These adjectives were typical of the sort used last year to describe
Jonathan Franzen‘s “The Corrections,“ a book that has long been on my
reading list and proved to be more than well worth the wait. This is the
type of novel one can actually let age a bit past the initial furor of
its release, and then completely savor because it deserves, if not
surpasses, all of its hype.
In this case, it wasn‘t just that Franzen, the New Yorker and Harper‘s
columnist whose previous two novels were “The Twenty-Seventh City“ and
“Strong Motion,“ had acquitted himself as a Dickens for the new
millennium, he was also at the eye of the storm of the biggest literary
broohaha of 2001.
This infamous event was no less than his sardonic and quite public
dissing of the Oprah Book Club, which had named “The Corrections“ as one
of its picks this past fall. When Franzen expressed that he found the
honor a bit dubious, the queen of talk‘s feathers were majorly ruffled
and she withdrew the endorsement, which sent the author backpedaling
somewhat, but resulted in books literally flying off the shelves. The
flap proved to be a boon, and a substantive one at that.
Still, “The Corrections“ is extraordinary because it is not just a slice
of Midwestern life, but a dense, hefty one that is studded with detail
and imagination and rings with truth. A beautifully crafted saga of the
dysfunctional, five-member Lambert family, it travels a vast cultural,
societal, and emotional landscape and doesn‘t miss a step.
Patriarch Alfred is suffering from dementia and complications of
Parkinson‘s Disease and wife Enid is in complete denial, pinning all of
her optimism on one last Christmas with her three children at her home in
St. Jude‘s. The eldest, Gary, is a depressed, money-minded conservative
who both dreads and embraces his role in shaping the rest of his parents‘
lives. Hipster dufus Chip has lost his college professor tenure after
seducing a student. Rising star chef Denise is torn between the affair
with her boss and the one with her boss‘s wife.
Suffice it to say, all of the complications in the siblings‘ lives create
more than a few reasons why they‘re ducking a Christmas visit home,
exemplified by this early passage where Chip weighs out the decision in
his own idiosyncratic way:
“For a moment it seemed to Chip that his father had become a likable old
stranger; but he knew Alfred, underneath, to be a shouter and a punisher.
The last time Chip had visited his parents in St. Jude, four years
earlier, he‘d taken along his then-girlfriend Ruthie, a peroxided young
Marxist from the North of England, who, after committing numberless
offenses against Enid‘s sensibilities (she lit a cigarette indoors,
laughed out loud at Enid‘s favorite watercolors of Buckingham Palaace,
came to dinner without a bra, and failed to take even one bite of the
“salad“ of water chestnuts and green peas and cheddar-cheese cubes in a
thick mayonnaise sauce which Enid made for festive occasions), had
needled and baited Alfred until he pronouncedd that “the blacks“ would be
the ruination of this country, “the blacks“ were incapable of coexisting
with whites, they expected the government to take care of them, they
didn‘t know the meaning of hard work, what they lacked above all was
discipline, it was going to end with slaughter in the streets, with
slaughter in the streets, and he didn‘t give a damn what Ruthie thought
of him, she was a visitor in his house and his country, and she had no
rights to criticize things she didn‘t understand; whereupon Chip, who‘d
already warned Ruthie that his parents were the squarest people in
America, had smiled at her as if to say, You see? Exactly as advertised.
When Ruthie dumped him not three weeks later, she‘d remarked that he was
more like his father than he seemed to realize.“
Franzen‘s tale literally dances across the tightrope it walks - it is
complex, yet minimalistic; heartbreaking, while extremely funny; and
serious, even as it takes aim at the goofiest of our culture‘s
insecurities. Whether it follows the pain of Alfred‘s increasing
dementia and the narrowing of his world, or charting Chip‘s wild
misadventures as he sets up a fraudulent dotcom in Vilinius, Lithuania,
“The Corrections“ was certainly one of 2001‘s shining literary lights,
and one of a scant handful of breakout books to truly deserve the label
“great“ this early in the new century.