Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Sep 4 08:17:22 MDT 2001

[I have tried to read Franzen's first two novels, but find them 
terribly overwritten and burdened by postmodernist conceits. His 
latest reviewed below apparently strikes out in new directions, while 
remaining committed to a sharply critical view of American society. A 
link to the first chapter can be found below. For what it's worth, 
James O'Connor swears by Franzen--while I swear at O'Connor.]

NY Times, September 4, 2001

A Family Portrait as Metaphor for the 90's

By Jonathan Franzen.
568 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

Jonathan Franzen's two earlier novels, "The Twenty-Seventh City" 
(1988) and "Strong Motion" (1992), were messy and wildly ambitious 
epics, crammed to overflowing with cautionary political plots and 
tendentious asides meant to add up to a dyspeptic portrait of America 
in the 1980's. Buried beneath the Pynchonian pyrotechnics and 
Sinclair Lewisesque satire, however, were intimate family dramas that 
grounded the characters in a recognizable emotional reality and 
provided an Updikean portrait of the vagaries of domestic life.

In his new novel, "The Corrections," Mr. Franzen has brought a family 
and its problems center stage to try to write a sort of American 
"Buddenbrooks." In doing so he has harnessed his penchant for social 
criticism and subordinated it to his natural storytelling instincts, 
while at the same time, shucking off the influence of other writers 
to find an idiosyncratic voice of his own. Though often 
self-indulgent and long- winded, the novel leaves the reader with 
both a devastating family portrait and a harrowing portrait of 
America in the late 1990's — an America deep in the grip of that 
decade's money madness and sick with envy, resentment, greed, 
acquisitiveness and self-delusion, an America committed to the 
quick-fix solution and determined to try to medicate its problems 

The Midwestern suburb of St. Jude where the Lambert family resides 
bears more than a passing resemblance to Lumberton, the supposedly 
idyllic suburb depicted in the opening scenes of David Lynch's movie 
"Blue Velvet." St. Jude, as Enid Lambert likes to think, is inhabited 
by nice people with nice children; her world "was like a lawn in 
which the bluegrass grew so thick that evil was simply choked out: a 
miracle of niceness."

But life for the Lamberts is far from nice or perfect. Alfred, the 
paterfamilias and a retired railroad executive, is suffering from 
Parkinson's disease, dementia and depression, and Enid spends her 
days trying to stem the gathering disorder in their lives. In her 
spare time she complains vociferously about Alfred to her children 
and endlessly nags him to make more of an effort — pleas that are met 
only with further resistance. This sorry state of affairs is not 
simply a function of Alfred's illness. In flashbacks we learn that 
even in the prime of life Alfred was a secretive and emotionally 
reticent man, ill-suited to the chirpy, socially ambitious Enid. The 
Lambert children have all moved East to escape their parents' 
suffocating marriage and the narrow, faintly bigoted ethos of St. 
Jude, but all three are just as unhappy — and unpleasant — as their 
progenitors. Chip, a former professor who was fired for sexual 
harassment, is a brooding disciple of Foucault and Marx, a would-be 
social critic who likes to rant about "a commercialized, medicalized, 
totalitarian modernity" but who spends all his free time pursuing 
women and maxing out his Visa card on fine wines. 

His sister, Denise, is a judgmental and wildly competitive hipster, 
who works as the chef at a trendy new Philadelphia restaurant until 
she gets herself fired by having affairs with both her boss and her 
boss's wife. Their older brother, Gary, a vice president of a 
Philadelphia bank, is a snobbish and bossy yuppie, trapped in a 
nightmare marriage and given to attacks of paranoia and depression 
that cause him to lash out at everyone around him.

In his portraits of the Lamberts, Mr. Franzen exercises his copious 
talents for satire, coolly excavating their vanities, hypocrisy and 
self- deceptions. There is a hilarious scene in which Chip, hard up 
for cash, tries to steal a paper-wrapped fillet of Norwegian salmon 
from a designer food boutique by stuffing it down his pants, and some 
equally antic scenes set in Lithuania, where Chip has gone to set up 
a Web site for a local politician bent on defrauding American 
investors by offering them perks like "pro rata mineral rights and 
logging rights to all national parklands" and " `no-questions-asked' 
access to wiretaps and other state- security apparatus."

While he is eviscerating the Lamberts' pretensions — and by 
extension, the culture they represent — Mr. Franzen also manages to 
make palpable the familial geometry of their problems. Gary's 
anxieties, we realize, mirror those of his father, while Denise's 
social ambitions echo her mother's cravings for status. Chip's 
alienation recalls Enid's sense of estrangement from neighbors and 
friends, while Gary's entire existence had been "set up as a 
correction of his father's life."

Clearly Mr. Franzen's novel would have benefited enormously from a 
strict editing job. There are lengthy digressions about Lambert 
friends and acquaintances, which serve no purpose but to provide the 
author with a wider array of social types to send up; and there are 
passages where the omniscient narrator's voice gratuitously intrudes 
to tell us exactly what we are witnessing. An air of self-importance 
hovers over some of the novel's more melodramatic scenes, and the 
unsavory antics of the Lamberts often exude a self-conscious whiff of 
sociological import.

All in all, however, "The Corrections" remains a remarkably poised 
performance, the narrative held together by myriad meticulously 
observed details and tiny leitmotifs that create a mosaiclike picture 
of America in the waning years of the 20th century. And while the 
story line is propelled by several suspenseful questions — whether 
Alfred's patent for a metallurgical discovery will pay off, whether 
Chip will escape from Lithuanian thugs, whether the shotgun in the 
Lamberts' basement will be put to use — the real tension in "The 
Corrections" stems from the characters' emotional dramas, rather than 
from the sort of contrived plot points found in the author's earlier 

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.

First Chapter: 'The Corrections' (September 2, 2001)
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 09/04/2001

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