Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Corrections

The word good would be an incredible understatement. In fact, the word excellent would seem a slight of the first order. (I’m overstating it, I know.) These were but a few of the initial thoughts that came to mind when I endeavored to write a review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, an ambitious novel about family, depression, and our attempts to reconcile expectations and their resulting outcomes.

Set in the fictional Midwestern suburb of St. Judes (Franzen grew up in St. Louis) Franzen introduces the reader to the Lambert family and then begins to construct a series of clever, internal narratives around them: Alfred, the patriarch, is now approaching the winter of his life and is debilitated by the mental atrophy of Alzheimer’s and the corporeal rapaciousness of Parkinson’s; The mother Enid is preening, aspiration-al, and sometimes exacting, though more in a endearing than harsh way; Gary, the first child, is the fulfillment of his parents expectations, the vice president of a Bank, father of three and responsible to a clinical degree; Chip is the middle child struggling to find his moorings after losing his professorship at an Ivy League college for sleeping with a student—he’s the intellectual without a clue; Denise being the youngest child is the emotionally impassive uber-striver who seeks and is rewarded, continually, her father's approval, while, at the same time, staking for herself a life that appears an affront to Enid’s pedagogy.

Alfred and Enid arrive in New York to have lunch with their son Chip and daughter Denise—who’s flown in from Philadelphia—before they depart on a cruise that day. What ensues is nothing short of comic genius and, similarly, tragedy. Chip’s life is seemingly falling apart as he escorts his parents from JFK—only to be met at his apartment by his current girlfriend, Julia, who promptly dumps him after being introduced to Chip’s parents. Ever the irresponsible son, Chip leaves his parents in Denise’s care to persue Julia, embarking on a jarring self-assessment that is both neurotic and forlorn, while falling to find Julia. Chip does, however, find his way to the office of a friend of Julia’s and is offered a job that, though it pays well (much better than his not so lucrative job as a proofreader), appears to be criminal. The job is also in Lithuania—and to accept the offer would mean leaving that day. Naturally, Chip leaves. Denise is left to deflect the probing questions of her mother and watch the degradation of her beloved father.

Franzen then takes the narrative thread to alternating gears of emotional tone. With Gary, we are led through the psychological travails of a man so willing to embody the picture of refined domesticity that his very abiding becomes pathological. He begins to believe that his wife and children are conspiring against him—are driving him to a depression of their own construction. Gary’s wife Caroline is an emotional potentate (this is what I gather) who is adamant—after eight consecutive Christmas of not visiting Enid and Alfred in St. Judes, to Gary servile dismay—of not even considering going this Christmas'—even if it may be the last Christmas the Lamberts have together, even if her lack of compromise is pushing her husband closer and closer to this constructed depression.

Enid and Alfred’s narrative is more comedy than Gary’s grating supplication. Alfred was once a paragon of moral life, self-denying, modest, and truthful. Since his retirement, which was days before his pension was to kick-in (this being incomprehensible and unexplained to Enid) Alfred has wasted away in the basement, off with his own diminishing thoughts. Enid has always been denied the Alfred she hoped she would have when they married: The caring Alfred; the expressive Alfred; the kind Alfred; the, once in a while, sexually attentive Alfred. Her life has been that of a subject to Alfred’s Schopenhauer-ian will. And so the excess of her energy has been devoted to raising her children. And now that this may very well be their last Christmas together in St. Judes, she wants all of her children home for the holidays. Enid is easily my favorite character; she’s full of foibles and neurosis and traffics in a populist, Midwestern charm.

The most intriguing narrative, though, is that of Denise Lambert. I had difficulty keeping my mouth closed, as my jaw kept coming ajar. Not that the lesbianism wasn’t appealing; nor was the lifestyle she led unremarkable. Denise Lambert was singular as a character, touching and at times harsh, strong yet milquetoast. She was without humor but the situations she found herself in were humorous. And that filial love for her father anchors much in her life—it also portends other tectonic revelations.

The Corrections, needless to say, starts off furiously, eases comfortably into the middle, becomes intellectually intriguing during Denise Lambert’s narrative thread, and tidies up well—Franzen’s pacing and tone a touch of methodical mastery. Apparently it took him five years to create this Magnus opus, and at just over six hundred pages Franzen’s style makes the novel incredibly readable; even-though, at parts, it’s a complicated read, it is still very lucid.

Will the Lamberts be together for one last Christmas? Read the book and find out.


guile said...

i read the book last year.. i still find time to re-read it these days.. great book :)..

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