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The Corrections

by

The Corrections Cover

 

 

Excerpt

The Madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.

Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in which he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there would be no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections, bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid.

Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety. It was like one of those big cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that send schoolchildren into the street in fire drills. By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of "bell ringing" but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their heads for so long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound. Which consciousness was particularly acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood. Then Enid and Alfred — she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table — each felt near to exploding with anxiety.

The anxiety of coupons, in a drawer containing candles in designer autumn colors. The coupons were bundled in a rubber band, and Enid was realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntily circled in red by the manufacturer) lay months and even years in the past: that these hundred-odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded sixty dollars (potentially one hundred twenty dollars at the Chiltsville supermarket that doubled coupons), had all gone bad. Tilex, sixty cents off. Excedrin PM, a dollar off. The dates were not even close. The dates were historical. The alarm bell had been ringing for years.

She pushed the coupons back in among the candles and shut the drawer. She was looking for a letter that had come by Registered mail some days ago. Alfred had heard the mailman knock on the door and had shouted, "Enid! Enid!" so loudly that he couldn't hear her shouting back, "Al, I'm getting it!" He'd continued to shout her name, coming closer and closer, and because the sender of the letter was the Axon Corporation, 24 East Industrial Serpentine, Schwenksville, PA, and because there were aspects of the Axon situation that Enid knew about and hoped that Alfred didn't, she'd quickly stashed the letter somewhere within fifteen feet of the front door. Alfred had emerged from the basement bellowing like a piece of earth-moving equipment, "There's somebody at the door!" and she'd fairly screamed, "The mailman! The mailman!" and he'd shaken his head at the complexity of it all.

Enid felt sure that her own head would clear if only she didn't have to wonder, every five minutes, what Alfred was up to. But, try as she might, she couldn't get him interested in life. When she encouraged him to take up his metallurgy again, he looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. When she asked whether there wasn't some yard work he could do, he said his legs hurt. When she reminded him that the husbands of her friends all had hobbies (Dave Schumpert his stained glass, Kirby Root his intricate chalets for nesting purple finches, Chuck Meisner his hourly monitoring of his investment portfolio), Alfred acted as if she were trying to distract him from some great labor of his. And what was that labor? Repainting the porch furniture? He'd been repainting the love seat since Labor Day. She seemed to recall that the last time he'd painted the furniture he'd done the love seat in two hours. Now he went to his workshop morning after morning, and after a month she ventured in to see how he was doing and found that all he'd painted of the love seat was the legs.

He seemed to wish that she would go away. He said that the brush had got dried out, that that was what was taking so long. He said that scraping wicker was like trying to peel a blueberry. He said that there were crickets. She felt a shortness of breath then, but perhaps it was only the smell of gasoline and of the dampness of the workshop that smelled like urine (but could not possibly be urine). She fled upstairs to look for the letter from Axon.

Six days a week several pounds of mail came through the slot in the front door, and since nothing incidental was allowed to pile up downstairs — since the fiction of living in this house was that no one lived here — Enid faced a substantial tactical challenge. She didn't think of herself as a guerrilla, but a guerrilla was what she was. By day she ferried matériel from depot to depot, often just a step ahead of the governing force. By night, beneath a charming but too-dim sconce at a too-small table in the breakfast nook, she staged various actions: paid bills, balanced checkbooks, attempted to decipher Medicare copayment records and make sense of a threatening Third Notice from a medical lab that demanded immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneously showing an account balance of $0.00 carried forward and thus indicating that she owed nothing and in any case offering no address to which remittance might be made. It would happen that the First and Second Notices were underground somewhere, and because of the constraints under which Enid waged her campaign she had only the dimmest sense of where those other Notices might be on any given evening. She might suspect, perhaps, the family-room closet, but the governing force, in the person of Alfred, would be watching a network newsmagazine at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, and he had every light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligible possibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade of catalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch statements would come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred's wrath. There was also the possibility that the Notices would not be there, since the governing force staged random raids on her depots, threatening to "pitch" the whole lot of it if she didn't take care of it, but she was too busy dodging these raids to ever quite take care of it, and in the succession of forced migrations and deportations any lingering semblance of order was lost, and so the random Nordstrom shopping bag that was camped behind a dust ruffle with one of its plastic handles semi-detached would contain the whole shuffled pathos of a refugee existence — non-consecutive issues of Good Housekeeping, black-and-white snapshots of Enid in the 1940s, brown recipes on high-acid paper that called for wilted lettuce, the current month's telephone and gas bills, the detailed First Notice from the medical lab instructing co-payers to ignore subsequent billings for less than fifty cents, a complimentary cruise ship photo of Enid and Alfred wearing leis and sipping beverages from hollow coconuts, and the only extant copies of two of their children's birth certificates, for example.

Although Enid's ostensible foe was Alfred, what made her a guerrilla was the house that occupied them both. Its furnishings were of the kind that brooked no clutter. There were chairs and tables by Ethan Allen. Spode and Waterford in the breakfront. Obligatory ficuses, obligatory Norfolk pines. Fanned copies of Architectural Digest on a glass-topped coffee table. Touristic plunder — enamelware from China, a Viennese music box that Enid out of a sense of duty and mercy every so often wound up and raised the lid of. The tune was "Strangers in the Night."

Unfortunately, Enid lacked the temperament to manage such a house, and Alfred lacked the neurological wherewithal. Alfred's cries of rage on discovering evidence of guerrilla actions — a Nordstrom bag surprised in broad daylight on the basement stairs, nearly precipitating a tumble — were the cries of a government that could no longer govern. He'd lately developed a knack for making his printing calculator spit columns of meaningless eight-digit figures. After he devoted the better part of an afternoon to figuring the cleaning woman's social security payments five different times and came up with four different numbers and finally just accepted the one number ($635.78) that he'd managed to come up with twice (the correct figure was $70.00), Enid staged a nighttime raid on his filing cabinet and relieved it of all tax files, which might have improved household efficiency had the files not found their way into a Nordstrom bag with some misleadingly ancient Good Housekeepings concealing the more germane documents underneath, which casualty of war led to the cleaning woman's filling out the forms herself, with Enid merely writing the checks and Alfred shaking his head at the complexity of it all.

It's the fate of most Ping-Pong tables in home basements eventually to serve the ends of other, more desperate games. After Alfred retired he appropriated the eastern end of the table for his banking and correspondence. At the western end was the portable color TV on which he'd intended to watch the local news while sitting in his great blue chair but which was now fully engulfed by Good Housekeepings and the seasonal candy tins and baroque but cheaply made candle holders that Enid never quite found time to transport to the Nearly New consignment shop. The Ping-Pong table was the one field on which the civil war raged openly. At the eastern end Alfred's calculator was ambushed by floral print pot-holders and souvenir coasters from the Epcot Center and a device for pitting cherries which Enid had owned for thirty years and never used, while he, in turn, at the western end, for absolutely no reason that Enid could ever fathom, ripped to pieces a wreath made of pinecones and spray-painted filberts and brazil nuts.

Copyright © 2001 Jonathan Franzen

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Darin, September 24, 2011 (view all comments by Darin)
Take one hypercontrolling mother, a depressed, Parkinson-stricken father, and three adult children who are, in turn, depressed and materialistic, juvenile to a fault, and unsure of their place in the world. Add a satirical wit that aims for, and often hits, the jugular. Throw in enough observations on what "family" means at the end of the 20th century in America and you get this brilliantly realized, devastatingly funny, yet tender at times, account of the Lambert family of the fictional Upper Midwestern city of St. Jude. Never before has Tolstoy's famous line from Anna Karenina, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," so riotously applied. It's a coming-of-middle-and-old-age story. I highly recommend this for those adults coming to realize how similar they are to their parents and anyone seeking a hysterical portrait of an American family.
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scratch, October 6, 2010 (view all comments by scratch)
Franzen's first foray into family saga resembles Freedom but is (believe it!) less bourgeois.
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(4 of 8 readers found this comment helpful)
Matthew Holley, January 31, 2010 (view all comments by Matthew Holley)
Easily the best book I read this decade...even though I read it nearly a decade ago! I remember being amazed by Franzen's writing, but not to the point of being distracted from the story: mesmerizing, surprising and very touching. Of course, we're all still waiting for Franzen's fiction follow-up...here's to hoping it comes to us in THIS decade!
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780374100124
Author:
Franzen, Jonathan
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Location:
New York, NY
Subject:
General
Subject:
Married women
Subject:
Middle west
Subject:
Parent and adult child
Subject:
Domestic fiction
Subject:
Parkinson's disease
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Oprah
Series:
Oprah's Book Club (Hardcover)
Series Volume:
no. 102
Publication Date:
September 2001
Binding:
Trade Cloth
Language:
English
Pages:
567 p.
Dimensions:
9.61x6.46x1.71 in. 1.98 lbs.

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The Corrections Used Hardcover
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Product details 567 p. pages Farrar, Straus and Giroux - English 9780374100124 Reviews:
"Review A Day" by , "The Corrections is a lumpy, strange, singular work, very much of this moment even as it harks back to a kind of American novel long deemed extinct. Its portrayal of American family life sometimes seems cruel and unforgiving, yet the sheer amplitude of its vision implies a kind of sympathy, or at least understanding." (read the entire Salon review)
"Review" by , "No one book, of course, can provide everything we want in a novel. But a book as strong as The Corrections seems ruled only by its own self-generated aesthetic: it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we're under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read."
"Review" by , "In its complexity, its scrutinizing and utterly unsentimental humanity, and its grasp of the subtle relationships between domestic drama and global events, The Corrections stands in the company of Mann's Buddenbrooks and DeLillo's White Noise. It is a major accomplishment."
"Review" by , "Ferociously detailed, gratifyingly mind-expanding, and daringly complex and unhurried, New Yorker writer Franzen's third and best-yet novel aligns the spectacular dysfunctions of one Midwest family with the explosive malfunctions of society-at-large."
"Review" by , "Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections is the brightest, boldest, and most ambitious novel I've read in many years. With this dazzling work, Franzen gives notice that from now on, he is only going to hunt with the big cats."
"Review" by , "By turns funny and corrosive, portentous and affecting, The Corrections not only shows us two generations of an American family struggling to make sense of their lives, but also cracks open a window on a sullen country lurching its way toward the millennium."
"Review" by , "Let's not mince words or pussyfoot with fancy lit-crit lingo. This is a great book. It needs to be read....A panoramic work that frequently zeroes in, with almost claustrophobic clarity, on human foibles....A huge, ambitious, powerful, funny, imaginative yet realistic novel. This book is a gift."
"Review" by , "Smart and boisterous and beautifully paced....His rendering [of the autumnal prairie of millennial America] is frighteningly, luminously authentic."
"Review" by , "Remarkable....The best comparisons are to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo's Underworld...but The Corrections has more heart."
"Review" by , "The last 100 pages of The Corrections is an unforgettably sad, indelibly beautiful piece of literature....[Franzen] is a writer with talent to burn."
"Review" by , "More engaging and readable than other chilly magnum opuses in the same league....Unlike his Big Book peers, [Franzen] wants things tidy — not in the middle, maybe, but at the end. The chaos-theory math wizards of antimatter fiction don't often show such good manners, such politeness, and it's touching to find it here. Not just dazzle — warmth."
"Review" by , "What we're asking is whether Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections will become that rare thing, a literary work that everybody's reading? A lot of people are saying yes."
"Synopsis" by ,
Winner of the National Book Award

After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson's disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man-or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.

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