The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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While reading The Corrections, I asked my brother for his opinion on it. He offered, “I hated it. I’m not into the whole ‘suburbia is hell’ genre of fiction.” But criticizing suburban life was hardly Franzen’s only intention. The Corrections is a sprawling story of family, capitalism, technology, and mental health. The story begins at the Lambert house in St. Jude, a middle class Midwestern suburb. We’re introduced to Alfred and Enid, an elderly couple trapped in a toxic, nightmarish relationship. Their only real company is each other, and they’re both insufferable in their own way. Alfred is emotionally withdrawn and abusive. Enid is judgmental and prudish. The novel’s opening pages are the hardest to read; Franzen takes us into the Lambert house by clobbering us with excruciating detail, making us feel the claustrophobia of their existence.

But the scope quickly widens. The book begins and ends in St. Jude, but a bulk of the story is spent recounting the adventures and frustrations of the Lambert children, Chip, Gary, and Denise. Here, the novel shines in its ability to tackle a wide variety of subjects and create a panoply of convincing characters. The three Lambert children each undergo serious crises, dealing with mental, professional, and romantic failure. Their plight could have been difficult to read about, but Franzen’s treatment gives way to both sympathy and laughter.

Chip’s story is arguably the comedic crux of the novel. The Corrections, similar as it is in many ways to DeLillo’s White Noise, wouldn’t have been complete without a bit of academic satire, which Franzen provides via Chip, an English professor whose career implodes after an affair with an eccentric female student. There’s a moment in the novel where said female student challenges Chip’s views. She calls out his Marxism, effectively calling him a rebel against happiness, desperately looking for something to fight against. Chip immediately slides into a torrent of self-doubt, wondering if the values on which he’s based his career and ideology are wrong. Chip’s moment of crisis is compelling, well-written, and funny. His further adventures, his attempts to become a screenwriter, his time in Lithuania, are increasingly zany. Franzen fancies himself a satirist, but he isn’t above the occasional gross out gag. The Corrections includes a lengthy description of what it’s like to have sex with an antique couch. There’s also a gag where Chip attempts to steal a slab of meat by hiding it in his pants.

Franzen is good at portraying frantic mental chaos, but there’s always an edge of the ridiculous. Pretty much all members of the Lambert family deal with depression at some point, but Franzen’s style prevents this from being tragic. He writes with a sardonic flair which encourages laughter at moments which might otherwise be painful. The section dealing with Gary, the oldest Lambert sibling, is a good example of this. Gary’s obsession over finding clues to indicate his lack of depression immediately indicates that he is in fact depressed. Gary’s aware of brain chemistry. He knows which chemicals cause happiness and which chemicals cause stress. This concern leads into one of the book’s underdeveloped themes, that of the relation between technology, the self, and personality. There are two important medical treatments in the book. The first is Mexican A/Aslan, a mysterious, shame relieving pill taken by both Chip and Enid. Franzen is clearly observing the rise of anti-depressants and exaggerating it. The second is Corecktall, an experimental medication with the potential to change one’s personality in addition to reversing diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Such a drug could change the world. It’s the stuff of science fiction. But Franzen’s characters are only concerned with it on a local level. Gary sees an opportunity to invest and make money. Denise and Enid see an opportunity to treat the ailing Alfred. Franzen’s commentary on medication seems to fizzle out near the end as some characters reject its usefulness. Perhaps he only meant to observe the manner in which modern Americans relate to medication; the ways we crave it, the ways we take comfort in it.

The Corrections has an interesting relationship with capitalism. It isn’t as overtly hostile as White Noise, but there is critique of consumer culture. Franzen questions capitalism’s ability to provide happiness through Gary, whose material success as an investment banker fails to quell his sense of powerlessness and alienation. He spends much of his time trying to buy Corecktall stock based on some insider info. But possible success would be tenuous; the book ends with the dot-com crash, highlighting the temporality of financial boom. Even before the crash, Franzen juxtaposes American prosperity with Lithuanian plight. Chip, working in Lithuania to defraud American investors, observes that the elites of both countries rule through different forms of coercion: “In America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence.” Where Gary struggles to find fulfillment in capitalism, Chip struggles to find fulfillment fighting against it. Meanwhile, Denise’s high-flying success cooking for a swanky restaurant fails to distract from her emotional turmoil as she becomes romantically involved with a married couple.

Eventually, the novel circles back to St. Jude, where Enid has desperately been trying to reassemble the family for one last Christmas. Of course, the Lamberts are classically dysfunctional, so Christmas hardly goes as planned. Nevertheless, there’s a certain neatness to the ending which comes across as forced. The book’s final pages encompass a broad swath of time in which the characters seem to undergo just as much development as they did in the preceding five hundred pages. This makes for a structural flaw. Franzen could have written a longer book, or he could have left more ambiguity as to the fate of his creations.

The Corrections is a forceful, ambitious novel. Its prose is clean and easy to read, except in the segments where Franzen laboriously details what it’s like to be Alfred Lambert. The characters are a complex bunch. They’re selfish, frustrated, and often ridiculous. But their miseries are understandable and often relatable. Franzen’s witty voice transports their struggles to that of tragic farce. In this satirical territory, the book works. It’s funny and moving. It struggles slightly under the weight of its ambition, leading to underdeveloped themes and a rushed ending, but ultimately it succeeds more than it fails.

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3 Responses to “The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen”

  1. I thought both The Corrections and Freedom should have been about 200 pages shorter. Like you say, Franzen is ambitious but I think he tries to tackle too much in his novels. At the moment, I am reading Franzen’s collection of essays How To Be Alone which s much more easily digestible than his novels!

  2. I never felt like the novel dragged on though. There were moments where Franzen could have cut back his description a little bit, but I felt that all of the major characters got roughly the time that they deserved.

  3. […] on David Foster Wallace, I have recently had the occasion to think of the novel again as I read a fellow blogger’s review. As it remains one of my favorite novels, I felt rejuvenated to write a little just on Franzen. In […]

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