Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections"
lnp3 at panix.com
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
BOOKS OF THE TIMES | 'THE CORRECTIONS'
A Family Portrait as Metaphor for the 90's
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
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
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 panix.com on 09/04/2001
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