(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 23, 2001)
Chip Lambert is walking into his New York City apartment with his Midwestern parents Enid and Alfred, whom he's just picked up at the airport, when his girlfriend, Julia, apologizes for being there and walks out. Distracted by the hair dryer stuffed in her bag, Chip realizes that Julia is ending their relationship. "Just one second," Chip says to his parents as he exits the apartment to try to sort out Julia's intentions and as important, whether or not her boss, or even Julia, has read his script. Sheepishly and with disappointment, Julia critiques Chip's draggy six-page opening monologue and his obsession with women's breasts (which she suspects are hers, worse if they aren't). As he watches Julia leave by taxi, his sister, Denise, embarks from another. As prearranged, she's up from Philadelphia, joining him and their parents for lunch, before Enid and Alfred set out for their cruise. Realizing his mistakes in the script, he urgently wants to get it back to make his corrections. Thus Chip takes advantage of Denise's arrival and begs Denise to entertain Enid and Albert promising to be back as soon as possible.
As events conspire, Chip doesn't get back to his parents before they embark on their Fall Foliage cruise, but in that same "one second" exodus, he ends up employed and on his way to Lithuania to help create a Web site to dupe investors. Actually this is just one more correction as his new boss Gitanas Misevicius explains. He needs to offset the consequences of his government taking advice to privatize the phone and airline business (after Russia's economy flopped) and then having the (American) controlling interests pull out when the world economies collapsed, resulting in liquidated assets and no airlines left in Lithuania.
Enid and Alfred Lambert are in their retirement years, however, these years aren't being spent as Enid would have expected. First Alfred retired a few months short of his full retirement plan and not at the higher salary that he could have earned if he had stayed on and taken a transfer. But to his wife's (and son Gary's) annoyance, Alfred just stopped working one day ahead of schedule with no explanation. And it's not like he's done anything with this time. He basically lives in the basement, sitting/sleeping in his big blue chair, trifling with one of the many household repairs. Alfred is suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease, but Enid thinks that he's just using it as an excuse. She can cite plenty of people with illnesses that still make the most of day to day. Trying to correct this fault in their retirement years, Enid books her and her dementia-burdened husband on the Fall Foliage cruise out of New York City. That's how they happen to be having lunch at Chip's house with no Chip. It's also one more chance for Enid to pursue her mission to invite her three adult children home for one last Christmas in St. Jude.
Denise knows she is stuck. Chip is undependable and Caroline, Gary's wife, refuses to go to St. Jude. Enid's unreasonable fervor over Christmas caused Caroline to make Gary vow that he would never make her and the kids spend another Christmas in St. Jude. That was ten years earlier. Instead, Enid and Alfred fly to Philadelphia and spend the holiday with Gary's family, which apparently isn't any better for Caroline and the three boys. It's not really Enid and Christmas that Caroline detests, its Gary's behavior around Enid. Like any family, every child has a role, complicated by their own version of who they think the other members of the family are and their own view of their self. To hold up whatever role model is in his head, when around his parents, Gary uncharacteristically seems to need to do some last minute corrections to his sons, ticking off his wife. So Denise doesn't believe for a second when Enid says that Gary said he'd go.
But Gary plans to go to St. Jude if for no other reason than to stop the nonsense of his parents continuing to live in their deteriorating home while it loses market value year after year. This time he's not leaving it up for discussion, it's for their own good (or Gary's since he believes he'll be stuck with their financial burden) that they downsize and move to Philadelphia. Gary really should be more worried about his problems at home and some behavior adjustments that Caroline has in mind for him.
We're quite a bit through the novel before we learn about Denise, the youngest sister. At the age of thirty-two, she is a celebrity level, executive chef at a new high end restaurant in Philadelphia. Denise is in the process of a very big correction herself and as a result is adjusting her own perceptions about her parents. Despite her public success, she's certainly not without her own personal fiasco. She's about to out do Chip as family screw up. Speaking of Chip, he's found a refuge in Lithuania and refuses to leave even for (that is, especially for) Christmas in St. Jude.
Enid may be having her usual Christmas fervor, but it could be argued that she simply wants her kids to see what a hard time she is having with Alfred. Alfred doesn't want to show and neither Chip nor Denise really want to acknowledge how sick he is. Gary seems to see, but he's not compassionate, instead he's practical to a bother. And the kids know that Enid can't be trusted completely. She's out for revenge for all the years she endured her husband's inaction (not buying stock on an insider tip or retiring too early) which kept them poorer than their neighbors. In the end, Enid just wants to correct everything that their marriage wasn't. Meanwhile, Alfred is contemplating the best and final way to correct what this disease has done to him. And this is the state that the Lamberts are in as they attempt to share one last Christmas in St. Jude.
I really like this novel. It's nimble with lots of complications and intertwining details. In all its truth about family and marriage, it's really funny. There are so many scenes in this novel that had me chuckling out loud. As we meet each Lambert, its fun to discover how the title gets worked in, surprising how many different meanings that Franzen ekes out, including the obvious reference to the adjustment in the stock market. It seems that every family member is correcting behavior based on another, whether it's to live up to or to disavow or disinherit a trait. Using subversive humor, Franzen captures the entire essence of family life and the differences in the generations.
But not all of the scenes are humorous. The ones with Alfred alone with his dementia, his maundering and his temulous hands are heartbreaking. At one point, he's having a rare lucid moment and decides to try to put together a working string of Christmas lights for the tree. There was a time when all he had to do was solder a string to repair them, but now even a string of light bulbs is too complicated with its interwining wires, its just easier to replace them with a new string. He knows that he himself is broken and that there is no such quick "solder" fix for him either.
Although much of this novel is about family relations, Franzen goes way beyond and hits solidly at our American culture, our value system, dependence on the stock market and our ways that we deal with fear, death or any disease. Like Don Delillo's White Noise, Franzen explores the quick fix. Denise hopes that the new Correctall treatment will cure Alfred of Parkinson's Disease. Enid discovers a non-FDA approved drug called Azlan while on the cruise ship, which lives up to its promise to relieve her of all anxiety of her station in life and the burden of worrying about Alfred's whereabouts. (I love this doctor visit scene!) Moreover, Franzen's portrayal of the U.S. involvement in Lithuania offers up contemplation, especially at a time like now. "Your country which saved us also ruined us," explains Gitanas to Chip, and the eventual anarchy is enough to scare anyone, no matter the farce that Franzen employs for our entertainment.
It took Franzen nine years to write this novel, which explains why all 566 pages are tight. You can pick it up from any point and reread a section and derive even more pleasure than the first read through. Despite the humor, Franzen provides so much realism in the relationships that you'll feel like you know the Lamberts as well as any member of your own family, of course, that's when you're not comparing them to someone you know. There's so much more I'd like to say about this novel, but instead I will let you enjoy it for yourself. The Corrections offers wit in the tradition of the greatest fiction.
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Read an excerpt from The Corrections at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- How to Be Alone : Essays (2002)
- The Discomfort Zone : A Personal History (2006)
- Further Away : Essays (2012)
- The Kraus Project : Essays by Karl Kraus (October 2013)
- Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism by Stephen J. Burn (2009)
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- Wikipedia page on Jonathan Franzen
- The New York Times review of How to Be Alone
- MostlyFiction.com two reviews: Poornima's review of Freedom and Betsey's review of Freedom
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About the Author:
Jonathan Franzen is the author of The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. His fiction and nonfiction appear frequently in The New Yorker and Harper's, and he was named one of the best American novelists under forty by Granta and The New Yorker. He lives in New York City.