Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections

In a recent profile, Jonathan Franzen revealed that some portions of The Corrections, his mammoth portrait of suburban-originating family dysfunction, were written in total darkness. That may sound like the kind of eccentricity almost designed to pepper profiles of young authors, but writing in darkness seems appropriate for Franzen. The Corrections is a book about family politics, Foucaultian notions of personal style, haute cuisine, Internet scams, post-Cold War Europe, psychopharmacology, biotechnology, aging, sexual identity, and other topics. Mostly, however, it's a book about repression, and how what's repressed inevitability returns, if not in one generation then the next. Franzen excels at bravura passages spun out of mundane details, and the novel opens with one of its best, the history of a chair purchased and beloved by Alfred Lambert, but disliked by his wife Enid. As decorations come and go in the aging couple's home in the Midwestern city of St. Jude, the chair loses its place of prominence without getting discarded. "It could only be relocated, and so it went into the basement and Alfred followed," Franzen writes. "And so in the house of the Lamberts, as in St. Jude, as in the country as a whole, life came to be lived underground." This sweeping generalization has the ring of truth, and throughout his novel, Franzen explores this notion of secret lives lived beneath public and private existences. Intertwining four stories destined to converge due to Enid's wish for "one last Christmas" together in St. Jude, The Corrections follows the parents and their adult children: Chip, an aspiring screenwriter who left academia following an ugly sex scandal; Gary, a successful financier who seems to be losing ground in his family as he takes the first steps toward alcoholism and depression; and Denise, a sexually adrift chef. With a largely complementary blend of humor, pathos, and a kind of psychological fatalism, Franzen devotes generous detail to the family members' individual paths and the way they shape each other. Occasionally, he's too generous. Aboard a cruise, Enid encounters a doctor with a "face like the face of the Italian-American actor people loved, the one who once starred as an angel and another time as a disco dancer." This moment typifies the novel's shortcomings, offering stunning passages and richly realized characters by chunks and then throwing in cheap shots and distracting awkwardness. Even so, it would be wrong to perceive The Corrections as anything but a major accomplishment, a deep study of a little world. Franzen may write in the dark, but his humane dark comedy of the modern American family glows with illumination.

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