"After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson's disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and heart down the drain of an affair with a married man - or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home."--BOOK JACKET.
Every once in a while I did think there were flashes of brilliance (which is why it gets more than half a star). Such as how in Part One, Enid and Alfred, an elderly Midwestern couple, are characterized through their possessions. Or in Part Two how their son Chip translates the subtext of his mother's quizzing of his girlfriend.
However, not even the satiric tones could make Chip's self-absorbed academic mental masturbation bearable--maybe Franzen did that too well--I had flashbacks to the worst of my politically correct college professors. Franzen's depiction of Yuppiehood in New York City wasn't any more appealing. (And I say that as a proud native New Yorker who usually loves to see my city depicted.) I lasted till the end of the second part at page 134 because I wanted to give such a raved-about book a fair shot. By then I knew there was no way I was going to last all the way to the end at page 566 without taking it out on some innocent bystander.
This book is fascinating. It's much more character driven than plot driven, but there's still plenty going on. Franzen divides his novel about a family of five, the Lamberts, into long sections about each family member. I was disappointed to see each part end, but quickly drawn into each new section. I didn't like all of the characters, but I felt like I genuinely understood and even related to them all. They're brilliantly presented.
Franzen's writing is fantastic too. He has some fantastic "turns of phrase" but it never feels gimmicky or heavy handed. He seamlessly moves between present time and some prior experience for the character on whom he's focusing. In different sections, Franzen makes the reader feel the chaos of a house with three boys, the quiet desperation of of being entangled in an adulterous affair, the terror of descending into mental illness, and the suffocating nature of returning to your childhood home as an adult.
I need some time to recover before I read it again, but I definitely will. This one is a keeper.
Mom and Dad are pushing 80 years old; Dad is retired, depressed and battling his illness, Mom is willfully naive about the ways of her adult children. Oldest son Gary is married to a manipulative equally controlling woman and they have three manipulative kids, living in a wealthier suburb of Philadelphia. Younger son Chip was a college professor until being fired for inappropriate sexual contact with a student; now he does odd proofreading jobs, lives in New York City and dates a woman married to a Lithuanian government official-cum-gangster. Youngest child, daughter Denise, is a divorced chef garnering rave reviews for the new Philadelphia restaurant she was hired to run. Mom wants one last old fashioned family Christmas back at the family home in St. Jude, a fictional version of St. Paul.
The novel weaves back and forth in time telling the Lambert family's story, why they are the way they are and how they got here. Several scenes are painfully funny, others are incredibly sad and in this way, the book reminds me very much of some of John Irving's family tales. The characters are unforgettable, though they are all on the meaner side of personality charts, even though they don't realize it. Several of Jonathan Franzen's observations were so spot on that they replicated exact statements my own parents made during my childhood.
I highly recommend this for those adults coming to realize how similar they are to their parents and anyone seeking a hysterical portrait of an American family.
The story revolves around the assorted histories of the five members of the Lambert family. Alfred, the Parkinson's-riddled patriarch, and Enid, his long-suffering wife, live in the midwest while their three grown children make lives for themselves in the Northeast. Gary, a Philadelphia banker, refuses to admit to the depression from which he clearly suffers; Chip has lost his cushy academic job and is struggling to make ends meet as a failing screenwriter; and Denise is a chef whose voracious sexual appetite threatens her livelihood.
During the course of the novel, all five characters make disastrous choices based on what they think is the change, or correction, they feel their lives need. Though the plots are often dangerously close to spiraling out of control amidst all this impending doom -- Chip's story, especially, feels almost too ridiculous to be believable -- Franzen handles them all carefully and draws the reader by developing his characters extremely deeply. It is the strong characterization of the five Lamberts that lets him get away with the extremely lengthy digressions and backstories he employs en route to his ultimate resolution.
The flip side, as I've already mentioned, is that as enthralling as the novel is, it becomes increasingly morose by increasingly severe turns. Gary's breakdown, for instance, is rather easily portended though still touching, but Denise's downfall is so unexpectedly rapid and complete that it's astonishing. In a genius move, though, Franzen distracts our attention away from Alfred's deterioration just enough to make his own fall just as tragic as all the others -- the final scene of the penultimate chapter, as Chip and Alfred share perhaps their first genuine father-son moment, is written with such urgency and grace that even the most hardened of hearts will wilt at what transpires.
Filled with asides and commentaries on various contemporary topics, The Corrections strives to be a diary of the modern American family, and it succeeds with flying colors. The novel is a strong, assured portrait, but one that tells a dark and at times sinister tale that will affect you deeply. Approach with both curiosity and caution, but know that both will be handsomely rewarded.
It's a good idea and a very good essay, but I can't help but think that Franzen fails to take a lot of his own advice. He's a good writer and a born storyteller, but he can't seem to resist the temptation to drape his ideas on subject matter that seems, ten years after the book's publication, a bit obvious. The older Lamberts are solid, old-fashioned red state types, but their kids moved east and became blue state caricatures. One of them lives comfortably in the suburbs, one has affairs that she can't tell her mother about, and one of them is even a lonely, befuddled college professor at a fancy university. Since I'm a blue state type (Massachusetts, two degrees, registered democrat, NPR listener), I should identify with these people, but, in the book's least impressive moments, they still come off as strawmen. The professor's writing a screenplay, of course, and gets mixed up with some unscrupulous global capitalists, the daughter gets involved with a couple who are rolling in oceans of dumb New Economy money, and you can just imagine the rest. "The Corrections" sometimes threatens to become a literature version of "Law and Order: SVU," where all the stories are pulled from the headlines or, heaven forfend, bullshit Newsweek trend pieces.
Worse, Franzen sometimes succumbs to a tendency to overwrite. While it's difficult to imbue ordinary scenes with real meaning, he sometimes chooses to force the issue by piling on the verbiage. At various points throughout the book he risks losing both his readers and the objects he's trying to describe in thick brambles of very fancy, but ultimately unnecessary, description and well-wrought, but ultimately oppressive, meditation on the book's already well-articulated themes. Since the book's themes are already too close to the surface, Franzen's decision to bring his subtext forward robs the novel of some much-needed breathing space. This guy's got to start reading his own press releases.
All this would make "The Corrections" easy to dismiss if it wasn't for the fact that large sections of this novel are really very good. Franzen's great with the small stuff, like the telling detail or the hard-to-spot class difference, and he's able to skilfully integrate these little bits into long, satisfying Rothian rips of pure, pleasurable storytelling. His description of the rise and fall of Denise Lambert's big-time culinary career an is riveting stuff, and his descriptions of her doomed romantic entanglements just crackle with straight-out sensual energy. In a word, they're hot. This section of the book, contained in a chapter called "The Generator," flows easily and organically, but it's too bad that it's contained within a larger work that often seems overly labored and too carefully arranged. "The Corrections" is a good novell; it's just not the novel that Jonathan Franzen told me he wanted to write. Maybe he'll do that his next time out.
The wrong turns really started coming when we spend some time inside Alfred's head, though. I guess I understand the desire to do a vivid immersion there, as his thoughts are ravaged by disease, but I just wanted out. And aside from short switchbacks, the book just continued down the wrong road for me from there. Gary's marriage was indescribably grueling to read about, Denise was so schizophrenic in her dealings with other people that it was hard to care, and Enid was completely flat. Chip at least got slightly more interesting after he went to Lithuania to engage in some shady business dealings. I enjoyed some of the writing quite a bit, so I tried to like the book, but I just couldn't.
Recommended for: professors who sleep with their students, people who aren't squeamish about bodily functions, people who hate their boring, midwestern parents, anyone who believes hell is other people.
Quote: "He felt as if he lacked the ability to lose all volition and connection with reality the way depressed people did in books and movies. It seemed to him, as he silenced the TV and hurried into his kitchen, that he was failing even at the miserable task of falling properly apart."
Such idle controversy is only reason I came to be reading either book, actually: to see what all the hoo-haa was about. But where The Satanic Verses levelly and thoroughly stunk for a whole raft of reasons quite unrelated to Ayatollah Khomenei's Fatwa, Franzen's effort is one of the most remerkable reads I've ever had.
For one thing, in the the well established post-modern fashion, it's witty, solemn, tragic, ironic, brutal and hysterical, and in each case extremely so, and often the mood will switch quite jarringly. Franzen's depiction of ailing, failing patriarch Al Lambert is geniunely funny (he comes off more than a little like George Costanza's father), thoroughly tragic and, because of both aspects, shudderingly recognisable. Franzen's characterisation works so well because he recongises that the same person - the same characteristics, even, can be funny and tragic at the same time, depending on your perspective. And Franzen deliberately swtiches perspective throughout the book, to make this very point.
The book is also gripping: I'm no great fan of "longer fiction" -having a typical male attention span, I tend to lose interest in a novel after about 400 pages unless it has pictures, but experienced no such difficulties here. Indeed, I usually read at night to help me get to sleep, but The Corrections was keeping me so awake that I had to ditch it for something a little more somniferous.
It's not comfortable reading; because the characterisation is so plausible you find yourself applying the scenarios to your own life, which is (well, in my case) sobering.
Nitpicks - while the characterisation was spot on, some of the plot lines were a little contrived; I didn't buy Chip's Lithuanian foray, and I couldn't help thinking Franzen let his male fantasist off the leash a little in devising some of the other subplots.
But this is piffling stuff: overall, this is a five-starrer, no question about it.
But all the hype aside, this book is excellent. It is moving, it is real, and it is extraordinarily well written. It follows the disintegration of a typical mid-Western American family as they end up spread out through the US and the world. The characters are all flawed, yet also realistic and sympathetic; they are perfect in their humanity. We hate them all and love them all, we feel sorry for them, and angry at them, we understand their choices, or we understand their stupidity. This is an unflinching, unsentimental, yet real and loving portrait of modern suburban America. Franzen manages to decry many aspects of society without (as some critics charge he does) belittling or attacking it. He understands the situation in which society has found itself and he sees that there are problems, but he grasps that these are real people making honest mistakes. The right wing likes to attack this type of novel (there is a highly amusing call for a boycott of the movie version of the book on the imdb site) for their supposed slander of the great state of America, and dismiss the authors as out of touch effete liberal New Yorkers. But as effete a New Yorker as Franzen may or may not be, he is not out of touch. This is not, in my view, a condemnation of the culture, but merely a wonderfully rendered portrait of it. Perhaps those who view it as an attack are those who really hate America because they hate what they see in these books, but what they see is sometimes a reflection of the truth. Often fiction tells the truth better than anything. This book is incisive, witty, poignant, touching, and downright wonderful. This is an excellent portrait of a particular time and a particular family. This is the height of modern American fiction. I’m not sure if he said it, or if it needed to be saved, but perhaps Jonathan Franzen has indeed saved the American novel.
Franzen's minute pitch-perfect vision of daily American life feels like the work of a master noticer (I assume, not being American). His characters feel both painfully real, and like caricatures at the same time. The plot likewise has all the elements of a farce, whilst never feeling too far from a social realist presentation of middle-class America
Points added for the cheap but gratifying attack on mindlessly anti-corporate sentiment in academia. Points subtracted for the lazy characterisation of Lithuania, forgetting that real people live there (and read books) and that it isn't some hilarious dumping ground for post-Cold War stereotypes.
That being said, the problem with this book is that there is not a single likable character. Not one. If I were to look at this as simply a writing exercise with a focus on structure, plotlines, and pacing, then this would be a different review. But I read a book for the story, not for technical expertise. It is hard to spend so much time and effort on a book when there is no one in its pages that you can root for or care about. All of these characters are miserable and as far as I can see, they ought to be. I kept reading, hoping that just one person would have one redeemable characteristic, but it never materialized.
Richard Ford does modern America SO MUCH BETTER.
Recommended books: No specific books, but I find parallels with the writing of Richard Russo and Jonathan Lethem.