Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is probably longer, at 568 pages, than any novel about the dysfunctional American family has to be. After all, how much more do we need to know about the Lamberts than that they live in St. Jude, a mid-western suburb named for the patron saint of hopeless causes; or that Alfred, a.k.a. Dad, has taken early retirement and has barely moved from his beloved armchair in years, and that his wife, Enid, is getting rid of the chair because it clashes with her new decor. When she confesses she never liked the thing, her husband is devastated:
This was probably the most terrible thing she could have said to Alfred. The chair was the only sign he'd ever given of having a personal vision of the future. Enid's words filled him with such sorrow¨he felt such pity for the chair, such solidarity with it, such astonished grief at its betrayal¨that he pulled off the drop cloth and sank into its arms and fell asleep.
The three Lambert kids, all grown up now, have left St. Jude, but they've taken their sense of hopelessness with them. Gary, a successful banker in Philadelphia, is riding the wave of the late 1990s stock market boom. Money is remarkably easy to make, his children are healthy and bright; he is still attracted to his wife. And he's also cracking up, a fact he has good reason to hide:
[Gary] was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never again win an argument.
Elsewhere, Gary's younger brother Chip, a disgraced professor of feminist theory, is "failing even at the miserable task of falling properly apart." He's lost his job for having an affair with a student¨mainly, it appears, because he hadn't made an impression on her in class; he's writing a screenplay about Monica Lewinsky, which begins with a "six page lecture about the anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama"; and he's so broke he has to shoplift a salmon¨tuck it under his sweater, in fact¨to serve at a lunch for his parents.
Finally, Denise, a successful chef running a trendy restaurant, is having affairs with both her boss and her boss's wife. It is, she admits, understatedly, "a reasonably hopeless case."
Someone once referred to Blue Velvet, David Lynch's twisted film about America's suburbia, as "the Hardy Boys go to hell." Well, Franzen's story is no Norman Rockwell painting either.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the American dream is mutating into a nightmare. Compared to The Corrections, Death of a Salesman is Father Knows Best. Christmas dinner with the folks is evoked in hilarious, hellish detail. Kids, even those well-brought up, are a little creepy. Gary's pre-teen son, encouraged to find a hobby, decides to set up a surveillance camera in the kitchen, which comes in handy if you want to catch your father polishing off the vodka.
"Make it ridiculous," Chip says, contemplating yet another rewrite of his preposterous Lewinsky screenplay. But it's Franzen who follows the advice. The Corrections, with its cure-all pharmaceuticals, Internet fraud, and hands-off parenting manuals, is "tragedy rewritten as farce."
That was clear even before I started Franzen's novel. An erratum came tucked inside my copy. The separate sheet of paper advised readers that "the text on pages 430 and 431" of The Corrections was "reversed in this printing." A coincidence? Maybe. But here, after all, is a novel, as its title suggests, about a world of technology and capitalist greed run amok, a novel also eerily prescient about the reckoning that seems to have come for North American society. The erratum seemed, in other words, too good to be believed¨just the first post-modern joke in what was promising to be America's latest, fattest post-modern novel.
Sometimes, though, a printing mishap is just a printing mishap and Franzen, unlike colleagues David Foster Wallace or David Eggers or his literary idols William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and Don Delillo, is not nearly as convoluted a writer¨and this is not as convoluted or, for that matter, as groundbreaking a novel¨as Franzen may have intended, which is fine by me. "Do not bore," the filmmaker Billy Wilder offers as his first rule of storytelling, and it's a message Franzen thankfully takes to heart.
And so for all his determination to capture the big, chaotic picture, Franzen is better at showing us the little chaotic one. In the end, The Corrections is a deeply old-fashioned novel. All the global mergers, corporate greed and cultural meshugas¨which Franzen spoofs nicely¨still don't really have that much effect on the ground; it's the same old ordinary, everyday disappointments, delusions and illnesses killing us. We are still more sad than we are silly.
Alfred's incremental decline into old age and dementia is a moving example. Stubborn, gloomy and unloving, he is not an especially likeable man, but even so, attention, as Willy Loman's wife said about her husband's fate, must be paid. Unfortunately, in Alfred's case, even his wife isn't paying attention. She likes him the way he is: incontinent, silent, disoriented, at her mercy locked away in a nursing home:
[Enid] never failed to visit him. She had to tell him, while she still had time, how wrong he'd been and how right she'd been. How wrong not to love her more, how wrong not to cherish her and have sex at every opportunity, how wrong not to trust her financial instincts, how wrong to have spent so much time at work and so little with the children, how wrong to have been so negative, how wrong to have been so gloomy, how wrong to have run away from life, how wrong to have said no, again and again, instead of yes: she had to tell him all this, every single day. Even if he wouldn't listen, she had to tell him.
The Corrections is Franzen's third novel (his other books The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion are also fat and ambitious but a lot more unwieldy) and his first in almost eight years. But Franzen, a frequent contributor to magazines like Harper's and The New Yorker, hasn't been keeping a low profile. In an essay in Harper's a few years ago, he complained that American fiction was failing on two counts: it wasn't engaged with big social, cultural issues and it wasn't entertaining enough.
There's a good reason for that, of course¨the two impulses are seldom compatible, not since Dickens anyway. (Franzen's heroes, Pynchon, Gaddis and Delillo, never worry about being boring.) But Franzen wasn't just complaining in that essay, he was also appointing himself to do the job.
Hubris like that probably shouldn't be rewarded¨the world doesn't need more 500-page novels¨but The Corrections pretty much does what its ambitious author promised it would¨it is a provocative and thoroughly readable story. If Franzen lays it on thick at times¨there's a fantasy sequence featuring talking turds, for heaven's sake¨it's a thickness that quickly assumes its own convincing texture and nuance.
With a subplot about the fall of post-Soviet Lithuania, a treatise on the potential of a super-Prozac type drug which rehabilitates felons and psychopaths, a character falling off a cruise ship, a look into the inner workings of haute cuisine, no shortage of sex, straight and gay, and even a convincing pitch for 50 watt light bulbs (60s are too bright, 40s too dim), life's rich tapestry has seldom been this well-heeled, this overindulgent. Franzen is a greedy writer, but it's fair to say, in The Corrections, greed really is good. ˛