The Corrections Author:Jonathan Franzen In Jonathan Franzen's much-discussed novel, "The Corrections" (2001), one of the main characters, a failed academic named Chip Lambert, hopes to restore his fortunes by a screenplay he has written on the Tudors which opens with a long, unperformable section on the sexual foibles of that age. Near the end of this long novel, Chip decides to recas... more »t his unpromising script as a farce rather than as a "serious" -- work. Thus, the play-in-progress moves "from tragedy to farce" which might be taken as the theme of Franzen's own book.
The novel tells the story of a disfunctional family, the Lamberts, mirrored in a disfunctional society. The two major protagonists, Alfred and Enid Lambert have been married nearly 50 years and have spent their lives in a town called St Jude, Iowa. Albert is a retired railroad engineer who, since his retirement, has spent his life in a recliner and who has recently developed Parkinson's disease and probably dementia. In his younger days, Albert spent much of his time in his basement in a metallurgical lab, where he secured two patents for his amateur studies. Enid, his wife, has the burden of taking care of Albert. She wants to have a lively life in retirement,to go on cruises and have fun. She craves the company of her family, the couple's three children. In particular, she wants her children and three granchildren home for one last family Christmas in St Jude. Enid has been frustrated, emotionally and sexually, by Albert's aloofness, silences, and frequent business absences during their marriage.
The couple has three children, Gary, the above-mentioned Chip, and Denise, each of whom have severe problems in their lives. Gary is financially successful with three children but his marriage is in difficulty and he, as did Albert, suffers from a depression that he won't acknowledge to himself. Chip, the failed academic, lost his teaching job due to an affair with a student. He borrows large sums from his sister, Denise, and finds himself in Lithuania in a con-scheme with a former Lithuanian diplomat with whose estranged wife Chip has had an affair. Denise is a successful restauranteur, who had her first sexual experience as an adolescent with an older married man when working as an intern on her father's railroad. She later marries and divorces a restauranteur substantially older than herself, and then finds herself involved with a married man as well as with his wife in a lesbian relationship. The stories of Albert, Enid, and the three children are all told at great length with many flashbacks, culminating in the final section -- the long-awaited and predictably disatrous Christmas dinner in St. Jude.
The book has aptly been described as combining elements of Thomas Mann's early masterpiece, "Buddenbrooks" and the contemporary American writer Dom DeLillo's "White Noise." As does "Buddenbrooks", the work involves the decline of a family and a culture. Importantly, both books emphasize the works of the German idealist and pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. (Albert in the book, somewhat too obviously is an inveterate reader of Schopenhauer.) The book gets its brash, overwritten, irreverent and highly critical tone from DeLillo, a writer I have never been able to enjoy.
Franzen's book has good moments and moments I thought were dreadful, but ultimately it for the most part worked for me. His characters, both the members of the Lambert family and the many secondary characters, are brought to life in all their troubles. The social criticism -- the discussion of the claimed materialism, selfishness, lack of values, technological obsessions, lack of sexuality and intimacy of the current United States, is unmercifully pounded home again and again. There is a tone of alienation, superiority, shrillness and judgment in this book which I found off-putting. One looks for both compassion and understanding. There is little of this until, perhaps, the end of the tale. The book is far too long for what it says and in many places overwritten.
In spite of these distinct shortcomings, the book moves along and pivots convincingly from "tragedy to farce" as it least some of the characters achieve an insight into themselves and to the dissatisfactions in their lives. For all the modernist trappings, the book has a relatively traditional message -- in its emphasis on trying to enjoy life in the everyday, to take the moments of love and sexual intimacy that come one's way, to not shut oneself off from others, and to avoid negativism -- of the sort otherwise on too much display throughout the book. There is the hint of a possible redemption from the woes that beset the characters through lightening up a bit and through working towards a happy sexual and loving relationship. The book is probably worth the effort it takes to read -- as these efforts tend to point out that the achievement of the goal the book sets forth is not easy, under the best of circumstances, and requires a degree of reflection and insight to see and realize.« less