Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections made the TIME list of the 100 greatest novels published since the magazine began for its use of dark humor in an unstinting portrayal of both the modern American family and of our unending winter of discontent. It is a well-constructed novel with smart prose, one that challenges the reader often without becoming an arduous read, but ultimately suffers from its depressing outlook and the presence of only one really compelling storyline.
The Lambert family is in the final stages of full collapse as its patriarch, Alfred, approaches the end of his life, and his wife Enid seeks to bring all three of her adult children home to St. Jude, Ohio, for one final Christmas together. Alfred suffers from Parkinson’s disease that is ravaging body and mind, yet lives in partial denial of the loss of some of his faculties while living in full denial of what appears to be a lifelong battle with clinical depression. Enid herself fights a depression of her own, but one more the result of her own losing battle with a sullen, domineering husband, who clipped her wings and may have driven away all three children once they could leave the nest. Eldest son Gary is superficially successful, married with three children and a lucrative day job in banking, but is himself depressed; he’s aware of it, unlike Alfred, but tries desperately to fight it without resorting to therapy or antidepressants (although the cause of his aversion to those solutions is unclear; it may be related to his paranoia about his wife and children conspiring against him). Middle child Chip is a failed academic, a tourist of Marxism, and eventually an aide to a Lithuanian con man. If you like a single one of these characters, each of whom (except perhaps Enid, a product of her times) is at least partly responsible for his own mess, you’re a more empathetic reader than I am.
The star of the book for me is the youngest Lambert child, Denise, a talented chef with a second talent for romantic entanglements that sabotage her life and eventually leave her jobless and, coincidentally, available to clean up family messes. I’d argue that she’s the most together of any family member, certainly the most self-aware and most willing to think about what causes her bouts of self-destructive behavior, and the job loss was a little bit forced into the plot anyway. (The absence of any mention of a sexual harassment lawsuit bothered me.) Each character gets his or her own extended section, and Denise’s was by far the most interesting, both from sheer narrative greed and from my ability to empathize with her character, because she has a level of emotional depth absent from other members of her family, and less of the propensity to extinguish her own flame. And the lead-in to that section, giving us the back story on the family that ends up employing Denise in the husband’s restaurant start-up, is the single best passage in the entire book, even thought it doesn’t feature any of the Lamberts. Incidentally, Franzen, to his great credit, shows pretty strong understanding of food and food trends of ten years ago in describing Denise’s culinary exploits, including her gustatory tour of Europe that leads to, of course, some significant emotional development, particularly when she sees acquaintances from St. Jude living a wealthy yet stale life in Austria.
The book is funny and crude, sometimes at the same time, but other times the crudeness is simply offputting and pointless. Franzen can spin a phrase and make words dance in many directions, and it’s a shame to see how often he makes them tango in the gutter when he excels at wry, incisive observations. The strongest prose got me through the book despite a rather bleak outlook on life. The emotions generated by the book’s brief concluding section were very real, and yet I still felt cheated, like this final “correction” to the Lambert family dysfunction came too late – after 550 pages of downers, chemical and psychological, I wanted some small glimmer of hope for the Lamberts left standing, some argument that life, corrected, still had meaning, and Franzen just left it hanging. But if his point was to display our happiness paradox, where greater prosperity in the U.S. hasn’t led to greater happiness or satisfaction or reduced rates of clinical depression, then that open-ended conclusion serves his greater purpose. It just wasn’t the book I wanted to read.
Next up: I’m about ¾ of the way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize-winning book Half of a Yellow Sun, a historical novel set during the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-70.