Monday, October 22, 2012

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: A review

In The Corrections, his National Book Award-winning novel from 2001, Jonathan Franzen gives us the Lamberts, an American Gothic family from the Midwest: Alfred, the emotionally constipated paterfamilias, who sacrificed himself for his family in many ways that we discover as the novel proceeds and who now faces a slow death from Parkinson's Disease; his wife, Enid, a woman who longs for a warmth from her husband and children that she has never received, a woman who lives on the expectation that things will get better; Gary, the oldest son, married and living in Philadelphia with his manipulative wife Caroline who is teaching their three young sons the art of the disdainful manipulation of their father; Chip, the middle child, who we first meet as a self-absorbed twit but who grows into something more fully human by the conclusion of the book; and Denise, the youngest child, a talented chef who betrays her employer in Philadelphia through her ambiguous sexuality and loses, if not everything, at least her sense of self and self-worth. They are truly a dysfunctional family writ large.

We first meet Enid and Alfred as they visit son Chip in New York. The only thing is, Chip skips out on them, chasing his lover, leaving sister Denise to deal with them as they get ready to embark on a cruise that Enid had been looking forward to. This first part of the book, the first 25 to 30 pages are a "hump" that the reader must get over. At this point, these characters are so unattractive and unendearing that one is strongly tempted to throw the book in the corner and forget about it. Don't do that though. The book rewards perseverance and reveals its gifts slowly.

The structure of the book is to focus on each member of the family in one section. Thus, we get to know each of them intimately. They do not necessarily improve upon closer acquaintance and yet we begin to understand why they are so messed up and why this family falls so short of the ideal. But then, don't all families?

As we come to better know each of them, our empathy is aroused and we wish that they would make better choices, that they had made better choices in their lives. Mostly, I wished that Enid would find the fulfillment so lacking in her life. She gave so much of herself to this family and seemed to get so little in return.

Enid is the eternal optimist, always looking to a future that she is sure, all evidence to the contrary, will be rosier. In particular, she looks for one last family Christmas at their home in St. Jude. She wants all three children, her daughter-in-law, and the three grandchildren to be there - one big happy family with her and Alfred. It's soon obvious to the reader that the mean-spirited daughter-in-law will not be there and that she's going to find a way to keep her children, if not her husband, in Philadelphia. Gary promises to come. Denise promises to come. But Chip? Well, Chip is in Lithuania working a dodgy scam and seems unlikely to show up. It appears that Enid's dreams will be unfulfilled once again.

Meanwhile, Alfred's mental and physical conditions are deteriorating rapidly. Changes will have to be made. How will this family summon the fortitude to make them?

I resisted reading this book for eleven years, mostly because I was irritated by Franzen's prickly personality. I eventually got over that enough to read a couple of his other books and discovered that he is, in fact, as all the critics swooned, quite a remarkable and talented writer. This book, which is essentially a tragedy, is also filled with such humor and insight and, yes, empathy for human frailties that it becomes an absorbing epic that one wishes would not end.

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The Lambert way of unhappiness is to keep secrets, withhold affection, and demand that others fit into the molds that you have constructed for their lives. Actually, it sounds not that dissimilar from other unhappy families I have known. Each unhappy family may have its own twist on the unhappiness theme, but there are things that they all have in common. Things that they have in common with all of us. The Lamberts as Everyfamily. 

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