrower focus. Instead it digs deeper into the complicated relationships inherent in any family. Many times this is unpleasant, even painful. But Franzen is fearless. He doesn’t mind if you dislike or disapprove of his characters. He just wants you to recognize, even if you do it begrudgingly, that they are as nearly real as fictional people can be. The Corrections is a provocative novel in the true sense of the term: the power of its story is felt in the strength of your reactions.

The family in question is the Lamberts, originally from the made-up Midwestern hub St. Jude. Patriarch Alfred, a former railroad executive and amateur scientist, is suffering from Parkinson’s and seems to be refusing to do anything to delay the disease’s deleterious effects. His stubborn adherence to self-derived principles is self-defeating in the extreme. His wife Enid is trying to pretend that there isn’t a problem with her husband that wouldn’t be cured by a more positive outlook on life. However, her constant nagging and pushing make a sunny disposition unimaginable.

Their three children have all fled St. Jude, and just to make they were free of its influence, the Midwest as a whole. Gary is a Philadelphia investment banker fighting off depression and fighting with his calculating wife. She’s clearly got their three kids on her side, which doesn’t help. Denise is a chef in the most posh restaurant in Philly, recovering from her own disastrous marriage (and uncertain sexuality) by becoming thoroughly implicated in her boss’s marriage. And Chip is a disgraced cultural studies professor who runs away from his familial and professional obligations by taking a risky and illegal job in Lithuania.

The novel moves fluidly between all five characters’ perspectives. Alfred’s scenes are the hardest to read, and not just because of their concern with his failing body. Gary’s family life is also a challenge, because as well-imagined as the scenes are it is still searing to witness the cruelty involved. Chip’s Lithuanian odyssey is the most oddball element of the narrative, and given, bizarrely, comparatively few pages.

The driving plot is Enid Lambert’s desire to have all her three children home to St. Jude for Christmas, something that hasn’t happened for a long time. Alfred’s rapid debilitation and close-calls with death provide all the suspense. Along the way, the Lambert children and their mother discuss what’s going to happen to them next. None of them are sure they see any good options.

The title could be taken in several different ways. It could refer simply to the revisions Chip makes to his autobiographical screenplay or to Enid’s many nagging attempts to get Alfred to see things her way. More obliquely, I think The Corrections is referring to the Lambert children’s efforts to avoid repeating their parents’ mistakes, and to their subsequent realization at how far these efforts have taken them from the people they are supposed to be. At the end of the novel we can glimpse some indications that all three Lambert children are re-inventing themselves, correcting over their previous mistakes. Whether or not they can do so successfully is an open question.

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