Jonathan Franzen’s big book
BY DAMON SMITH
By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 568 pages, $26.
The author of two previous and respectfully received if not commercially successful novels, Jonathan Franzen has all but declared his intentions (most significantly in a 1996 Harper’s magazine essay) to reinvent the Great American Novel. That usually means interweaving great human stories with the convulsive transformations in culture, technology, and global commerce that mark the end of an era. Unfolding the story of the Lamberts, an ordinary yet troubled Midwestern family whose lives unravel in agonizingly familiar ways as they prepare to meet for Christmas in their home town of St. Jude, The Corrections does indeed have the scope and ambition, the intellect and the heart, the narrative complexity and the technical dazzle of a soon-to-be American classic on the level of Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
As he follows various Lamberts from a quiet Connecticut college to the bland suburbs of Philadelphia, from frenzied Manhattan to politically turbulent Lithuania, and from a seniors’ luxury liner off the coast of Nova Scotia back to the entropy of life in the heartland, Franzen takes a sweeping look at our benighted culture of plenty. Although sprawling, The Corrections isn’t a bloated book filled with meaningless digressions and unresolved subplots; neither is it as self-conscious as, say, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in its occasional postmodern tics and comic inventiveness. Lucid, accessible, and fiercely intelligent, it’s a tour de force.
At its heart is domineering patriarch Alfred, a retired Midland Pacific Railroad executive suffering from Parkinson’s disease; his dim view of life (he thinks of the world as " a penal colony " ) and sense of his impending physical helplessness are eating away at his desire to live. Enduring the loss of his mind and his bodily functions as he develops the telltale signs of dementia (one of his recurring hallucinations involves a trash-talking turd), Alfred clings to sentimental memories of his children for comfort. His compulsively cheerful wife, Enid, refuses to acknowledge her husband’s degeneration, instead focusing on bringing the family together for Christmas. She conspires to keep up appearances even as her self-delusions about the family’s (and her own) well-being implode on an ill-fated cruise.
Elder son Gary is an embittered Philadelphia banker with a family of his own; resenting Alfred’s rigid stoicism, he’s set up his entire life " as a correction of his father’s life. " Boorish and headstrong, he responds to his own gnawing depression and his wife’s manipulations by trying to exert control, in sometimes cruel ways, over his aging parents. Middle child Chip is a lovable screw-up, an intellectual who hits rock bottom after he’s booted from a cushy academic job for sleeping with a student. He avoids his parents when they come to visit him in New York; eventually he befriends a Lithuanian businessman who enlists his help in defrauding American investors via the Web. Youngest child Denise is a trendsetting chef with a strong sense of familial duty. She lends Chip scads of money, defends her parents to Gary (though she " could not remember a time when she had loved her mother " ), and feels deep compassion for Alfred. But she is floundering, too, caught in a bisexual love triangle with her boss and his wife.
Edging toward the abyss and back again in their private lives, the Lamberts are like bits of astral dust fighting to escape a colossal black hole of despair; their house, with its " futile light, " is " like the mind of a depressed person. " By rendering the silent meltdown at the heart of this nuclear family, Franzen dramatizes the texture of a society bent on quick fixes for every kind of ailment, one that tries to deaden emotional pain through psychopharmacology, self-empowerment seminars, wild investment schemes, and empty consumerism. But what happens, Franzen asks us to consider, when we attempt to erase — or " correct " — all signs of unhappiness and drive suffering underground, like Alfred as he self-administers an enema in the dank confines of his basement?
Franzen has achieved something new and very powerful by representing a raft of big ideas in the form of his characters’ disturbed internal lives. He’s a storyteller — a vastly accomplished one — and yet with The Corrections he has charted a precise map of the multiple dysfunctions underlying American culture.
Issue Date: September 13 - 20, 2001