BOOKS AND THE CULTURE All in the Family BY ALIX OHLIN The Corrections By Jonathan Franzen Farrar Straus&Giroux 568 pages, $26. ike Don DeLillo , the writer to which he is most often com pared, Jonathan Franzen is a cheerful, lefty satirist who picks apart American cul turewith all its dark political and capitalist implicationsand 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 guestbut The Corrections remains a book club selection. I personally have been a fan of Franzen since his first book, The TioentySeventh 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 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 rejectedwith varying degrees of successthe 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 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 autobiograph- ical 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 Atherican commerce, th6 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 wpthy of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” What sves these moments of senti-, ment 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 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/9/01
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