The Corrections

by Jonathan Franzen

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

576 pages, 2001


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Correctly Convoluted

Reviewed by Sienna Powers

 

It should be said -- and said early on -- that author Jonathan Franzen is one genius of a wordsmith as well as a journeyman observer of the human condition. In The Corrections, Franzen lays down tracks of mind numbing clarity and eye popping beauty. If portions of The Corrections threaten to collapse under the weight of Franzen's machinations, we can forgive him: it buckles with such stylishness you have to give him points for trying even while you wade through crazy plot twists that you sense on the first read will never be connected. Or corrected. It's just that kind of book.

In the end, reading The Corrections is like watching a chef at Benihana: The knives float threateningly in the air, their action like dangerous poetry and that poetry sometimes takes your breath away. When all is completed, however, and the meal is served, you find that all they've been doing is cutting meat. But with all of that stylish preparation and presentation it's difficult to not enjoy it just a little bit more.

Chip Lambert is the middle son of a mildly psychotic family. A startlingly unsuccessful screenwriter, Chip's university teaching career got put on hold fairly early due to some very unteacherly conduct that involved a female student. By the time we get this story, however, we know Chip and nothing is a surprise: he's an adult adolescent and there doesn't seem to be much that will correct that particular piece of business.

As we meet Chip, his girlfriend, Julia, is dumping him just as his parents have arrived in town for a brief visit. Though Julia's dissatisfaction seems to largely center on Chip's inability to come up with the sterling screenplay she thought him capable of, it's clear that this lack is symptomatic. In the break up scene, Julia accuses Chip of focusing his screenplay, The Academy Purple, too much on both pedantry and women's breasts:

"You're probably right," he said. "Although some of the physicality there is intentional. Because that's the irony, see, that she's attracted to his mind while he's attracted to her --"

"But for a woman reading it," Julia said obstinately, "it's sort of like the poultry department. Breast, breast, breast, thigh, leg."

Chip's brother Gary is a banker with a beautiful wife and three gorgeous children. He has everything he's ever wanted -- everything he was ever taught to want -- and he should be happy. But he isn't and his condition baffles him, feelings that he tries to dull with the liberal and secretive application of fairly expensive alcohol and thrice weekly mixed grill:

To Gary there was indeed something endlessly delicious, something irresistibly luxurious, about a bit of lamb, a bit of pork, a bit of veal, and a lean and tender modern-style sausage or two -- a classic mixed grill, in short. It was such a treat that he began to do his own mixed grills at home....

On the deck, in the radiant heat, as he blackened the prawns and seared the swordfish, a weariness overtook him. The aspects of his life not related to grilling now seemed like mere blips of extraneity between the poundingly recurrent moments when he ignited the mesquite and paced the deck, avoiding smoke. Shutting his eyes, he saw twisted boogers of browning meats on a grille of chrome and hellish coals. The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned.

Chip and Gary's sister Denise is one of the hottest chefs in Philadelphia. While there is little confusion in her life with regards to her career, she finds her own sexuality somewhat more perplexing.

She didn't want to belong to any group, let alone a group with bad haircuts and strange resentful clothing issues. She didn't want a label, she didn't want a lifestyle...

Denise doesn't, however, let her own ambiguity overwhelm her. Rather, she goes with the flow and, ultimately, must face some very real consequences.

Alfred and Enid, parents of this adult brood, remain firmly anchored in their Midwestern haven, St. Jude, despite the fact that their children are now far flung. In flashback recollections from each of the other main characters, we get a picture of Alfred as a stern, ungiving father and husband. Now, however, he's just an old man who spends most of his time in the basement in an "overstuffed, vaguely gubernatorial" blue leather chair. Enid tries to ignore the fact that Alfred has taken to urinating in a coffee can near the chair, because "what earthly reason could he have, with a nice little half-bathroon not twenty feet away, for peeing in a Yuban can?"

Son Gary wants Alfred and Enid to sell the house and move into some sort of assisted living facility before the family home becomes too rundown and he, Gary, is forced to care for his parents physically and financially. Knowing that her husband's increasing unpredictability is giving Gary fuel, Enid says she'll consider it: if only she can have the whole family together for one final St. Jude Christmas.

While Enid's fantasy Christmas -- and her single-minded determination to get her family to cooperate -- lends much of the cement that binds Franzen's plot, there's a lot more going on here: more than can be related in the space I've been given. The Corrrections, as I said when I began, is an incredibly convoluted book with right-angled plot twists at every corner lending an epic quality to what might, at first glance, appear to be a simple novel about an American family.

What makes The Corrections work is Franzen's sharp eye, attention to detail and, ultimately, his ability to let us see deeply into people who, at first take, don't appear to warrant a second glance. As he leads us through this family epic, however, Franzen peels away layers of protection until we're allowed to see the worthwhile person that the veneer of coping has covered so neatly. It's a good trick and a warming one and Franzen pulls it off with aplomb.

At the present rate of acceptance -- the praise that has been shoveled onto this book and the awards that seem to be racing towards it -- The Corrections seems destined to be a new American classic. It's a worthwhile addition: there's a dark beauty here that's too good to miss. | October 2001

 

Sienna Powers is a contributing editor to January Magazine.