Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” arrives amid so much fanfare — most of it surface noise for which the author himself cannot be held responsible — that it’s hard to remember that there’s a book somewhere underneath it all. If it were possible to strip away the breathless blurbation, the vapid magazine profiles and the envious cocktail chatter (although of course it isn’t), we’d be left with an ingenious update of the old-fashioned Anglo-American social novel: an ironic family chronicle, by turns comic and sober, that seeks to measure the strength and density of the moral weave enfolding its characters.
Actually, the overly juiced hubbub surrounding “The Corrections” is not unlike something that might happen in the more satirical reaches of “The Corrections” itself. Here we have a dark, even scathing book about family power struggles, sharply critical of capitalism and of our therapeutic culture, which offers its characters only a qualified and limited redemption and promises nothing better than madness and death at the end of life. It becomes the unlikely object of a fizzing media frenzy whose superficiality alienates the very people most likely to admire the book. I’ve had three literate-minded friends in the past two weeks, when told I was reading “The Corrections,” roll their eyes and make snorting noises: “So — is it the Great American Novel or what?”
Well, perhaps not, and in any case that phrase should never be written or uttered by anyone. But “The Corrections” is a lumpy, strange, singular work, very much of this moment even as it harks back to a kind of American novel long deemed extinct. Its portrayal of American family life sometimes seems cruel and unforgiving, yet the sheer amplitude of its vision implies a kind of sympathy, or at least understanding. First and foremost, Franzen’s saga of Alfred and Enid Lambert, and their three grown children’s attempts to “correct” for the emotional suffocation of their Midwestern household, buzzes with life. It’s a vivid reading experience of tremendous texture and dimension, a masterwork of observed detail. It’s not always likable, but it’s real.
Franzen is a peculiar case among American writers. Within the literary world, he is often linked with Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, yet he is decidedly the least famous of the four, and is better known for a single magazine article than for his previous novels. The New York Public Library has no circulating copies of his second novel, “Strong Motion” (1994), and does not seem to acknowledge the existence of his first novel, “The Twenty-Seventh City” (1987), at all. (It’s actually there, filed under “Frantzen.”)
His literary reputation rests at least partly on “Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels,” an impassioned manifesto published in Harper’s in 1996. In it, Franzen argued that literary fiction was dying but that America still had room for socially committed novels with compelling characters that didn’t bore the pants off readers accustomed to the pace and tone of Hollywood entertainment. The article — which partly seemed like self-excoriation and partly like a memo to idols like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon — caused a great deal of bruised reflection in literary circles. “The Corrections” is bound to be viewed by some readers as Franzen’s other shoe finally hitting the floor, five years later.
It has been suggested that Franzen is trying to drag American literary fiction back to basics, toward the character-based, big-canvas storytelling of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and George Eliot. Of course somebody announces he is doing this every few years (it’s almost always a he), but Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” and Kurt Andersen’s “Turn of the Century,” to cite two obvious examples, look like shallow-end dabbling by comparison. Wolfe and Andersen are broad-brush satirists whose central desire is to justify their own privilege and showcase their own brilliance; neither has anything like Franzen’s moral intelligence or his ability to locate hidden meaning in ordinary places and ordinary moments.
Actually, I think the roots of “The Corrections” are closer to home, in a style of American novel that has come to seem backward since the 1960s. Franzen himself has cited Paula Fox’s brilliant and cold-hearted “Desperate Characters” as an inspiration and probably would acknowledge John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom books as well. But those are glittering miniatures; to find novels like “The Corrections,” we need to raid the dusty back shelves of the library for titles like Sinclair Lewis’ “Dodsworth” or John O’Hara’s “The Lockwood Concern.” In truth, Franzen’s opus about the Lambert family might have more in common with Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1918 bestseller “The Magnificent Ambersons” than it does with a recent literary doorstop like Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.”
If Franzen’s handling of the book’s difficult narrative balance between satire and realism is not always graceful, the Lambert family itself is prodigiously alive in either setting. By the midway point of “The Corrections” I had stopped regarding its members as fictional characters and thought of them as people I knew — awkward, difficult and self-destructive people, to be sure. I wondered what trouble they were getting into when I wasn’t around, and what would become of them after I left their world. They visited my dreams (although only once). They bothered me.
One way of understanding “The Corrections” is to say that it takes place in different levels or degrees of reality. Alfred and Enid live in the fictional Midwestern city of St. Jude (a name no self-respecting American community would ever adopt), which appears to be located in the realm of satire, or perhaps archetype. In their house, with its empty backyard and its lengthening shadows, as we learn on the novel’s first page, “the alarm bell of anxiety” has been ringing for years.
Alfred is a chronically repressed, relentlessly taciturn railroad executive who retired suddenly, several weeks short of a full pension. He spends his time doing nothing in a basement inhabited by dust-colored crickets that may or may not exist, slipping deeper into Parkinson’s dementia every day. Enid is a bottomless reservoir of bourgeois neuroses and received opinions who, as one of her children puts it, thinks about Christmas the way other people think about sex. Her single-minded insistence that everybody come back to St. Jude for “one last Christmas” is the closest thing to a plot engine that “The Corrections” has.
Gary, Chip and Denise, the Lambert children, on the other hand, live in real cities of the East Coast, recognizable metropolitan America circa 2001. Communication between their sphere and St. Jude is problematic at best. Fired from his academic job after an affair with a freshman student, Chip struggles with an atrocious screenplay and contributes unpaid articles to a postmodern journal in New York called the Warren Street Journal. Enid willfully mishears this and tells her friends he now works at the Wall Street Journal. Based on cryptic remarks made by control-freak Gary, an investment banker who has inherited St. Jude’s morality but not its aesthetics, Enid also becomes fixated on the idea that Denise, a gourmet chef in Philadelphia, is sleeping with a married man. This isn’t true at all; she’s sleeping with a married woman.
When we first meet Chip, he seems like the novel’s most plausible protagonist: He’s urbane, well-educated, handsome and on the go. But he’s also a feckless deadbeat hipster with leather pants and a steel earring, who steals bartenders’ tips and humps his couch on lonely evenings, imagining he can still smell illicit traces of his ex-girlfriend on the upholstery. Essentially he bails out on us too; he can’t even be trusted to be the hero of a satirical novel and runs off to Lithuania with a guy who looks almost exactly like him, leaving his parents stranded in his Manhattan apartment.
In fact, any of the three kids could be the protagonist of a novel and each, in this novel, is found wanting. Battling his own slide into alcoholism and depression, uptight yuppie Gary fights bitterly with everyone: his stubborn dad, his hysterical mom and his wife, Caroline, a veritable Jedi master of passive-aggressive behavior. (After reading the Gary-and-Caroline section, easily the book’s most painful, I guarantee you’ll never eat mixed grill again.) Sexual confusion notwithstanding, Denise is by far the most well-adjusted of the three, but she can’t keep a relationship going (with a man or a woman) and begins to understand that she enjoys hurting other people.
How did they get this way? Franzen takes us back and forth in family history to show us Chip forced to sit at the dining room table deep into the night under orders to finish his liver and rutabaga, or Denise’s tragicomic teenage affair with a man who works for her father. But these aren’t answers, or psychological explanations, at least not any more than the farcical present-day cruise-ship detour during which Alfred begins to hallucinate that a vengeful turd is persecuting him.
If Chip’s escape with a doppelgänger to a distant and nearly mythical country where he works, in his words, as “Vice President for Willful Tortious Misrepresentation” for an Internet scam operation, is not sufficient indication that “The Corrections” has a strange symbolic dimension, there are plenty more. Everything and everyone in the book seems to be connected by a subterranean web of money and coincidence.
The law firm where Chip does temp work is also the one that pays Alfred $5,000 for an invention of his that may help cure Parkinson’s (from which he suffers). Denise’s lover’s brother is in prison for assaulting the president of the company whose money makes Denise’s dream restaurant possible. The venture capitalists who force Alfred into retirement have endowed buildings at the college that fires Chip. A film director supported by Denise’s boss makes the only American film to open in Vilnius while Chip is there. There are several other minor skeins of coincidence, but running under the book like a muttering river is an obsession with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, surfacing most notably in the euphoria-inducing, libido-enhancing drug called Aslan, with which both Chip and Enid unwittingly experiment.
Whatever he means by this, Franzen is not Lewis, and his version of America, although fantastical in some respects, is a long way from Narnia. From Alfred inspecting railroad bridges in rural Ohio to the interior life of Gary and Caroline’s tormented marriage as it descends from cruelty into open warfare to Chip’s orgiastic romps with a disturbingly well-adjusted freshman in a defranchised Comfort Inn, Franzen is a connoisseur of reality in its infinite shadings. Throughout this book, some of his best prose comes when he’s describing moments and places in which nothing is happening.
When Chip is abandoned by his freshman lover at the end of the affair that will cost him his academic career, he finds solace at a freezing Connecticut minimart, on Thanksgiving Day, in “the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce … The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled … And a 99-cent Big Gulp banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard. And the black sans serif numerals of gasoline prices, the company of so many 9s.”
These images of unspectacular, dogged competence are surely meant to suggest Alfred, the emblem of all such things in Chip’s life and a man who despite his pigheadedness and dementia is the moral fulcrum of Franzen’s universe. As Chip understands all too well, Alfred loves him to distraction and will never be able to tell him so, and Alfred is also the most important of the many things in Chip’s life that Chip is avoiding.
“The Corrections” is a novel full of information, almost in the manner of a mystery or a thriller: information about financial markets and nylon stockings and neurological disease and restaurant management and imaginary revanchist Lithuanian political parties. But as we bounce from one Lambert to the next, we pick up other kinds of information, the kind Chip gleans at the minimart. It’s a less reliable variety: bits and bytes of personality and emotion, fragmentary ideas about why this family (and the country, the world, around it) got so badly damaged and what if anything can be done about it.
Our task, like that of the Lamberts — like that, arguably, of everybody in America — is to make the best of the information we have, always necessarily incomplete. In a funny, sad and lewd scene of marital sex, Alfred reflects that having a child offers an “opportunity to learn from one’s mistakes and make corrections,” but also that the very thing that makes such correction possible, human desire, also dooms it. I don’t think Franzen endorses Alfred’s puritanical morality, but he may agree that the Lambert family’s attempts at correction, like so many efforts at human improvement, have often undercut themselves or gone in unintended and sometimes ridiculous directions. Which is not the same as saying we should quit trying.