The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (Picador, $17.00, 576 pages)
“I’m going back to New York City/I do believe I’ve had enough….” Bob Dylan, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
I received this book as a gift from my son, which is why I proceeded to read an author I had not previously sampled. It’s a unique gift when an avid reader discovers a writer that, for lack of a better term, “lights them up.” Some novels are decent, enjoyable for certain audiences of a certain time; quaint, funny, guilty pleasures. But one occasionally comes across an author who can just plain write the hell out of a story. Jonathan Franzen is one of these gifted writers. His National Book Award (2001) winning work, The Corrections, is as fine a contemporary novel as I have encountered.
(I don’t know why I did this – because I never do – and it isn’t fair. But as I was reading the book, I could not resist the urge to compare Franzen to another accomplished author whose work I have read, Philip Roth. Roth is brilliant when he’s good, occasionally doles out some nonsense for his readers to deal with, and appears to possess a certain love-hate relationship with writing.)
Emid Lambert has been the caretaker of her ailing husband Alfred, a sympathetic victim of Parkinson’s disease. Her only desire is to enjoy one last Christmas get together with all of her children at her home in the fictitious community of St. Jude. Lambert’s perception of what constitutes the “perfect family” – considering the badly flawed personalities of her children – is comical at times; but it’s presented in a prescient way. Talk about humanity and life on a page!
Chip is an intellectual with tremendous promise as a college professor who loses it all because he cannot keep his zipper shut (ever hear that one before?). He’s so obsessed with getting his screenplay accepted, he actually abandons his parents – who have traveled across the country to see him – without warning, leaving them for his sister Denise to attend to. She is a brilliant cook who apparently has been sexually confused for most of her life, and a lesbian affair ruins her meteoric rise to stardom. Just when you want to like Denise, she comes across as some bizarre combination of helpless, frigid and psychopathic.
Gary, who lives the suburban dream to his great financial resources, corrals a middle school boy’s vision of perfection (a combination Barbie doll, cheerleader and model), Caroline. Who could ask for more? He is initially a sympathetic figure, with his wife appearing to be a highly manipulative woman, until it becomes obvious that he could be the most self-centered individual in the rather strange family!
It is a bit more than implausible that Chip somehow disappears with a Lithuanian revolutionary. Each child’s story is told in succession rather than interwoven, and this leads to characters being abandoned for lengthy portions of the almost 600 page story. It’s not completely clear why Denise’s relationship must be explored in great detail to advance the story and satisfy the reader. What is clear is that in the end, Enid sort of gets her wish fulfilled. Be careful what you wish for.
Franzen seems to have over-written the story in order to fill the expectations for a lengthy, classic, modern novel. So I would not consider this to be a “perfect” book. But is it a good read? Absolutely!
Mr. Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.