‘The alarm bell of anxiety’ that Alfred and Enid Lambert hear ringing on the first page of The Corrections will ring for the reader as well throughout the first 12 pages of Jonathan Franzen's much-hyped third novel. The belabored metaphors suffusing these pages and the hysteria of an episode in which nothing more happens than the mailman comes to the door will make even the most forgiving of readers wonder, ‘Should I actually read the next 540 pages of this?’
The answer is yes. Not only does the novel immediately improve, but the realization that Franzen probably intended the difficult beginning comes quickly, when Chip, Alfred and Enid's feckless middle child, is introduced. Fired by the college where he taught for sleeping with a student, Chip relocates to New York City where he takes up part-time legal proofreading, writing for an arts monthly, and begins work on a screenplay entitled ‘The Academy Purple,’ which opens with a six page monologue. ‘My idea,’ Chip tries to explain to his girlfriend as she's leaving him, is ‘to have this 'hump' that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something off-putting at the beginning, it's a classic modernist strategy. There's a lot of rich suspense toward the end.’
It seems too obvious to be a coincidence — the hump at the beginning of the screenplay reflecting the hump at the beginning of the novel, especially as the care and control that Franzen exerts over his characters, their relationships and the locales they inhabit in the remainder of the novel becomes apparent. Nothing else in the book is as clunky as the opening pages.
There is not much plot to The Corrections: Enid, the social-climbing, prudish, delusionally optimistic matriarch, wishes to reunite her family in the fictional midwestern city of St. Jude (St. Louis) for one final Christmas. The enthusiasm of the other family members for a holiday together is muted.
Alfred, afflicted with Parkinson's disease and increasingly addled by dementia, is too concerned with his weakening mind to pay much attention to Enid's plans. Irascible and emotionally distant, the principled, repressed man is left confused and only occasionally lucid; he struggles constantly to comprehend what's around him, but it's an effort he's growing weary of, a mental state artfully and disturbingly described by Franzen.
The Lambert children are wary of returning home for their own reasons. Gary, the eldest son, a banker, is married to the beautiful but manipulative Caroline, who refuses to travel to St. Jude and wages war on Gary through their three sons, bribing the boys with Broadway tickets and computer games to stay home with her in Philadelphia. Chip, who impulsively flies to Lithuania with the ex-husband of his ex-girlfriend to start up an Internet fraud scheme, is seeking to avoid what he sees as the multiple failures of his life. Denise, the youngest child, is a hip, tense, talented, workaholic, sexually confused gourmet chef, whose separate affairs with the owner of the restaurant she works for and his wife get her fired. None see time spent together as the means to alleviate any of those issues. That all three are in St. Jude by Christmas morning is surprising to Enid and the reader until he/she realizes that for the book to work a final gathering of the family is necessary and therefore inevitable.
Franzen's ability to craft over 500 compelling pages out of this small domestic drama is a credit to his skills as a novelist. He manages, with the novel's relatively small cast of characters and minimal storyline, to cover topics as diverse as consumerism, the restaurant business (though not altogether accurately), the love-hate tension of intimate relationships, the collapse of Lithuania's political system, metallurgy, the stock market and cruise ship culture.
The book's only distracting flaw is a lengthy bit about Axon Corporation, a biotech firm developing a 'revolutionary' treatment for brain disorders and mental illnesses. Gary and Denise attend an investment luncheon given by the company; there's a video, and a painful question and answer session. This portion is a too-blunt bit of social commentary, and a not very original one. The trend to medicalize quirks of personality and moods, and consumers' willingness to be medicated, has been thoroughly examined many times before, and as a central theme of the novel, fails to resonate.
Franzen's commentary is more effective, his satire more cutting, when embedded in a character's activities or opinions. Enid, expecting an elegant, sophisticated experience on a cruise up the East Coast, is confronted instead with people wearing T-shirts marked with sayings such as ‘Old Urologists Never Die, They Just Peter Out.’ Her resentment — ‘It rankled her that people richer than she were so often less worthy and attractive’ — is double-edged. Enid wants to be those people even as she reviles them.
The real success of the novel, though, lies not in the commentary but in the characters — Alfred and Enid are especially alive. They evolve, in the course of the novel, from being caricatures of Midwestern suburbia to being fully realized people, with a complexity and dignity rare in fictional characters, even as their progression diverges dramatically. Alfred declines to the point of needing a nursing home; Enid reveals a capacity for self-awareness and growth not hinted at in the book's beginning. The remaining Lamberts and the other characters are less-finely drawn, although each has a distinctive voice and perspective not likely to be confused with any other character. Franzen’s only real misfire is that the denouement seems to implicate one character as responsible for the ills of the others, and with his removal from the playing field, everyone else’s life gets remarkably, if perhaps coincidentally, better.
Near the end of the novel, Chip has an epiphany. He realizes why no one, including himself, liked his screenplay: He'd written a tragedy instead of a farce. 'Make it ridiculous,' he says to himself. It seems like another insight from the screenplay into the novel, perhaps one Franzen had himself in the early drafting process, a reminder that to read the story of the Lambert family too seriously is misguided.