Reveiw of "The Corrections"

      The Corrections

      by Jonathan Franzen

      568 pages

      Farrar, Straus, and Giroux


Review by Lee Klein 2001


Far be it from this reviewer to sound like the book jacket blurbs on the hardcover edition of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections-.however it was a smooth ride. Through what terrain was the cruise control on you ask? Through the dispersing of a family and three of its five core members from Midwest to East Coast. The volume is about values and truth; lies, and what matters at closing time. Each time the emergency brake on the narrative of this volume is released it always manages to effortlessly return to its strident course. Meanwhile Franzen's wordy pour as fluid as petrol eventually leaves us off at the finale {which in the end remains perhaps the most questionable feature of this book}.


The book portrays the world of the late American nuclear family and its doings in a sustained economic boom;. Therein the author charges through many of the tangents of the late nineties heyday of economic absurdities in the factoring which led to unending good fortune. Most of these plot lines come as we follow the lives of Gary; Denise, and Chipper (the three offspring of Enid and Alfred Lambert hailing from St. Jude a fictional Midwest city). All of the children since they have grown and ventured east to attend school have departed the Midwest for good. Presently Gary is a successful stock trader (with his own family of five); Chip a fired professor and aspiring screenwriter, and Denise the uber chef at a much-accoladed Philadelphia restaurant.


Now late in the ballgame Enid knowing time is growing short as Alfred has Parkinson's (a degenerative disease, which attacks the nervous system) wishes for her entire family to gather one last time in St. Jude. Enid's hopes run right into the last as she continues to try to get Jonah her favorite grandson to make the trip along with his father (her son) Gary. Said child is one of three grandsons all of whom don't make the trip at the behest of trophy wife Caroline (who cannot stand to be in the same room as her mother-in-law). Chipper while suffering through his East Village existence of late is suddenly employed to relocate to Vilnius, Lithuania. This scenario occurs after a happenstance introduction to his ex-girlfriend's ex-husband Gitanas. So then Gitanas (the ex-ambassador for his former soviet republic to the United Nations) transforms the very willing sometime proofreader into the front man for a Baltic based international internet securities scam.


The now declining patriarch of the clan, Alfred Lambert has been an upstanding; hardworking, and honest (if somewhat emotionally cold) man. He has married Enid and they have built a comfortable life together for their family in St. Jude. Alfred has for most of his career worked for a Midwestern rail company. When his firm is bought out by corporate raiders and being moved to Little Rock he was offered a great package to relocate but choose to retire instead. We find out later (vis a vis Alfred's incoherent babbling and pointing to a love marking as his adult diaper is being changed by daughter Denise) that the attending child had an affair with a man far less senior than her father when a summer worker at his company. The worker then brought this up at the time of corporate relocation to use as manipulative gold. Thus Alfred quietly retired to avoid the blackmail and the shame. Further we follow a patent Alfred had received. He wishes after many years to accept a modest offer for it. Enid and Gary plot and deceive in an effort to get him (and thus them) a sweeter tender. Both of these unfolding drams illustrate the disrespect Alfred receives as he is derided. Meanwhile he is trying to do the right thing by everybody (best he knows how).


The title itself "The Corrections" is a catch all word meaning needed corrections to a manuscript; inevitable corrections in the financial markets, and corrections in individual lives. As our hopes dreams and needs need corrections; different characters in turn need or has to make some sort of correction- Enid to live her own life and Denise to be less mean {after doing things such as destroying her bosses marriage by sleeping not only with him but his wife as well}. The book plays in the end upon the sibling rivalries, the children's interaction with the parents, the politics of ordinary relations, and what lies beneath the thin ice of the hyper-selfishness of us all


The whole volume winds up being a trial of sorts for its characters. That is when Alfred finally dies alone in a nursing home (after he stops accepting food)we kind of know whose been found guilty (though some try to work out deals to get time off for good behavior). Further, it is great to see a book where the foibles and predilections of the characters overwhelm the foibles and predilections of the author. As it should be the characters run this book. What they tell you in end is a few things many of us may already know honesty doesn't pay and take care of what you have to in life because it may already be the ninth inning of your final game.


Reading this book at this time of year the holiday sprawl will remind most of us of the intricate politics and lobbying that come around the festive season. It is great to see a family drama portrayed in so unpretentious and direct a way. Though one may find the ending a little fuzzy{as when Denise decides Alfred is actually to far gone to be treated and Enid breaks free}. Is Alfred beyond hope or these people just straining to be unencumbered by caring for him?


Finally what is ironic about Mr. Franzen's much reported upon rejection of his volume's being chosen to be an Oprah book club selection is that it seems for a work created "in the high literary tradition" (as Mr. Franzen has suggested) is that "The Corrections" is that rare commodity which brings down upper middle class and elitist consumer tastes into common language. This work rather then in being at conflict with Ms. Winfrey's aggregate might instead be right up their alley. So firstly while covering much of the same boutique economy for the masses consumer geography as Kurt Anderson he does so without leaving us the impression that he is the ultimate insider. Then, secondly, while cataloging much of the same post post post something malaise as did David Foster Wallace never once do you have to read the same page sixteen times in a dizzying exercise to convince yourself that you are literary or hip.