A Review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

 The style is edged in irony as one might expect with such a subject but there are few quotable passages. Franzen is more concerned with the production of a seamless narrative. Although there are no solecisms, a few sentences are clumsy enough to require re-reading.
Reviewed by Bob Williams

Jonathan Franzen
The Corrections
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
568 pages

“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

And that certainly explains why so many novels feature the dysfunctional family. The dysfunctional Lamberts consist of parents Alfred and Enid and the three children Gary, Chip and Denise. Alfred and Enid live in Iowa but the children are all on the East Coast. Once we get a good look at the parents, we can understand why they live no nearer. Alfred is on the slippery slope of senile dementia and Enid is a silly woman who nags and torments her children at every opportunity.

Chip meets his parents in New York. They are about to embark on a pleasure cruise. He takes them to his apartment in time to meet his
girl friend. She is just leaving as in “I’m leaving for good.” Chip’s concern over this is greater than his concern for his parents. He leaves them to his sister and pursues the departing girl friend. His adventures will take him to Lithuania in the company of a dishonest former diplomat and together they will use the Internet to swindle American investors.

Denise is a lesbian and has left behind her a number of maladroit sexual encounters. She is also a dedicated chef and receives an important job from a man whose lover she will become for one night after the end of her love affair with his wife.

Gary is married to Caroline and completely dominated by her. All disagreements between them break down into a withdrawal of warmth and a refusal to discuss their problem. They batter at each other in a cold rage. Gary gets the worst of it since Caroline has allies in two of their three sons.

Enid is insistent that her children spend Christmas with them in St. Jude. It is, of course, impossible that such a visit should be anything other than pure hell but Gary and Denise are willing. Caroline hates Enid and is not willing. Chip, already established as self-centered and self-indulgent, is unlikely to leave Lithuania for such a purpose.

But the reunion takes place. Gary comes by himself. Denise is there but reduced to the edge of insanity by Enid and by the obvious failure of
Alfred. Chip, driven out of Lithuania by a civil war, arrives last of all. Alfred collapses so spectacularly that even Enid recognizes that
drastic steps are necessary.

A number of subsidiary plots and other devices are involved. The brother of one character (Robin, Denise’s lover) is a psychopath and another character on board the same cruise as Enid had a daughter murdered by a psychopath. The term “corrections” first appears as a stock market term for the adjustment of a market in which the values are inflated. It then becomes a subtly urged term for the minor but important adjustments that the characters make in their lives. There are other motifs that tie the
book together. Many of the characters are familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia and Aslan, the hero of this series, turns out to be the name of a personality-altering drug, illegal in the United States but available from a funny and sinister Dr. Feelgood aboard Enid and Alfred’s cruise ship.

The style is edged in irony as one might expect with such a subject but there are few quotable passages. Franzen is more concerned with the
production of a seamless narrative. Although there are no solecisms, a few sentences are clumsy enough to require rereading.

A writer may take his characters wherever he pleases and make whatever conclusion suits his needs but a reader may have other ideas. In the
conclusion the rigid Gary walks off from his father’s collapse to return home. Chip takes his father into his care, sees to his hospitalization
and visits him. The transformation of the heartless Chip into a tender, loving person stretches the reader’s credulity. That the confused Denise fades from the picture is acceptable but the change in Enid’s personality after the death of Alfred is not. Enid shows suddenly an intelligence and insight that we are not prepared for. Still, these are conventions of the (comparatively) happy ending that many readers will find acceptable. Such an ending may be seen as no more than the final authorial flourish to indicate that the book is finished. But, as the finish to a book that has been relentlessly honest, it will strike many readers as peculiar.

This National Book Award winner will be widely read and deserves this but rereadership, the proof of the value of any book, will be small.

For more information about The Corrections, or to purchase a copy, visit Corrections

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: