Classic book review: The Corrections

In this dark comedy of family life, everybody wants to be somebody else, somewhere else.

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Sept. 13, 2001.] The Corrections represents a giant leap for Jonathan Franzen - not only beyond his previous two novels, but beyond just about anybody else's.

This omnivorous comedy about a midwestern family dealing with chronic dysfunctions radiates the kind of dark insight that the priests of serious fiction worship. (Last week, The New York Times ran three adoring features about the book, and The New Yorker published an essay by Franzen about his father's illness – the inspiration for this story. If you haven't already heard how great the novel is, you're hopelessly out of the loop.)

Under this torrent of hype, I tried to dislike "The Corrections," but it's no use. The book is wildly brilliant, funny, and wise, a rich feast of cultural analysis. Though it runs to almost 600 pages, I'm stunned by how much Franzen manages to cover and how compelling the story remains throughout.

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The Lamberts are a Norman Rockwell portrait in acidic hues. The retired patriarch, Alfred, spent his life working honorably and stoically for the Midland Pacific railroad, but in the 21st century his values retain the currency of those powerful trains now sold for scrap or sitting in transportation museums. The parts of his mind not already ravaged by the new, consumer culture are wasted by Parkinson's disease, described here with great empathy and sometimes gruesome accuracy.

As his grip on the family falters, his wife, Enid, begins to exert more power through her traditional avenues of control: food, holiday guilt, and tyrannical optimism. Her current campaign is to hold one last Christmas all together at their house.

It's a request not well received by her three adult children. Gary, the perfect son, is locked in a wicked and wickedly funny battle with his wife, a monster of self-actualization. Denise, the only daughter, is in the process of losing her spouse, her restaurant, her boyfriend, her lover (the boyfriend's wife), and her self-respect. And finally, Chip, the radical son, is trying to rebound from his dismissal for sexual harassment by writing a screenplay of "turgid academic theorizing" called "The Academy Purple." (Never to open in a theater near you.)

All these children have escaped to the East Coast, and they react to Enid's invitation to return to the Midwest with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Franzen has a perfect ear for the cadence of selfish children and their carping parents, the taut, unspoken resentment between generations.

Through weeks of negotiation that display the desperate selfishness of their marriage, Gary cannot persuade his wife to endure the madness that is his mother at Christmastime – her giddy excitement about the advent calendar, the Winterland light show, and salads involving canned fruit. "Although Enid generally fell far short in her Christian beliefs," Franzen writes, "she was devout about her ornaments."

Denise, still desperate to be the good daughter, is willing to make the sacrifice and attend, with all the bland cheer that her acquiescence implies.

Chip, meanwhile, states flatly that he couldn't survive the holiday with his family and immediately escapes to Lithuania. Civil war in the former Soviet republic looks more restful to him than confronting the Hummel figurines on Enid's mantel.

What all these adult children dread most about Christmas with their mother is her vision of the perfect holiday. It's an image so gaudily gilded with fantasies about what once was that they can't endure it. They love one another with a dull ache that never manages to be as articulate as their petty disapproval of each other. Franzen's powers of description are exhaustive but unfailingly witty. His vision is at once enormous and minute, scanning the whole world but still attending with remarkable sympathy to the challenges of this one family.

Tracing the sale and dismemberment of Alfred's employer by a pair of opportunistic raiders, the story arrives at the Axon Corporation. Trains were the neural network of the old century, but reincarnated, Axon now has much bigger plans. It hopes to market a medical procedure called "Corecktall," capable of rewiring people's brains. In a wonderful send-up of biotech hype, Wall Street hucksterism, and pharmaceutical hubris, Franzen weaves the private tragedies of the Lambert family through a culture gassed up on the American promise of self-invention.

Despite its hooting comedy, "The Corrections" is ultimately the tragedy of people who believe that their minds, their very thoughts, are essentially chemical. Franzen diagnoses the empty horror of this notion with searing precision. The coroner here is brilliant, but frankly some readers may not have the stomach for his 12-hour autopsy on the American family.

Bristling with energy and erudition and comic observation, "The Corrections" would careen into chilly satire if it didn't love these characters despite their maddening flaws. With such clarity, Franzen manages to both inflame and dampen the despair of modern life.

Ron Charles is a former Monitor book editor.

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