The Bookshelf: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections

When Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001, there was no way the author could have understood the America that would exist just ten days later… yet, his novel about a dysfunctional Midwestern family at the tail end of the nineties speaks not only to the America of the past, but also to the America of the future.  Since its publication, every accolade imaginable has been piled on top of it… and I can only say, deservedly so.

The Corrections tells the story of Alfred and Enid Lambert and their three children.  Based in the fictional town of St. Jude, Alfred was once a strapping railroad man who, after retiring, begins developing Parkinson’s disease.  Enid, always the put upon wife whose life has never been fulfilled in almost any way, suddenly finds herself desperate as her husbands mental faculties wither.  Grasping for ways to improve the quality of her life, Enid plans to get all three of her children together for one last Christmas in St. Jude.

The story is told from each characters point of view at various times throughout the story, often flashing back to life in St. Jude from some time in the late fifties or early sixties until the present day.  All three kids live on the east coast as a way of distancing themselves from both their parents and the repressive and stifling existence afforded them in the Midwest.  Gary, the eldest, is battling with his own depression and believes his wife and children are conspiring against him.  Chip, the more entertaining of the trio, is hung up on Marxist philosophy and his leather pants while managing to screw up virtually every aspect of his life seemingly in spite of his upbringing and himself.  Denise, the youngest, a successful chef with issues that only slowly come into focus, rounds out a family at once familiar and terrifying at the same time.

I’m not quite sure how long it took me to read this novel… months.  Not because it is difficult to read… quite the contrary, the writing is incredible.  The level of detail and the ability Franzen has to make such detail flow and appear natural is stupendous.  What I found difficult is the depth of honesty found throughout.  There is something horribly recognizable to me in each of his intricately crafted character.  Whether it is Gary’s depression, Chip’s flighty nature, or Alfred’s failing health and his wife’s inability to cope and deal with the situation… the stench of truth was present throughout.

I had to stop reading about midway through.  Around that time is a chapter that details the effects of Alfred’s dementia from his point of view… and again, perhaps because of personal things in my life, I found it to be a bit much.  Painful, difficult, upsetting… three words I would use to describe these pages.  Eventually, I could no longer resist the pull of the narrative and I cracked it open again.  Within two pages I was out of that section and into something wonderful.

I just realized that I have been painting this novel as something horribly bleak and miserable… not completely true.  The humor throughout, although dark at times, is brilliant.  The subtlety that Franzen attacks the more ridiculous passages is incredible.  There were moments in the book when I couldn’t understand if I was meant to laugh or to cry… then I realized, it’s both.

My favorite story regarding this book was Oprah’s desire to include this book in her “book club”… Franzen had no desire for his work to be lumped together with the other books she has given her stamp of approval to.  In response, she rescinded her offer to have him, and his book, on her show.  The fact that she later approved of Freedom for her “book club”, with no argument from Franzen this time, should give you some insight into the power of his writing.

It should also be mentioned that HBO is currently producing a series based on the novel.  I’m sure that had something to do with my eventual capitulation to read it, and now that I’ve seen the cast I’m quite glad I did.  Chris Cooper (Alfred), Dianne Wiest (Enid), Ewan McGregor (Chip), and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Denise) make up the main players, plus a number of rumored actors as well for other roles.  I must admit to be quite excited for this.

Ultimately, The Corrections is about the American family… its contrivances, its lies, its pretenses.  The fact that so much rings true can only be a testament to the amazing perspective that Franzen brings to the page.

Use Aslan only as directed,
Cornelius J. Blahg

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