I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. When I initially put it on my stash months ago, a good friend reccomended against buying it, saying she had a hard time getting past the first page. It’s a big book, and I had a feeling much of the “insight” about midwestern family life was going to be incredibly angsty. However, it won the National Book Award and I have been wanting to read it for years. So I bought it.
In a lot of ways, Franzen met a lot of my early expectations. The book tells the story of the Lambert family, beginning with the elderly parents—Enid and Alfred—and their three children, Gary, Denise and Chip. I’m sure it’s no surprise to say the entire family is dysfunctional: Alfred is deteriorating at the hands of Parkinson’s, Enid is never satisfied, Gary thinks he’s depressed, Denise can’t help but have affairs, and Chip has lost his job in academia after sleeping with a student. The story revolves around the “last Christmas” Enid wants to have at the family home in St. Jude (a fictional town somewhere in Missouri, or someplace like that). The story jumps back and forth through time, telling the story of each family member and how they got into their respective messes. Then, they all have to meet for Christmas and…well, you can imagine what’s going to happen.
Apparently, they was a small controversery over the book (Oprah was involved) when it was released in 2001 in which Franzen was branded an elitist. According to Wikipedia (an excellent source), several critics attributed this to the anti-elitist strain during the years after the Bush election and 9/11, claiming The Corrections anticipated many of the national concerns during the next seven years.
Hmmm, OK. It’s been about a week since I finished The Corrections, and since my analyzing sensors are a bit dull, I’ll just take Newsweek and that critic’s word for it. However, I can say that Franzen’s tone definitely struck me as…strained. I don’t want to go so far as to say he’s elitist, but it’s clear the book was written by a highly educated young man, well aware of his literary chops. It’s also clear he’s pulled out all the stops with his attempt at literary realism, and is intent on showing off his skills. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—Franzen is an excellent writer, and I enjoyed reading him. But he also has a tendency to go on at times; at worst, he sounds like he’s trying too hard.
As a Midwestern girl myself, I was prepared to be slightly offended at everything Franzen had to say about the Lamberts and their St. Jude home. After all, Franzen may have grown up in St. Louis, but it’s clear he’s a New York-kinda guy now. However, while he has his fair share of criticisms, I found myself shrugging in mutual understanding with his critiques. Yeah, there are a lot of conservative, backwards people around here. A lot of people are fat. But there’s also a firm committment to honesty, kindness and hard work. When Alfred scoffs at the “Northeastern” phrase “Take it easy,” I also sensed the same Puritan-like sensibility in myself. However, though Franzen insists the book isn’t autobiographical, I couldn’t help feeling that he uses The Corrections as a way to come to terms with his past. It’s the theme of the entire book, really: all three children are intent on being different than their parents, and search for ways to correct whatever fatal flaws their upbringing instilled in them. However, as with life, these stories always end up in some reconciliation between the past and present, between what you are and what you aspire to.
That being said, nearly every member of the Lambert family drove me crazy. Alfred is a bigoted old tyrant with no regard to the happiness of his wife and children. Enid’s pestering and heckling drove me up the wall. Gary is paranoid (though I felt bad for him). Denise needed to stop ruining her life. And Chip…well, I’m sorry to say it but Chip could have saved us (and his family) a lot of trouble by offing himself early. However, these are people we all know. And when they’re family, you have no choice but to have an endless store of second chances.
All in all, I enjoyed myself with The Corrections. It has it’s moments of genius and insight into the human condition, which is always welcome. But it is quite on the lengthy side, and even though I like a big book every now and then, I feel Franzen could have left out a lot of the angst and self-serving crap, and still had an excellent story.