I often feel that I’m on an island when describing literature that interests me. I am less inclined to choose plot or character driven narratives and more inclined to choose narratives that stretch the limits of language. Great plots and compelling characters can be easily enjoyed cinematically, but a great book can only be enjoyed through the descriptive process provided through the written word. With that said, Jonathan Frazen’s novel, The Corrections, was unlike my usual taste in that it was very character driven novel that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish. Franzen does display some narrative prowess with long descriptive images that illuminate the importance of objects and place, and he also adeptly transitions back and forth through time and character perspective to provide a complete background to his narrative, but where The Corrections is strongest is in the development of character.
The Corrections is a big book, a multi-generational story that follows the theme of the fuzzy canon of “the great American novel,” depicting the dynamics and consequences of individual choices upon family relationships. This is the story of the Lamberts, a family of flaws and dysfunction peppered with character defects, shame, and judgement. What makes this good reading is that these dysfunctions are entirely believable and amusing because there is something about each of the Lamberts that is recognizable in a friend or family member, or even yourself.
The Lambert parents, Alfred and Enid, are mid-western to the core. The partriarch, Alfred, is a retired engineer from the train industry. Although he was once a hard working authoritarian father he has resigned himself to napping into oblivion as Parkinson’s and dementia claim authority over his body and mind. Enid is a neurotic and judgmental mother who has been under-appreciated by her husband and children and therefore she retreats into hopes that vacation cruises and Christmas gatherings with her estranged children will give meaning to the daily struggles she must endure. The novel begins and ends with Alfred and Enid as the centerpieces and the main element of a central “plot” is Enid’s goal to have the family together for one last Christmas before Alfred’s dementia completely takes over his ability to participate in the family dynamic.
The drive for one last Christmas may be the central “plot,” but there is plenty of side action and back story that make this novel much more than another family Christmas story. Alfred and Enid’s three children have long retreated from their mid-western hometown of St. Jude to Philadelphia and New York and we learn that from the distance of place the children send home a facade of success that camouflages each child’s inner failings. The eldest, Gary is an investment banker and is the only Lambert child married with three children of his own. From appearances Gary is the most successful, yet he is the most troubled of the three Lambert siblings, burdened by depression he feels disconnected from his passive-aggressive wife and his technologically savvy children. Chip, the middle Lambert was once a college professor, fired for having an affair with one of his students, he is demoted to an unsuccessful career of free-lance writing as he attempts to re-write a screenplay while living off of loans from his successful sister, Denise. The youngest Lambert, Denise, is a renowned chef with a troubled sexual life, struggling to accept her choices as she lives a lie while having a long lasting affair with her boss’s wife. The sections of the book that focus on Chip provide the greatest amusement, as he steals a salmon by sliding it in his pants and takes the tips from a dive bar in order to get by, whereas Denise’s story provides the greatest insight displayed in her maturity and acceptance of her weaknesses and misgivings. Gary’s story is by far the hardest to get through, as the reader is lead down a dark voyage through the depths of Gary’s depression and ultimate surrender to his wife’s lack of compassion.
From a glance, these characters are unlikable and ugly people. Where this novel succeeds is that Franzen has painted the tragic with hues of humor and absurdity that depict the truth that drives each character’s motivations. The title’s namesake, the “correction” is a reference to the path of redemption that each character finds for him/herself. The path to redemption is not easy and Franzen is successful in writing a black comedy that avoids ending with a rosy-colored happy ending. Through the corrections each character accepts we are presented with a suitable ending that fits everything into place in a believable and appropriate manner. As I said above, this was an enjoyable novel that I enjoyed from start to finish. I was compelled by each of the characters with the desire to know their story and motivation and because of this the 566 page book was a quick read, and one that I’d recommend to readers of all types.