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The Corrections ()

Granta Top 20 Authors Under 40

Unless you are an avowed non-reader--in which case, why in God's name would you be reading this?--you'll be aware that the big event of the Fall publishing season is the release of Jonathan Franzen's family epic, The Corrections.  Franzen has long had a buzz about him in the literary world, having been named one of Granta's twenty best authors under forty and having written a much discussed essay for Harper's Magazine on the passing of the social novel.  His first two books, Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, though they got good reviews and earned him a reputation as a young DeLillo or Pynchon, failed to sell particularly well.  But this latest effort seemed certain to launch him to bestseller status even before it was chosen for Oprah's Book Club.

The set up of the novel is fairly simple, Alfred and Enid Lambert are an elderly couple living in the Midwestern town of St. Jude.  Alfred quit his executive job with a railroad line just four months shy of full retirement.  Patriarchal, stern, and emotionally reserved, he is now beset with Parkinson's disease.  Enid has always been consumed with social status and refuses to acknowledge any aspects of reality which might threaten her carefully constructed version of how life ought to be.  Their three grown children, Chip, Gary and Denise, have all fled to the East Coast, becoming, respectively, a college literature instructor, a banker, and an upscale chef.  Though Chip is making the most obvious hash of his life, having just been denied tenure after having a sexual relationship with a student, neither of his siblings is really doing much better.  Gary's wife is waging undeclared war against him in their unhappy marriage, mainly by turning his sons against him.  Denise has gone straight from sexual awakening to affairs with both her boss and his wife, losing her job in the process.  Enid, blissfully unaware of, or willfully ignoring, the various catastrophes consuming her children's lives, has determined that they must all gather in St. Jude for a family Christmas.

Such are the bare bones of the plot, but Franzen fleshes out the story by adding multiple subplots for each character, providing social commentary and learned disquisitions on various topics, and tying everything together with recurring references to both the stock market (just one source of the book's title) and a new wonder drug that may cure everything from Gary's depression to Alfred's tremors (thereby correcting everyone).

Perhaps inevitably in a novel of almost 600 pages, there are bumps and dead ends along the reader's way.  It's also rather annoying that Franzen leaves a few major plotlines unresolved, like Alfred's unwitting contribution to, and wholly inadequate compensation for, the development of the wonder drug. Likewise, the looming presence but eventual disappearance of Alfred's shotgun violates an ancient rule of drama : if you introduce a gun in Act 1, you better use it in Act 3.  But, overall, the book is very readable, with some terrific set pieces, and the will-they-or-won't-they-make-it drama surrounding the proposed family Christmas provides momentum.

But what of the themes of the novel, its general message?  In many ways the book seems to complete a trilogy that began with Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt and continued in Evan Connell's Mrs. Bridge.  Babbitt, set in a Midwestern town, a hotbed of conformity and materialism, gave us the archetypal salesman, George Babbitt, obsessed with the idea of making money, getting ahead, and fitting in.  But George feels an essential emptiness in this life, that in taking on the responsibilities of family life, business, and community, he's never been able to do what he really wanted to do.  After briefly sowing some wild oats though, the hostile reaction of friends, neighbors and business partners and his wife's sudden illness combine to show George just what he stands to lose if he turns his back on the life he has created.  He may be trapped, but he is also cradled.  Then, in a final coda that turns what he has learned on its head, George counsels his son to take advantage of youth and go out and do whatever he wants.

Almost forty years later, Evan Connell picked up on nearly the same story in Mrs. Bridge.  Here again we have the Midwestern town and the couple keeping up with the Joneses.  But by now the children have taken Sinclair Lewis's advice and they abandon home.  Now it is the lady of the family who questions the life she leads.  But, again, Connell is honest enough to show that the children end up fairly unhappy and longing for home, and there are several scenes that demonstrate the value of the Bridge marriage.  Though utterly conventional, the Bridges share something that is powerful and compelling.  And by novel's end, Mrs. Bridge realizes that her husband, though somewhat distant, had a fairly decent life and enjoyed the love and respect of his children.  In fact, she realizes that her son is very similar to his father and that in a sense Mr. Bridge and what he represents will live on.

Now here we are, another forty years on, and Jonathan Franzen returns us to another Midwestern town and another Middle American, middle class, middle of the road couple.  In the intervening years the children who flee this world have not become any happier.  If anything they are even more miserable, having added several new pathologies to their dysfunction, including drugs and degrading sexual behavior.  But during those years the character of Alfred Lambert has come to seem truly antiquated.  The privacy that he preserves for himself and that he respects for others has come to seem almost cruel.  His insistence on certain values is so out of step with the times as to seem absurd (as when he tries to fix a set of Christmas lights rather than just buy a new string).  It has become quite clear that the Alfred's of the world, inheritors of the tradition of George Babbitt and Mr. Bridge, are losing the battle with modernity.  Franzen alludes to the idea that Alfred's affliction is a physical manifestation of his failures.  And the family Christmas is quite clearly presented as an alternative to the mind altering drugs that are coming into fashion.  There's a strong sense here that for all her frivolity, Enid too is fighting a last ditch battle to hold off the atomization of modern life, to preserve the nuclear family and draw them back to the heartland and its values.  And she more or less succeeds.  The gathering, though marred by continuing psychological warfare between these damaged characters, does provide some affecting scenes and triggers some moments of genuine understanding between the various players.

But then Franzen, like Lewis before him, tacks on a coda that makes the reader wonder if the author understood the dynamic of his own book.  For in the end Alfred is committed to a nursing home and then starves himself to death, leaving Enid free "to make some changes in her life."  Franzen has said in interviews that Enid is the hero of the story, but he has also said the following :

    INTERVIEWER : Let's talk about the people this book is about. It's a family, a husband and wife
    and their three adult children. The patriarch of the family, Alfred, is failing from Parkinson's
    disease, but he's also still an incredibly powerful figure. You also recently published an essay about
    your father's experience with Alzheimer's disease, and it seems that Alfred has a certain
    amount of your father in him. He almost stands for the mythos of the "Greatest Generation," this
    admirable moral rectitude, and yet there's a difficult side of that, a sense of too much will and too
    much control being pressed upon the emotional life.

    JONATHAN FRANZEN : Things have relaxed a lot in this country in 50 years, and people want
    to be able to "break the rules," as all the TV commercials urge you to do. They want to be children,
    and Alfred's not a child. He's very, very much an adult. Too much so. He has a fairly unhappy
    marriage and some fairly alienated children to show for it. And yet if you get inside a person like
    that, I think you can see a lot that's admirable and I think in the course of the book he does a few
    things for his children, invisibly, that he does purely because he has a feeling that this is right. He's
    not doing it to win anything from them, he's just doing it because it's right.

    I think one of the motives I had in writing the book was to do justice to the world of my parents,
    which seems like a vanishing world. My father grew up in a town in northern Minnesota that didn't
    get electricity until he was a teenager. All of his parents and uncles were born in the 19th century,
    and fairly far back in it. So I grew up knowing all these people who had been born in the 19th
    century. There was something lovely about how hard people out in the middle part of the country
    were trying to be adults and to be responsible and to provide for their children and to do the right
    thing. There was a terrible personal cost to that in many, many ways. And you can understand why
    Alfred's children would not want to have marriages like his or work for the kind of company he
    works for. On the one hand, it's obviously an improvement, the kind of changes they've made in
    their lives, but there's a cost to that as well in the form of moral anarchy or a diminished grasp of
    what their lives might really be about or for. So I feel a mixture of condemnation and love for
    those attitudes that Alfred embodies.
        INTERVIEW : Only correct : Jonathan Franzen talks about the medicalization of love and loss, the charms of Narnia and living in an America where no one grows up. (Laura Miller, 09/07/01, Salon)

How then can he not realize that freeing Enid to join in the pursuit of this course of moral anarchy turns the final scene into a tragedy ?   Who can read of Alfred's passing and not despair that so too pass the values that he represented ?  The title of the novel, The Corrections, and Franzen's stated desire to have his novels "engage" the culture, would have led one to hope that he might offer an alternative vision to the ongoing disintegration of family and dissolution of morality that have pretty much defined modernity.  Alfred, the one really noble and sympathetic character, seemed to offer him that opportunity.  So killing him off and celebrating Enid's release from their life comes as a truly depressing conclusion to the story.  Perhaps he ultimately feels that no correction is possible, that the discouraging fate of the Lamberts is the fate of the culture.  God, I hope not.


Grade: (B)


Jonathan Franzen Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jonathan Franzen
-PODCAST: Jonathan Franzen on Reckoning with the Limits and Purposes of Writing Novels: This Week on the Radio Open Source Podcast (Open Source, October 15, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Perchance to dream : In the age of images, a reason to write novels (Jonathan Franzen, 1996, Harpers)
    -PROFILE: FRANZEN’S ANGER (L. GIBSON, 3/08/23, Public Books)
    -PROFILE: The decline of the Literary Bloke: In featuring just four men, Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists confirms what we already knew: the literary male has become terminally uncool. (Will Lloyd, 4/14/23, New Statesman)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Jonathan Franzen’s literary liberal Protestantism pushes limits on where God is found: With 'Crossroads,' Franzen has elevated a rarely explored form: the Protestant Christian novel (Jacob Lupfer, 2/08/22, RNS)
    -ESSAY: How Jonathan Franzen became America's most divisive novelist (John Self 29th September 2021, BBC Magazine)
    -PROFILE: The rise and fall and rise again of Jonathan Franzen: Oprah, Franzenfreude, and Iraqi war orphans: a history of Jonathan Franzen’s controversies. (Constance Grady, Oct 9, 2021, Vox)
    -PROFILE: Jonathan Franzen, America’s Next Top Moralist (New Republic, Oct. 8th, 2021)
-ESSAY: Jonathan Franzen is secretly a great food writer. (Jessie Gaynor, August 9, 2022, Lit Hub)
    -REVIEW: of Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (Adam Begley, Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Crossroads (Sameer Rahim, Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of Crossroads (Peter Tabakis, Spectrum Culture)

Book-related and General Links:
-BOOK SITE : The Corrections (FSB Associates)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Corrections
    -EXCERPT: from THE CORRECTIONS by JONATHAN FRANZEN : A convoluted, epic party of dysfunction in the American family, The Corrections is a celebration of writerly derring-do. January Magazine has the excerpt.
    -ARTICLE : Oprah-Pick Franzen Wins National Book Award  (Linton Weeks, November 15, 2001, Washington Post)
    -ARTICLE : Oprah Winfrey cancels dinner with author Jonathan Franzen (The Associated Press, October 23, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Franzen just says no to Oprah (Bob Hoover, November 11, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Book Editor)
    -ESSAY : Franzen not alone in Oprah dilemma (David Mehegan, 11/10/2001, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY : TOO COOL FOR OPRAH : It's official: Jonathan Franzen is a buffoon (Dennis Loy Johnson, October 24, 2001, Moby Lives)
    -ESSAY : Winfrey, Franzen dustup helps no one (David Kipen , SF Chronicle)
    -ESSAY : Franzen's attitude needs some corrections of its own, authors say (John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -ESSAY : Franzen's Dilemma (Clay Risen, Flak)
    -ESSAY : Writing Wrongs : Why author Franzen is wrong to diss Oprah. ''The Corrections'' guy
has begged forgiveness -- but a writer shouldn't try to pick his fans (Ty Burr , Entertainment Weekly)
    -ESSAY : Saying no to Oprah stirs up a lit snit (JEROME WEEKS, 10/30/2001,  The Dallas Morning News)
    -ESSAY : When Oprah Stomped on Franzen, It Revealed a Vast Culture Split (Gabriel Snyder, The Observer)
    -ESSAY : The Story of O (Jonathan Yardley, October 29, 2001, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY : Too good for Oprah (Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, 11/1/2001)
    -ESSAY : Highbrow, lowbrow and ... Oprah-brow (Alex Beam, 10/30/2001, Boston Globe)
    -ARTICLE : 'Oprah' Gaffe by Jonathan Franzen Draws Ire and Sales (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, October 29, 2001, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Your Damaged City (Neil Pollack, OCTOBER 29, 2001, NY Press)
    -REVIEW : of JOHN HENRY DAYS By Colson Whitehead (Jonathan Franzen, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Into the dazzling light : In his quest to produce the perfect novel, Jonathan Franzen spent four years writing in the dark, wearing earplugs and a blindfold. Judging by the critics' response to The Corrections, it paid off (Emily Eakin, November 11, 2001, The Observer)
    -INTERVIEW : Only correct : Jonathan Franzen talks about the medicalization of love and loss, the charms of Narnia and living in an America where no one grows up. (Laura Miller, 09/07/01, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : A Rich Variety of American Anxieties (Paul Gediman, Inside Borders)
    -INTERVIEW : Jonathan Franzen, the author of The Corrections, discovers that, when it comes to fiction, "serious" doesn't have to mean "marginal" or "boring" (Atlantic Unbound | October 3, 2001)
    -INTERVIEW : The Esquire Conversation : Jonathan Franzen (Sven Birkets, Esquire)
    -ARTICLE : Franzen Wins National Book Award (Hillel Italie, November 15, 2001, Associated Press)
    -ESSAY : 'The Corrections' takes National Book Award (David Kipen, November 15, 2001, SF Chronicle)
    -ESSAY :  ON WRITERS AND WRITING : There Goes the Neighborhood (Margo Jefferson, November 25, 2001, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARTICLE : Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections' up for National Book Award (HILLEL ITALIE, Associated Press)
    -PROFILE : Jonathan Franzen's Big Book (Emily Eakin, September 2001, NY Times Magazine)
    -PROFILE : Almost (very) famous : On the strength of his new book, Jonathan Franzen is being courted by media moguls and Hollywood heavyweights. SIMON HOUPT speaks to America's next great author (SIMON HOUPT, August 28, 2001, Globe and Mail)
    -PROFILE : Meteoric success a novel experience for author Jonathan Franzen (JOHN MARSHALL
    -PROFILE : Words Written From Out on a Limb : Jonathan Franzen's new novel is a smashing success. So why is he so uncomfortable? (DAVID L. ULIN, LA times)
    -PROFILE : Fiction's New Fab Four (R. Z. Sheppard, April 1997, TIME)
    -ESSAY : Altered States : the state of the state of fiction essays (Alexander Star, Feed)
    -ESSAY : Unflowered Aloes : Why literary success is a product of chance, not destiny. (Tom Bissell, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY : History and Hypertext (Graeme Davison, Department of History, Monash University, Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History)
    -ESSAY : A Reader's Manifesto : An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose (B. R. Myers , July/August 2001, The Atlantic)
    -ARCHIVES : "jonathan franzen" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "jonathan franzen" (Mag Portal)
    -Oprah Book Club : The Corrections
    -REVIEW : of The Corrections (The Complete Review)
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    -REVIEW : of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (John Leonard, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of The Corrections (Chris Lehmann, Washington Post)
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    -REVIEW : of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen ( Daniel Mendelsohn, New York)
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    -REVIEW : of The Corrections (Nicholas Blincoe, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of The Corrections (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -BOOK LIST : Chained The author of "The 27th City" picks five great American novels about slavery (Jonathan Franzen,. Salon)
    -REVIEW : of  Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse Edited by Sven Birkerts (Peter Heltzel, Hermes)