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The Corrections

By Jonathan Franzen

Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Current Publisher
: Picador (Macmillan)

Mary Jo Bang writes:

What can be “corrected”? The opening pages of Chip Lambert’s screenplay, which he’s intentionally made tedious, hoping the eventual relief from tedium will paradoxically enhance the reader’s pleasure? Can the termination from his assistant professor job for cause after a drug-fueled orgy with an undergraduate (during which he writes a term paper for her) be corrected? Can the mother, Enid Lambert, correct her grating disappointment at 1) her lesser circumstances as compared to her better-off neighbors; 2) her fear that a dead-end affair with a married man will ensure that her daughter remains unmarried and childless; 3) one son’s remoteness; 4) a second son’s failure to achieve the knee-jerk ambitions she had for him (to be a doctor, what else?); and 5) (on a par with the others) her continually thwarted desire to have one last family Christmas in the suburban home where they were all once a dysfunctional family?

The question is huge and only grows larger and more compelling as the backstory unfolds. Is there a way to correct the husband and father, Albert Lambert’s, creeping Parkinsonism, age-related physical deterioration, and life-long frustration with everything—especially Enid’s carping? And what about the daughter, Denise’s, workaholic loneliness? And Gary, the older son’s, marginalization within his own manipulative nuclear family? Can this one’s anger and anarchy be corrected, that one’s grieving? Can an abusive pre-adoption infancy be corrected? And at what cost?

The Rubik’s-Cube-like plot begins to focus on a pill called Corectall (the name, a bastardization of the OTC stimulant laxative, Corectol), which, in one form, has a street name of “Mexican A.” The Lamberts could potentially profit by it in two ways: one, through its euphoria-inducing pharmaco-magic and two, through a financial windfall—since an amateur, after-hours, basement discovery by Albert years earlier possibly aided in its development. Is this their best hope? Is it ours? Would we learn anything from our foibles and failures if they were simply erased? Would a life without regret and anxiety be as, if not more, empty as the one we’d like to escape. And what about the abrasive longing of addiction? Wouldn’t that inevitably be part of the bargain? (“Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.”—Grace Slick, “White Rabbit.”)

The pill becomes the symbol of all vain hope, the cure for everything, along with the “nothing” of no side effects and no consequences:

              “… Take this,” she told him, closing the door.

              “This is? Some kind of Ecstasy?”

              “No. Mexican A.”

              Chip felt culturally anxious. Not long ago, there had been no drugs he hadn’t heard of. “What does it do?”

              “Nothing and everything,” she said, swallowing one herself. “You’ll see.”

Franzen’s brilliant achievement is that he creates a set of stereotypical characters and then opens the door and allows us see, in suspenseful, humorous, mesmerizing detail, their defining moments. What was once a silhouette becomes three-dimensional. The complexity becomes a dim mirror of our own complex interiority—writ large, the way we like it writ, because then we can’t help but see ourselves in it.             

Mary Jo Bang’s poetry collection, Elegy, won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest book, The Bride of E, is forthcoming from Graywolf in October, 2009. She was a National Book Award poetry judge in 2008.

Lee Taylor Gaffigan writes:

In the twilight of my life, long after my pater and mater familii have passed on to the other side, I will write a scrappy little novel. In it, I will parlay all of my family members’ idiosyncratic tics into characters of unrivalled poignancy. I will be free at last to exploit from whence I sprung. I will, much like Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections, make the characters in ‘family’ palpably discomfiting.

I was envious of Franzen and his deft crafting of The Corrections from the outset. The novel crackles with acerbic wit and intelligent observation. As a reader, I felt myself a confidant of that narrative voice, and even as I ambled about my daily duties, I found myself wondering what would happen next in the beautifully crafted microcosm of America that is St. Jude. 

The book is divisive, a love it or hate it affair. I would have naturally gravitated to the verbal gymnastics and pop commentary regardless of Franzen’s focus on the family, but it was the family that really sold me. As one who occasionally bristles beneath the weight of a ‘colorful’ mother, I found Enid, Franzen’s fictional mother to be a tour de force. Who knows if she has shreds of Franzen’s own Ma, or if everyone sees shreds of their mother the way I did, but I found her persona brilliant; I couldn’t get enough.

Enid’s castle is described as such: “Its furnishings were of the kind that brooked no clutter. There were chairs and tables by Ethan Allen. Spode and Waterford in the breakfront. Obligatory ficuses, obligatory Norfolk pines. Fanned copies of Architectural Digest on a glass-topped coffee table. Touristic plunderenamelware from China, a Viennese music box that Enid out of a sense of duty and mercy every so often wound up and raised the lid.” Pitch perfect, even as the delicate fortress of her domesticity begins to crumble, she works to maintain the façade. And, when appearances fail to reassure, she attempts throughout the novel to reunite a family gone astray. This would be her last great maternal doing.

After revisiting this book, I’m looking even more toward my novel. It won’t be quite so masterful I fear, but I wouldn’t have the gumption to try it if such a predecessor did not exist.  

Lee Taylor Gaffigan, a former musician, is currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at The New School in Manhattan.

David Ulin writes:

About halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, there’s a scene that turns the whole novel around. In it, Enid Lambert — who until that point has been almost entirely unsympathetic — is revealed as, not unlike her three kids, yet another victim of her husband’s cruelty. Unable to defend her younger son Chip, who has been forced to sit at the dining table until he finishes a meal that he refuses to eat, she tries to soften up her husband in the bedroom only to have him, essentially, rape her. It’s a stunning moment, not so much for its unexpected violence as for how it forces us to reassess a character we thought we knew.

That’s the effect of The Corrections, a big novel that revolves around that smallest of middle-class American interactions, the trip home to visit the family for the holidays. Cycling back and forth from present to past, it is a tragedy of quiet desperation, an epic of the mundane. Lest this sound like a dismissal, nothing could be farther from the truth. Rather, it is Franzen’s genius to recognize that in the fraughtness of family, in the way those old psychic injuries never leave us, the entire palette of human emotions is exposed.

Franzen highlights this by writing, in turn, from the perspective of each member of the Lambert family: Alfred and Enid, the septuagenarian parents, and their children Chip, a failing screenwriter, Gary, a suburbanite on the verge of collapsing beneath the weight of his own marriage, and Denise, a chef. Each is scarred, in his or her way, but more importantly, each has scarred the others, in an endless succession of small slights and grievous hurts. It’s a mosaic that provides the underpinning to the novel, immersing us in the irresolvable depth of family life. When we see Gary, for instance, with his own children — whom he loves but can’t talk to, aware always of his limitations, and theirs — we see in a visceral way the generational dance of heritage, how the sins of the fathers are always visited upon the sons.

The Corrections is not a perfect novel; when Franzen turns to postmodern irony, which happens mostly in regard to Chip and his adventures in the film world, the book takes on a forced quality, for this is not a postmodern, ironic work. But the triumph of the novel is that, in the end, that doesn’t matter in the face of what the rest of the book pulls off. Franzen has written an American tragedy, made all the more resonant by the fact that it’s a tragedy we recognize, one that most of us know firsthand. Going home for the holidays has never seemed so sinister or profound.

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times.


ISBN: 9780312421274

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Dan Chaon for Among the Missing
  • Jennifer Egan for Look at Me
  • Louise Erdrich for The Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse
  • Susan Straight for Highwire Moon

Fiction Judges that Year:

Colin Harrison, Bill Henderson, Angela Davis-Gardner, Mary Morris, Susan Richards Shreve

The Year in Literature:

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • V. S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

In addition to The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has published two other novels: The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992). He has also published a collection of essays, How to be Alone (2002), and a memoir, The Discomfort Zone (2006). In June of 2009, Franzen published an extract titled 'Good Neighbors' from his work-in-progress fourth novel, Freedom, in The New Yorker.

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