If I were allowed to submit a one-word review for Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections it would read “Wow!” But I have a feeling that my editor would like a few more words than that, so here goes. I’m sure book lovers have already heard about The Corrections, it's on Oprah’s list, it’s off, it’s on, there’s no book club dinner,
Franzen questions the validity of an “Oprah’s seal of approval” on his book covers, etc. etc. Once you’ve read The Corrections, you'll realize how funny that kerfuffle was, you see the characters in the book specialize in miscommunication and misinterpretation. The subtitle for The Corrections could easily have been “Denial ain’t just a River in Egypt.”
The story is essentially a year in the life of the Lambert family: Enid, Alfred, and their grown children Gary, Chip, and Denise. The live in the Midwest, in the city of St. Jude
-- that’s right, the patron saint of lost causes. The family seems normal, almost bland. Alfred was an engineer, Chip was a professor, Denise was a chef. Did you notice I said “was”? Each one has slipped the bonds of their career, some not by choice.
Alfred quits his job just in time to cut his pension in half and miss out on a huge stock option,
thus ending Enid’s lifelong dream of a comfortable and wealthy retirement. Their
son Chip is up for tenure at a prominent college but has an affair with a student and is found out. His defense has a Clintonesque ring to it: “I never had sex with that woman.” He is fired. Denise is a chef; she leaves her husband and their successful restaurant to pursue an affair, the affair ends, a rich patron sends her to Europe on a culinary tour. He is building a restaurant for her, he fancies her, but so does his wife. She is fired. And then there’s Gary, the eldest son, who is a manager’s manager at CenTrust. He doesn’t lose his job but he fears he’s losing his mind. His wife, Carolyn, insists he is clinically depressed and badgers him to admit it. Carolyn is the kind of character you would love to throttle, or at least see her go one on one with Dr. Phil McGraw (last Oprah reference, I promise).
In the midst of all this turmoil and stress, Enid copes with Alfred’s Parkinsons Disease by refusing to recognize that anything is wrong. She develops a system of guerilla tactics that would make the FBI and CIA blush. Enid keeps the household running smoothly, as smoothly as possible considering Alfred lives in the basement in his blue chair and has started saving his urine in tin cans. Enid convinces herself that if only the family could come together for Christmas all would be right in the Lambert world.
Ah, there’s the rub: no one in the Lambert family wants to spend time with their parents or with each other. For example, Chip spontaneously goes to Lithuania rather
than return to his apartment where his mother, father and Denise are waiting. He has chosen to escape to a country on the brink of civil and political disaster to be a partner in an illegal business setup to swindle millions from U.S. investors. I kid you not, each of the Lamberts make choices that they believe are logical and rational based on the emotional predicament they are in at the moment.
These characters sound so sad and pathetic, who would want to read about them? Franzen has a gift at turning emotionally horrid situations into laughable moments. I don’t normally like to hear the word genius unless someone is talking about me, but Franzen is a genius. That’s the only way to describe a writer who can turn 568 pages of family crises into a page turner. I haven’t even begun to describe the many storylines that Franzen
plays out in this book. Here are a few small tidbits: Enid’s drug habit, Denise’s sexuality, Gary’s gardening accident (note to self: combining alcohol, a ladder, and hedge-trimming does not a smart decision make), Alfred’s shipboard wrestling match with a talking turd, Chip’s encounter with balaclava-wearing “police” in Lithuania. But wait there’s more: blackmail, falling off a cruise ship, an execution, insider trading and the wonder drug Corecktall. Did I mention the hilarious scene of how to steal $78 worth of salmon from a chi-chi food boutique? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The beauty of it is that Franzen manages to make sense of it all by giving us wonderful insight into his characters. We can understand why the Lamberts do what they do; we begin to see the logic in their actions. It is beautifully written with so many “Oh no!” moments that I loved this book. However, a word of caution, do not read this book at bedtime. After three consecutive sleepless nights I finished the book at 4:34 a.m. and I’m still recovering. I rate this book 5 out of 5. I’d give it a 6 if it were mathematically possible. Did I mention that I love this book? The Corrections message is simple: life is like being trapped on a runaway train, but hang on tight people, it’s a beautiful trip.
© 2002 by
Laura Merrill Miller for Curled Up With a Good Book