LIKE HIS FIRST TWO NOVELS, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992), Jonathan Franzen’s long-awaited third is a feast. The Corrections follows the tribulations of the Lambert family from the stolid midwestern city of St. Jude. The grown children have long since fled to the hipper east coast, leaving Enid to tend Alfred, whose health, like their relationship, is declining precipitously. Enid’s dream is to have one last perfect Christmas together as a family–after she and Alfred take their dream cruise.
The action of the novel opens with a stop in Manhattan to see Chip, their middle child, an ex-prof dropped by his college after a humiliating affair with a student. Chip is that wonder of American education, the lifelong, too-cool grad student whose view of the world comes from the French post-structuralists. Banished from the academy, he’s pinned his hopes to a screenplay which is nothing more than a thinly veiled rewrite of his own downfall. He’s an unmitigated failure, dead broke, yet retains–through a mix of denial and pride–a desperate, last-ditch optimism. As his parents arrive, his girlfriend is in the process of leaving him, delivering the long-suppressed news that his screenplay, just sent to his producer (her boss), is flat-out bad. Chip understands that she’s right and heads out into the city to rescue the screenplay before it’s too late, frantically coming up with corrections that will save it.
Enid and Alfred are left in Chip’s apartment with Denise, the baby of the family, a successful chef, but divorced, a state Enid can’t bear. There’s the unsavory (and unsubstantiated) allegation that Denise may be involved with a married man. Enid can’t stand the way she dresses, and Denise sides with Alfred in all their squabbles. Unbeknownst to them, Denise is also lending Chip money.
The oldest, Gary, is an even bigger success, a vice-president of a bank with a house in the Philadelphia suburbs and a beautiful wife and three children, but the wife can’t stomach Enid or St. Jude. Her refusal to visit at Christmas sparks a war in the household, one that Gary is bound to lose. Gary is a full-blown materialist who sees Chip as irresponsible, and sides with Enid against Alfred.
Soon Enid and Alfred are at sea, and Alfred quickly drops into dementia. Chip follows his ex-girlfriend’s ex-husband to Lithuania to start a fraudulent dot.com. Denise opens a trendy restaurant and falls in love with her boss and then really in love with her boss’ wife. A patent Alfred holds seems to be at the heart of a psychotropic drug called Corecktall, which might stop Alfred’s deterioration, and whose company’s IPO might line Gary’s pockets.
Despite all these plots, the true driving force of the book is that simplest, most intricate of engines, the unhappy family. Deep down, these are insecure people, often miserable (somtimes buoyed, it must be said, only by the author’s virtuosity and humor), and much of the drama springs from what they feel they need to hide from one another. Some of the biggest laughs (and cringes) come when these secrets are revealed through worst-case confrontations and loopy coincidences. Franzen’s back-and-forth dialogue between family members is excellent, comfortable chat suddenly turning sharp and barbed. The line between anxiety and shame is always razor thin.
As the Lamberts go their own ways (and they will, if only to escape each other), Franzen casts a wide net, pulling in the principles of metallurgy, a talking turd, quotes from Schopenhauer, railroading, the rivalry between Sweden and Norway, the chronicles of Narnia, Mission of Burma–a whole goofy stew. But as in any great satire of attitudes, the frozen component parts don’t convey the power of the living whole. Franzen is a wizard, endlessly inventive in his language and scene-setting. He can run riffs on Lacan or the post Cold War instability of the Baltic states, yet isn’t above the pleasures of slapstick and low jokes (the names of some supporting characters are Pynchonesque bonbons: Fenton Creel, Dean Driblett, Eden Procuro). The Corrections is a wide-open performance showcasing the full range of his skills and his eclectic intelligence.
Due to the book’s preoccupations with larger systems, comparisons with DeLillo’s White Noise are unavoidable, and perhaps with Gaddis’ work, or, on the domestic side, Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, but ultimately The Corrections, with its emphasis on sibling rivalry, the break between generations, and the clash between pious midwestern respectability and the slippery mores of this new and alien America, recalls no novel so much as The Wapshot Scandal. The Corrections is just as funny and sad and smart as that masterpiece, as Franzen, like Cheever, reminds us of the timelessness of human folly.