All in the Family

Like Don DeLillo, the writer to which he is most often compared, Jonathan Franzen is a cheerful, lefty satirist who picks apart American culture–with all its dark political and capitalist implications–and celebrates it at the same time. His predictions for the future are dire, but he loves the present in his own caustic way. He’s John Dos Passos with a sense of humor; he’s a brainy curmudgeon with a heart of gold. This is why The Corrections, his new book, is the perfect novel to read in these difficult times.

That The Corrections was recently chosen as an Oprah Book Club Selection may be reason for some to cross it off their reading lists. Indeed Franzen himself has been ambivalent about the Oprah connection. During an NPR interview, he described the talk show as “the sort of bogus thing where they follow you around with a camera.” Such sentiments have caused Winfrey to formally withdraw her invitation to Franzen to appear as a guest–but The Corrections remains a book club selection. I personally have been a fan of Franzen since his first book, The Twenty-Seventh City, and admit that it does annoy me a little to see The Corrections getting so much praise (it was recently nominated for the National Book Award) and attention, since I will no longer be able to feel superior just for knowing who he is. But novelists have hard enough lives, and The Corrections deserves all the readers it can get.

Franzen’s story centers around the Lambert family of St. Jude, a midwestern city of indeterminate size, endowed with harsh winter weather and lacking any sense of irony. As one of the Lambert children, home for the holidays, sees it, St. Jude is a place populated by “the fattest and slowest people in the central tier of states. They’d come [to the hardware store] to buy marshmallow Santas, packages of tinsel, venetian blinds, eight-dollar blow-dryers, and holiday-theme pot holders. With their bratwurst fingers they dug for exact change in tiny purses.”

Against this backdrop the Lambert parents, Alfred and Enid, are suffering through the twilight years of an already-dim marriage. Their existence is made even gloomier by Alfred’s deteriorating physical and mental health, as he falls prey to the degradations of Parkinsons. Their children, Chip, Denise, and Gary, all live in the East, having rejected–with varying degrees of success–the Midwest. Chip, a failed liberal academic who used to teach Theory of Feminism until women became his downfall, is living in New York and writing a screenplay. Denise is a wildly successful chef in Philadelphia whose career and personal life, a trifle predictably, are not as well-organized as they seem from the outside. And Gary, a married banker with three children, is extremely busy trying to keep his marriage, his finances, and his depressed soul intact.

Enid, who knows (without being willing to admit it out loud) that Alfred is in really bad shape, wants all the kids to come home for Christmas for one last holiday together in St. Jude. For different reasons they resist. And that, right there, is pretty much the entire plot of The Corrections. Yet Franzen packs in and around that minimal story an intricate, musical set of riffs and melodies; he plays the interior hymns and prayers of his characters; and he produces the overall harmony of a family in distress that remains, in its own particular, anti-heroic way, a family.

Based on the evidence of a recent essay in The New Yorker, The Corrections represents Franzen’s most autobiographical work. Maybe this explains why, at its gooey heart, The Corrections is such a sentimental novel. It is a book that cares deeply about the Lamberts, whose very Midwestern ordinariness makes them emblematic of all that Franzen loves about American life. He can’t pass a gas station, fictionally speaking, without writing an ode to “the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware. The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service.” He can’t write about Christmas without giving it a tearjerking, fire-lit aura practically worthy of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

What saves these moments of sentiment from themselves is, for one thing, the quality of the writing, which is gorgeous without being baroque, and smart without being too show-offy. The other saving grace is the barbed satire Franzen sticks in, and which often illuminates the psychology of the characters while presenting some wicked social observations at the same time. Take, for example, this throwaway paragraph about the parenting techniques of Gary’s high-strung Quaker wife, Caroline:

“Among her favorite parenting books was The Technological Imagination: What Today’s Children Have to Teach their Parents, in which Nancy Claymore, Ph.D., contrasting the “tired paradigm” of Gifted Child as Socially Isolated Genius with the “wired paradigm” of Gifted Child as Creatively Connected Consumer, argued that electronic toys would soon be so cheap and widespread that a child’s imagination would no longer be exercised in crayon drawings and made-up stories but in the synthesis and exploitation of existing techologies–an idea that Gary found both persuasive and depressing.”

Persuasive and depressing are key adjectives for Franzen. He uses them to play out the larger conceit of The Corrections, which is the endless pendulum between optimism and pessimism in American life; the need for change and the costs that change can exert. The book’s title invokes the economic recession in which we are currently plunging and uses the peaks and valleys of the stock market as a metaphor for our national state of mind. Furthermore, Franzen wants to raise questions about psychological corrections, and he seems deeply disturbed by our culture’s embrace of drugs. The Corrections asks whether a person’s unhappiness is a medical condition like any other, remediable by drugs. (The drug of choice in the novel is one that, tellingly, eliminates shame–something Franzen, a moralist, apparently believes we should not live without). It balances a portrait of drugs used as a convenient replacement for genuine personal change against the portrait of Alfred, whose disease makes all his children hope for the effectiveness of an experimental drug they might otherwise dismiss as Orwellian and malevolent.

“Check out the Web site,” says a grinning venture capitalist to Chip, while the two of them are standing in the overstocked aisle of a gourmet supermarket. “I’ll give you the address. ‘The implications are disturbing, but there’s no stopping this powerful new technology.’ That could be the motto for our age, don’t you think?” It’s the motto of The Corrections, too, as powerful new technologies hover like mischievous fairies over the Lamberts, threatening to save or destroy them. A sense of obscure, DeLillo-esque global conspiracy weaves through the book, as the story digresses to include haute cuisine, the politics of Lithuania, the world of biotech, and a shadowy corporation with ties to pharmaceuticals and Midwestern railroads.

All these digressions do not necessarily come together in the end in the standard literary thriller way. Franzen seems far more interested in raising his pet questions than in providing answers. This is certainly the novelist’s prerogative, but it can also be the reader’s frustration. And at times Franzen’s desire to link the personal lives of his characters to a larger intellectual structure results in a strained, issue-of-the moment feeling, or in moments of desperate comedy (in the supermarket scene, Chip happens to have a large piece of fish stuffed down his pants) all too obviously designed to take the edge off. Fortunately he’s too good a writer to let the tone turn expository, and his most authorial moments don’t sound like an op-ed. Fortunately, too, the sections that delve into the mind of Alfred–a rigid, not especially likeable, self-contained man who is agonizingly present for the disintegration of that container–are hilarious, tragic, and humane.

“Like a wife who had died or a house that had burned,” Alfred thinks towards the end, “the clarity to think and the power to act were still vivid in his memory. Through a window that gave onto the next world, he could still see the clarity and see the power, just out of reach, beyond the window’s thermal pane.” Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, Franzen reaches for the sad poetry of an ordinary person’s thought, and hits exactly the correct note.

Alix Ohlin, a graduate of UT’s Michener Center for Writers, has recently moved to New England, where the Mexican food is a pitiful joke.

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Published at 12:00 am CST