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 The Corrections 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 it!"

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 depressed."

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 mutual dislike.

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
Picador USA
ISBN: 0-312-42127-3 (paperback)