Family affair

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is one of the best new books I’ve read in recent years. And since I’ve removed any dramatic tension from this review by putting the conclusion in the first sentence, I’ll go ahead and say what I liked about the book and put the one thing I didn’t like at the end.

Ahh, that’s better.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a writer actually likes the people he or she is writing about, particularly when the writer is writing about “regular” people. Some, like Charles Bukowski, William Kennedy or Toni Morrison, love (or loved) humanity. Some, like Bret Easton Ellis, John Updike or Tom Wolfe, have a more elitist view and appear to dislike the people they write about. I think Franzen likes his characters, and it’s his love for the infinite shadings and intertwinings of people and family life that energizes this 566-page panorama of 21st-century American society.

On the surface, Franzen’s book examines a Midwestern family, the Lamberts. The family is composed of father Alfred, mother Enid, and the grown children, Denise, Gary and Chip. The family is intricate and believable. Alfred, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, is pitiful, but in this novel, even the pathetic are put against the ropes and pummeled. It is up to the reader to decide whether the fact that the characters remain standing under Franzen’s sardonic onslaught is ennobling or humiliating.

All the main characters have “issues.” Enid is a dreamer, a worrier and a petty grudge holder. Denise is a driven chef who can’t keep a relationship, because she’s a bad judge of character who desires people who are already spoken for. Chip is a failed academic who can neither control his libido nor come to terms with his own hypocrisies. Gary is an alcoholic investment banker who thinks money is more important than people. He’s even looking to make a buck from his father’s disease.

Franzen leaves room for redemption. While the author suggests his characters’ failings come from past situations, it is their responsibility to overcome these historic hurdles and become better human beings. Basically, the task for each family member is to grow up, become an adult, except of course for Alfred, who is going the other direction. They all succeed to varying degrees. In a book where the closest thing to a hero ends up drooling in a nursing home, incremental successes mean a lot.

Some critics have found fault with the way Franzen moves the story along. In simplest terms, the book is about Enid’s struggles to bring the family together for Christmas. I like the plotting, and, judging from my own family’s efforts to get together for the holidays, I find Christmas to be a plausible raison d’être for Enid. The novel is mostly divided into sections that examine the family members’ separate lives, but also included are the family interactions, in which members separate like billiard balls after the break but periodically collide with the world and one another as they seek a new stasis. The structure is easy to comprehend and just as I felt a section might be starting to drag, something apocalyptic happens. For example, in one section, Alfred and Enid are on a cruise, and Alfred falls off the ship.

Just nominated for the National Book Award, this novel is humorous, farcical, poignant and relevant—basically everything I ask for in a book. During those moments when I had to set it down, I looked forward to the time I could pick it back up. Franzen certainly has no trouble creating tension (especially in those times when Denise is figuring out how she’s going to sleep with, or stop sleeping with, whom).

Finally, the only thing I didn’t like about The Corrections had nothing to do with the characters, writing style, story or scope. I just didn’t like the fact that it had to end.