The Corrections is the second book of Jonathan Franzen’s I have read, and I enjoyed it immensely. I read it quickly over a few days during summer, and while it may not be some people’s idea of holiday literature, I think had I read it during ‘normal life’ it would have resulted in some very late nights and bleary eyes the next morning.
Some aspects of the story are so innately American it can be hard to pick up the nuances that a US audience may get from aspects of the writing. For instance the novel is set predominantly in a small town in the Midwest, and in Philadelphia and New York. Franzen makes the reader very aware of what the Midwest presents in terms of values and lifestyle, but I suspect that many of the preconceptions of place that an American reader has would contribute in a richer way to how the characters interact and what they are trying to achieve by locating themselves where they have. This didn’t in any way diminish my experience of The Corrections, but it does make me wonder what more I could have discovered. (The Corrections was written and published before the attacks on 9/11 and again I think this distinction would have more meaning for an American audience.)
The Corrections centres on the lives of Lambert family. Alfred is the father, an emotionally distant man whose sense of success and value within society has come from his work as a railroad engineer. As we meet Alfred he is beginning a decline into Parkinson’s following his retirement. His wife Enid is the long-suffering housewife and mother who is maintaining a willful ignorance about his condition and is increasingly frustrated by the difficulties of living with his erratic behaviour. Eldest son Gary is a banker and a mummy’s boy who has married a woman who manipulates and bullies him with the help of the two eldest of their three sons. The middle son Chip is a disgraced university professor who is rudderless and careening from one disaster to the next both professionally and romantically. The youngest sibling is Denise a successful chef who seems to have inherited some of her father’s emotional isolation.
The story is set near the end of the twentieth century and consists of interweaving story lines focusing on each character, moving back and forth between past and present, finally converging on Christmas morning in the parental home.
Thematically the novel deals with a greedy, capitalist society where entertainment and technology are seen as means of subduing the less wealthy in a post industrial economy. It focuses on the breakdown of family values and generational misunderstandings and differences. Like many other modern novels there was also a strong feeling of isolation in each of the character’s lives. The relationships of the children’s generation are shallow, transitory and based on a transfer of power or status. The relationships in the parent’s generation seem to be stagnant, disconnected and filled with the pretense of keeping up appearances.
Franzen as a writer seems to me like a person who might build model railways in his spare room. Every detail is meticulous, every character is carefully placed, every conversation rich with underlying thematic resonance. He does however seem like the god who watches from a distance, and sometimes there is just the touch of coldness in his treatment of his creation. In saying that, it did not detract from what a thought provoking, clever and engrossing commentary on modern western society The Corrections is.