by Jonathan Franzen
A review by Stewart O'Nan
Since The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen's amazing debut way back in 1988, American fiction has seen a host of smart-guy writers, some of whom have garnered that dubious laurel, literary celebrity. Franzen, who may be the most rewarding of the lot, last surfaced in 1992, with Strong Motion, another daring performance, but since then he has published only essays and excerpts, whetting readers' appetites for this, his long-awaited third novel.
The Corrections follows the tribulations of the Lambert family, from the stolid midwestern city of St. Jude. The children have long since grown and fled to the hipper East Coast, leaving Enid to tend Alfred, whose health, like their relationship, is declining precipitately. Enid's dream is to have one last perfect Christmas together as a family after she and Alfred take their dream cruise. The action opens with a stop in Manhattan to see Chip, their middle child, an ex-professor dropped by his college after a humiliating affair with a student. Pushing forty, Chip has never lost the attitude of the too cool grad student whose view of the world comes from the French poststructuralists. He has pinned his hopes to a screenplay that is nothing more than a thinly veiled version of his own downfall. He's an unmitigated failure, dead broke, yet he retains through a combination of denial and pride a desperate, last-ditch optimism. As his parents arrive, his girlfriend is in the process of leaving him, delivering her long-suppressed opinion that his screenplay, just sent to his producer, is flat-out bad. Chip understands that she's right and heads off to rescue his screenplay before it's too late, frantically coming up with the corrections that will save it.
Despite a complex and involved plot, the driving force of the book is that simplest, most intricate of engines, the unhappy family. Deep down these are insecure people, often miserable (sometimes buoyed, it must be said, only by the author's virtuosity and humor), and much of the drama springs from what they feel they need to hide from one another. Some of the guiltiest laughs come when these secrets are revealed in worst-case confrontations or loopy coincidences.
Franzen's dialogue between family members contains a barely restrained violence, comfortable chat suddenly turning barbed. In straight narration his powers of language are astonishing. Here's Alfred trying to lower himself onto a chaise longue in Chip's apartment: "He'd realized only recently that at the center of the act of sitting down was a loss of control, a blind backwards free fall. His excellent blue chair in St. Jude was like a first baseman's glove that gently gathered in whatever body was flung its way, at whatever glancing angle, with whatever violence; it had big helpful ursine arms to support him while he performed the crucial blind pivot."
As the Lamberts go their own ways (and they do, if only to escape one another), Franzen casts a wide net, pulling in the principles of metallurgy, quotations from Schopenhauer, railroading, the rivalry between Sweden and Norway, The Chronicles of Narnia, the short-lived rock band Mission of Burma a whole goofy stew. But as in any great satire of attitudes, the frozen component parts of the book don't convey the power of the living whole. Franzen is a wizard, endlessly inventive in his thematic connections and scene setting. He can run riffs on Lacan or the post-Cold War instability of the Baltic states, yet isn't above the pleasures of slapstick and low jokes (the names of some supporting characters are Pynchonesque bonbons: Fenton Creel, Dale Driblett, Eden Procuro). The Corrections is a wide-open performance showcasing the full range of his skills and his eclectic intelligence.
Because of the book's preoccupation with the individual caught in complex social and political systems, comparisons with Don DeLillo's White Noise are unavoidable, and perhaps also with William Gaddis's work or with Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge in their more domestic moments. But ultimately The Corrections, with its emphasis on sibling rivalry, the break between generations, and the clash between pious bourgeois respectability and the slippery mores of this new and alien America, recalls no novel so much as John Cheever's The Wapshot Scandal. The Corrections is just as funny and sad and smart as that masterpiece, and Franzen, like Cheever, reminds us of the timelessness of human folly.
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