Monday, June 9, 2008

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Despite the fact that this is an infamous Oprah Book Club selection, I checked The Corrections out of the library. (Author Jonathan Franzen was also dismayed at the Oprah Book Club designation and his frank admission of the fact caused him to be "disinvited" from her program.) It was supposed to be an RBTL Book Club choice (that's "Read Between the Lines," or "Orbital" as Jack liked to call it, formerly the Westside Book Club and now sadly defunct...) and that's good enough for me. When I initially settled in to read it, I got bogged down in page after page of description of Alfred and Enid's house in St. Jude:

"The anxiety of coupons, in a drawer containing candles in designer autumn colors. The coupons were bundled in a rubber band, and Enid was realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntily circled in red by the manufacturer) lay months and even years in the past: that these hundred odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded sixty dollars (potentially one hundred twenty dollars at the Chiltsville supermarket that doubled coupons), had all gone bad. Tilex, sixty cents off. Excedrin PM, a dollar off. The dates were not even close. The dates were historical. The alarm bell had been ringing for years."

And later:
"The gray dust of evil spells and the cobwebs of enchantment thickly cloaked the old electric arc furnace, and the jars of exotic rhodium and sinister cadmium and stalwart bismuth, and the hand-printed labels browned by the vapors from a glass-stoppered bottle of aqua regia, and the quad-ruled notebook in which the latest entry in Alfred's hand dated from a time, fifteen years ago, before the betrayals had begun. "
And on and on for the first 11-12 pages. Yes, we get it--the house is cluttered. Overwhelmingly so. Franzen appears to have never met an adjective he didn't like and his opening is as dense, cluttered and claustrophobic as the mid-western home he describes. I almost gave up and brought the book back to the library--but forging ahead Franzen lightens up on the atmospherics and focuses on the characters. The Corrections is the story of the Lambert family--parents Enid and Alfred in their seventies and adult (although one uses that term loosely...) children: Gary, the solid, steady married with children golden boy, Chip, the rebellious, aspiring artistic wannabe middle child and Denise, whose successful surface belies her inner demons.

Insightfully and incisively written, The Corrections gives relationships and familial dysfunction an unyielding yet compassionate exploration. The competitiveness, the comparisons, the alliances and allegiances. Alfred is the typical distant and fearsome Dad, Enid the judgmental and meddlesome Mom--and yet Franzen goes far beyond the surface to make his characters richly empathetic. Each character battles with personal struggles as well as with each other: Alfred is deteriorating from Parkinson's disease; Enid is overwhelmed by the vast chasm between what she feels her life SHOULD be, and what is actually is; Gary is suffering from depression most likely caused by the vast chasm of the apparent perfection of his life and his corresponding dissatisfaction with it; Chip is a failure--booted from his professor job due to an inappropriate relationship with a student and making a delusional attempt to become a screenwriter all the while borrowing tons of money from his younger sister and Denise is a divorced workaholic chef who has an affair with her boss AND his wife.

The title of the book has a variety of meanings throughout the story: Chip's desire to "correct" the unwieldy first act of his screenplay, Gary's attempt to live HIS life as a correction to his father's, Enid's need to correct Alfred and even corrections in the stock market. As the author weaves each character's story--Enid and Alfred's ill-fated cruise, Chip's new job defrauding American investors in anarchic Lithuania, Gary's passive-aggressive hostilities with his wife, Caroline and Denise's dangerous need to be desired--the reader is drawn further into the complicated lives and relationships. It all culminates in Enid's fervent wish for one final family Christmas--a wish that is fulfilled in typical Chinese proverb fashion. All in all, a great read and one that leaves me looking forward to checking out other Franzen novels.


  1. I read this book in 2005. I actually liked it :).

  2. I'm a bit behind on my reading--but it's a resolution for this year that I've been keeping pretty well.

    I liked the book, too. It was pretty slow going initially, but once it got to the Lithuanian investing scheme, it really took off!