The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. 576 pp)

Jonathan Franzen is an American author. He graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in German. Franzen has received widespread acclaim for his book, The Corrections. He has won the National Book Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.

A New Reading Style

Without having read any of his work, Jonathan Franzen was the source for rethinking the books I read. After garnering more acclaim for his latest book, Freedom, a few female authors expressed displeasure about his books gaining prestige as literary novels while their books—highlighting the same themes—were labeled “chick lit.” I dove into this topic in more detail earlier on this blog, but it truly influenced me. I had started chronicling my books on LibraryThing and Goodreads and I was astonished to see how slanted my reading habits were oriented toward male authors.

Now I consciously attempt to read books from a wide variety of authors, from culture to gender. But, I still wanted to find out why Franzen is such a polarizing character in this debate. So I took a crack at his award-winning novel, The Corrections.

Decades of Dysfunction

Chronicling the dysfunction of a Midwestern family, The Corrections follows the complicated lives of ageing patriarch, Alfred Lambert, and his insufferable wife, Enid. The novel also depicts the varied lives of this couple’s children.

The oldest, Gary, is a successful banker living in Philadelphia with his gorgeous wife and three children. Gary worries he shares his father’s tendency toward clinical depression and finds it difficult to reconcile his duty toward his parents and his wife’s obvious disdain for them.

The middle child, Chip, is a hedonist at heart. Having lost his tenure-tracked position in the academy for morally questionable reasons, Chip mooches his way through life in New York City hoping an executive will greenlight his putrid film script.

The youngest, Denise, is a chef at an up-and-coming Philadelphia restaurant. With a tendency for infidelity, Denise is encountering an existential crisis. Perhaps her attractions lie with the fairer sex?

Aside from the bloodlines, nothing compels this family to spend time with each other. Enid, recognizing but not willing to accept her husband’s oncoming dementia and fully realized Alzheimer’s, wants one last family Christmas at their Midwestern home.

So why does Franzen receive derision? Thematically, The Corrections circles around motifs of brokenness and the stronger bond of family. Stylistically, Franzen writes with an erudite flair—almost too verbose at times. I can see why his work is popular. It is smart but accessible, a middle brow presentation.

This Fragile State

The reader is easily immersed in the struggles of Franzen’s characters. While at times, they act in not necessarily realistic ways, the characters feel tangible in their struggles. Consider this eloquent statement:

“You were outfitted as a boy with a will to fix things yourself and with a respect for individual physical objects, but eventually some of your internal hardware (including such mental hardware as this will and this respect) became obsolete, and so, even though many other parts of you still functioned well, an argument could be made for junking the whole human machine” (463-464).

While discussing the handy nature of a son, Franzen makes a clear connection to the human condition. We are all flawed; we all fail; our machines are broken. This principle of brokenness creates tender scenes throughout the novel. The miserly Alfred holds a tender side underneath his broken nature:

“In the lab below the dining room Alfred sat with his head bowed in the darkness and his eyes closed. Interesting how eager he’d been to be alone, how hatefully clear he’d made this to everyone around him; and now, having finally closeted himself, he sat hoping that someone would come and disturb him. He wanted this someone to see how much he hurt” (266).

Blood Is Thicker than Water

Despite these fragmented relationships, Franzen constantly reminds the reader about the power of family. Our odd tics and tendencies might drive each other insane, but blood is thicker than water. Even though these family members have hurt each other and in some instances, dearly, the characters feel compelled to be together.

Of course, the children proceed through life as a correction for the way their parents live, such as Gary states in this quote:

“But his entire life was set up as a correction of his father’s life, and he and Caroline had long agreed that Alfred was clinically depressed, and clinical depression was known to have genetic bases and to be substantially heritable, and so Gary had no choice but to keep resisting ANHEDONIA, keep gritting his teeth, keep doing his best to have fun…” (181).

Although Alfred and Enid’s children live in contrast to their parents, there remains an element of understanding. Denise, for example, discerns the foundational love of her father through his gelid exterior:

“The odd truth about Alfred was that love, for him, was a matter not of approaching but of keeping away. She understood this better than Chip and Gary did, and so she felt a particular responsibility for him” (536).

Despite the familial difficulties, this family loves each other, no matter how oddly they exhibit it.

The Next Great American Novel?

Do the ideas of brokenness and familial bond equal great literature? It’s hard to give a conclusive answer. The Corrections certainly possesses the necessary gravitas for a literary giant. But Franzen’s weighty and almost hipster-y prose detracts from the story. Likewise, the dawn-of-the-new-millennium setting dates the narrative. Without smart phones and Facebook, the story is outmoded, but it isn’t old enough to be historical. The Corrections is enjoyable and I am glad to have read it, but it does make me wonder about what I’m missing from “other-genred” authors such as the women who criticized Franzen. Perhaps the next great American novel has already been written; it’s just improperly marketed.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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