A Franzen Family Affair
If you’re looking for a shoot-’em-up, graphically violent novel with car chases, explosions, murders and torn bodies, Jonathan Franzen’s tour de force The Corrections isn’t for you. It’s not a commercial work. So, of course, this 2001 National Book Award winner has garnered a 3.7 rating out of 5 in Amazon reviews, compared with ratings way above 4 for fiction by the likes of, say, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Elmore Leonard, Stuart Woods, Michael Connelly, and others of that ilk.
But if you want something that makes a permanent imprint on your psyche, something that sheds new light on the reality we confront in our daily lives, The Corrections may be right up your literary alley.
Despite the high rate of divorce and large proportion of adults living alone in modern America, the family remains the central institution in most people’s lives. But the dynamics of every family are different.
The educated, middle class Lambert family is rooted in the Midwest, but members migrate to the East coast to forge their own paths. They struggle with their individual identities and their relationships with each other in ways that range from sad to comical.
What’s It All About, Alfred?
The head of the family is Alfred, a railroad engineer who retires and deals with advancing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, which places a burden on his longsuffering wife, Enid. He has invented an electro-chemical therapy for a disease, and Gary, the oldest son, and Denise, the daughter, are at odds over Alfred’s autocratic decision to accept much less for its licensing by a company than Gary thinks it’s worth. Meanwhile, Chip has gotten himself into trouble at the university where he taught by having an affair with a student. He heads for Lithuania, where he becomes associated with a corrupt politician defrauding American investors and, when Lithuania comes under siege, returns to the States with renewed zest to finish the play he’s writing. Denise, who has been loaning him money to get by, has sexual dalliances with the owner of an upscale restaurant where she is chef, and with his wife.
A key part of the plot is whether the family will get together for a last Christmas at Alfred and Enid’s home. Enid fervently hopes for the reunion, but Gary the depressed banker wants nothing to do with it, though he relents, and angrily asserts that Enid can no longer live with the by-now helpless Alfred. Chip finally makes it home after being robbed on the way out of Lithuania, and is happy to realize that he is needed by his father, whom he consoles.
Franzen shows a remarkably detailed knowledge of diverse subjects including chemistry, the railroad industry, the culinary art, and the world of business, and manages to get inside the head of a person suffering mental deterioration, including scatological delusions that were repulsively realistic. It is in part a commentary on societal changes wrought by the technological revolution. It’s not easy reading, and I was tempted to give up on it in places, but persevered, and was richly rewarded when everything started coming together late in the 580-page book with only five chapters.
One may think that hiser (his or her) family is different than the ordinary family for its dysfunctional manifestations. What’s different with The Corrections is the compelling way in which it helps herm (her or him) understand that dysfunctional may be the norm.