Franzen is also the author of two previous novels, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992). Neither one was a huge commercial success, but reviewers were fairly enthusiastic. Comparisons to other authors included Updike, Irving and DeLillo, and some even speculated that Franzen might prove himself to be a successor to the likes of DeLillo and Pynchon. But another reason that people are paying so much attention to Franzen’s newest novel is the 1996 Harper’s piece in which he lamented the state of American fiction and argued that the way to save the American novel from irrelevancy was to connect “the personal and the social,” to write about the lives of individual characters while also saying something compelling and honest about their (and our) larger world.
With his third novel, Franzen has admirably succeeded in exploring personal dramas while offering a striking picture of American culture. These ambitions make The Corrections a complex and sophisticated work, but Franzen’s skill is such the novel is a charming and touching reading experience as well. The Corrections has a remarkable view of the world, and this is made apparent through our encounters with the Lambert family. We first meet Enid and Alfred performing the slow and futile rituals of married life after retirement. Alfred, reticent and principled, is waging a stubborn battle against Parkinson’s disease. His struggle frustrates Enid, a Midwestern mother of three grown children striving to maintain a fantasy of proud normalcy and prosperity in her own life and in the lives of her children. The Lambert children are not exactly cooperating with that fantasy. Chip is a former professor who was fired for having an affair with a student, and now leads an increasingly desperate existence in New York City as an aspiring screenwriter. His older brother Gary is the picture of upper-middle class suburban contentment who can’t seem to ignore or berate his depression into submission. Their younger sister Denise, a successful chef, can’t sort her life out either, and her affairs with both sexes don’t seem to be helping.
This carefully structured novel slowly builds up to that most wonderful of American family events, Christmas at home. Enid is determined to have one last Christmas at the family home, one that will make up for any and all of the imperfections that plague their lives. Before we get to Christmas, however, Franzen is busy sketching out the big picture details of American life through the Lamberts’ various misadventures. If a life is lived in the details, then Franzen’s grasp of the Lamberts’ inner and superficial lives is fabulous. He gives us striking and pitch-perfect accounts of the crises and triumphs and weird lines of internal reasoning exhibited by his characters, who are involved in episodes such as a biotech IPO, a fraudulent investment scheme in a Baltic nation, an affair with both the boss and the boss’s spouse, a rather hopeful yet disastrous cruise in search of fall foliage, and a slow descent into mental illness. These details are both incidental and fundamental to the story he tells. Because Franzen knows his characters so well, their stories are full and sympathetic and consistently fun to read about, even if the fun is sometimes in the skilled evocation of someone’s sorrow. The pleasure of simply reading the words that have been written down in a certain order reaches phenomenal levels. If his one sentence descriptions, the flow of his paragraphs and even his individual word choices are not always perfect, they are pretty close to it. They are alive and real in ways that most of us can only dream about.
One of the greatest delights in The Corrections is the experience of coming to know Franzen’s characters, who are all trying, in one way or another, to make those necessary adjustments referred to by the title. His careful rendering of the constant struggle, forward motion and backward glances inherent in every life make the novel a full and rich experience. It is through the Lamberts, in the movements of their carefully portrayed lives, that the novel achieves its richness. Of course, it is more than a matter of who the Lamberts are; it is also in the way we perceive them. We see them as they see themselves, but we also get a look at each character through the other family members’ eyes. Enid’s various preoccupations and foolish hopes are justified and compelling in her own mind, but after we see her as her children and her husband do she becomes, in our eyes, more vulnerable and more real. We see one quirk or fear or desire and then we see it reflected or distorted or reproduced from another side, and the result is that everyone lives only in relation to everyone else. This complex of common fears and disjointed hopes and frustrations allows for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of who the Lamberts are and what they have gone through. From this emerges a startling quality of clarity and sympathy, even as we also experience a kind of sadness over the familiarity of their struggles to improve their lives.
A compelling picture of America, requisite for any so-called American novel, does indeed emerge, but not so much through Franzen’s explorations of sexuality, economic motivations and rewards or mental instabilities as through the Lamberts’ perceptions and reactions to those things. For in the end, the novel is about exactly what its title suggests. A correction in the stock market is but one of many kinds of corrections, or attempts at them, in the book. We can try to fix situations in our own lives, but a correction can also be produced seemingly naturally. A system that is unbalanced or skewed will adjust itself. Can the life of a person or a family make corrections on its own? Gary envisions his life as a correction to his father’s. Before Denise is born, Alfred realizes that it’s not too late to make things better with the third child, even as the conditions that created the need for improvement ultimately undermine it. Denise is abruptly reminded of the correction she is experiencing when she finds herself tempted by the lips and body of her own mother. Chip is just trying to avoid total failure and stay afloat. And Enid is eternally hoping to fix the things she can’t. Everything they do and worry about are inextricably linked to their family, to their past. These are not extraordinary people, and they are not caught in extraordinary situations. A Christmas at home of sorts does take place, but nothing is easily resolved or learned. Even though we see them become a little older and wiser, they are not necessarily transformed; surely crisis will strike their lives again. Franzen isn’t so foolish as to pretend that these are the definitive episodes in their separate or collective lives. He has merely captured the Lamberts moving through the circumstances of the larger world. It is such a simple thing, but the significance of his accomplishment is not.
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux