I'VE HEARD IT CALLED satire, this book. And I'll admit
there's a certain part of me to which this idea appeals:
that the maddening, comical characters of Jonathan Franzen's
are less than realistic; that their complications are contrived.
Viewing family, viewing humanity, from some safe, closed,
antiseptic elsewhere I could probably even believe it.
Take for example Gary Lambert jumping out of bed in the middle
of the night, yelling "This is a marriage-ender! I can't believe
The marriage-ender is that his wife, Caroline, has hurt her back.
She hurt her back, she says, running to answer the phone that she knew
to be a call from his mother. She knew it was a call from his mother
because it had been ringing all afternoon, never long enough for
the answering machine to pick up. It was a long distance call, after all.
Gary suggests that maybe her back hurts because she's been playing
soccer with their children, slipping around in the rain for hours.
He further suggests he saw her limping earlier, and that
she always blames his mother.
"Do you know what this is?" she says. "Gary, you're
And yes, by the way, he is depressed. But days and weeks
later the fact that she won't admit having limped, the fact that her
only answer whenever he brings it up is "You're depressed"—it
just eats at him. She won't be rational. She refuses to answer
questions, and then refuses to admit refusing. She will simply not
live up to his definition of "adult," and he could go mad for lack
of some impartial third party to agree that he's right.
One need not go much further than this frustration to understand
why divorce is a matter of the courts even though marriage is not.
Now I, as a reader, want to throttle Gary. And Caroline.
Because of his cold, chiseling rationality; because she borders
on passive-aggressive. Because they're both so goddamn human.
Satire? Hardly. There's tension in this novel, and humor, and the
sort of lukewarm tragedy that exists so
often in life and so rarely in fiction.
I'M HESISTANT TO GO into the story—because if I tell you this is
a novel about an elderly couple and their three adult children, you'll
get the wrong idea. If I tell you the linchpin of this story is that
Enid, the matriarch, wants to gather her family together for one final
Christmas, you'll probably groan. Or maybe not. Maybe you're the type
of person, this idea will draw you in. Either way, though, you'll be
expecting something The Corrections is not.
And if I was to drag Oprah into it
(I will later on)—well, I might
as well abandon hope of giving you an accurate impression.
Because this is not a work of melodrama. And despite Enid and Christmas
and Oprah, this is not by any stretch a feminine work. It was written by
a fortyish man with fortyish-man issues and anxieties, and though the
novel doesn't follow one exclusive point-of-view, Franzen's voice is
clearly evident. The subject here, so far as it can be captured, is
family, the burden of family,
the necessity of family, within
the context of the relatively isolated existence of contemporary America.
In this, The Corrections reads uncannily like Something Happened,
Joseph Heller's masterpiece on modern living.
This is the sort of subject that can't be broached directly. A good
writer learns early on that the
secret to presenting an effective abstract whole
is in describing thousands of specific, concrete details; Franzen
here talks of family mostly by not talking about family. He describes each
separate life in near isolation: Gary, the eldest, living successfully as
a banker; telling himself repeatedly that (a) he is not like his father and (b)
he is not clinically depressed. Chip, the middle child, surviving the implosion
of his life as an English professor, moving to New York to become an
avant-garde writer, living off borrowed money
and working on a
screenplay so contrived and pretentious he can barely bear to finish it. Denise,
the youngest, successful as a chef yet unable, even while working eighteen-hour
days, to completely avoid a personal life. And Alfred and Enid, the
parents, living in a state of weary truce—she complaining habitually
about his ailments, his Parkinson's,
his recent dementia; he remaining stubbornly silent.
We could use the one
about sums and parts and wholes and so on, and it might
seem apropos here—but it wouldn't really mean anything. The
strength of this novel is that it tells us many stories, all worth the telling.
With humor and wit and compassion it tells us of life, and it trusts in its
characters to be enough. Enough for success as a commercial novel; enough even
as a work of truth and art. And between these characters we have the few and
often brittle links: I wouldn't call it a web, a tapestry, embroidery—any
of those used-up metaphors. What we have is a loose, torn net: an American
family at the turn of this century could hardly be anything else.
HE'S A CLEVER WRITER. A little too self-satisfied, perhaps, but obviously
talented. Here's a short excerpt, tangential to the story as nearly the
entire novel is tangential to the story, but as good an example as any of
his word-play and humor:
[Denise] and Becky enjoyed a lovely and instructive honeymoon and then
began to fight. And fight, and fight. Their fighting life, like the sex life
that so briefly preceded it, was a thing of ritual. They fought about why they
were fighting so much, whose fault it was. They fought in bed late at night,
they drew on unguessed reservoirs of something like libido, they were hungover
from fighting in the morning. They fought their little brains out. Fought fought
fought. Fought on the stairway, fought in public, fought on car seats. And
although they got off regularly—climaxed in red-faced screaming fits,
slammed doors, kicked walls, collapsed in wet-faced paroxysms—the lust
for combat was never gone for long. It bound them together, overcame their
Franzen's word-play extends even to his title: It seems a reference
to dozens of events and substances and even the particular place in time: the
stock market had just recently deflated, euphemistically called a "correction"
by economists; Chip races to apply a few final corrections on his screenplay
before it can be read; Corecktall, an upcoming medication based in part on
a metallurgic patent Alfred was awarded years ago, advertises the ability
to redesign the brain and therefore the personality. And so on. I won't try
to tie them together into some neat theme, but the implication is pretty
clear that there's something wrong, something artificial, about this time.
The title also refers to William Gaddis's The Recognitions, a
dense, thick, difficult work about forgery and artifice.
JONATHAN FRANZEN IS A serious writer. I know because he says so. I know because
of the Oprah debacle. I know because The Corrections won the
National Book Award, because it was a finalist in numerous other prizes
(including the Pulitzer). I know Jonathan Franzen is a serious
writer because his prose is tight and smart and plotless. Of course this last
one I didn't know until I read the man. See, I picked up this book because
Franzen was so ripe for a deflation. Because he is self-involved and
he does stand for the otherworldliness of writers and readers and
adoptive New Yorkers. In my thinking a writer who calls himself "serious" can
barely help being a gasbag, and so I sat down to read The Corrections.
About Oprah: she selected this novel for her book club in
October of 2001, inviting Franzen onto her television show. In an interview
on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, Franzen expressed anxiety over the
Oprah Seal of Approval that was to appear on his book's cover—he felt
that his readers might be put off, that though Oprah had chosen some very
good books she had also chosen quite a few poor ones. Her response was to
disinvite him. Now I can tell you I am one of those male readers
who, all things being equal, avoids Oprah-approved books. If I had a book
list, I have a feeling she'd shy away from mine as well. Anyway, I see the
point Franzen tried to make. He's written a number of essays decrying the
sort of consumer-driven "art" that one could argue the Oprah Book Club
stands for (her endorsement often means millions of extra
books sold), so it's hard to argue that his complaints were not in character.
But they were tactless. And though lack of tact is one of the principal
virtues of a writer of fiction, it's not the sort of thing easily forgiven
in the entertainment-news pages. And, besides, Franzen did come off as
a bit of a snob.
Which probably isn't far from the truth—but twenty pages into
The Corrections, I can tell you it doesn't matter if Franzen is
a wife-beater or a Nazi-sympathizer or a
Republican—or any of the other horrible things
great writers have been. He's written a piece of Literature here,
something worth keeping; and I think we will be keeping this as one
of our stories for a very long time.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
564 pages, Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Franzen
ISBN: 0-312-42127-3 (paperback)