The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2001
Saying that The Corrections is a tale of a nuclear family coming together
for one last Christmas–the father is slowly dying of Parkinsons–is like saying Ulysses is a story about two guys wandering around Dublin and only meeting in the evening. Jonathan Franzen’s amazing novel made me laugh many times, not just at his humorous turn of phrase, or his ability to cut to the heart of an absurd situation, but his absolute skill at jumping back and forth in non-linear time in a fresh way, of spinning the reader round until familiar situations and locations are rendered strange and wondrous. It’s a laugh at the deft slight-of-hand that he’s perfected.
The Lamberts were once a traditional Midwestern family, but their three children who have flown the coop, leaving a large, empty house, a mother who obsesses over Christmas and a father who is slowly losing his grip on reality. The eldest child Gary, is a successful businessman/depressed alcoholic with three kids and an awful, manipulative wife (Franzen gets in good digs at the generation of hassle-free parents raising sonofabitch children); middle child Chip is a failed professor and scriptwriter who is gamely hanging on to his youth and who leaves for Lithuania to join the dot-com revolution; finally, youngest daughter Denise is a famous chef whose sexual shenanigans have been a constant disruption in her life.
Each section of the novel is devoted to one of these five characters, but freely jumps about when it needs to. Although comic, it’s also tremendously sad, but not in a maudlin way. Characters have epiphanies, but are usually in no state to change anything. Or they continue on their merry way.
The novel brims with three-dimensional characters to such an extent that I started to dream about situations in the novel as if I was sorting out events of the past day. Even more peculiar, there is a scene in the last part of the book where Gary, staying in his childhood bedroom, has a late-night hallucination that he can’t leave the room because of the horror that waits for him in the hallway. He is forced to pee in a commemorative beer stein. It was only after putting down the book, falling asleep, and eventually rousing myself from a similar troubled non-sleep that I realized that the sequence suggests that Gary has the gene that is causing his father’s dementia (father’s basement, indeed, is full of empty coffee cans full of urine.) But it’s again to Franzen’s credit that he doesn’t signpost this foreshadowing. I mentioned this to my friend (who was the one to recommend the novel) the following day and he hadn’t caught it either. I suppose the novel would hold up to several rereadings, and Franzen seems to be making allusions throughout to the Chronicles of Narnia, among other things. But I can’t remember enough about the books to get it all.
I meant to highlight phrases that I liked, but I got into the book so much I just forgot. I will, however, leave you with the one I Post-It noted: “Soon they were engaged and they chastely rode a night train to McCook, Nebraska, to visit his aged parents. His father kept a slave whom he was married to.”
The novel is full of such turnabout sentences, and as such was a delight to read. Apparently, there’s much consternation over Franzen’s novel-writing style and/or his attitude to his characters. Just read the bloody book like I did.
(Check out this Franzen interview at

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