Caffeinated Realism

This may be the last review in America to chime in on Jonathan Franzen's gangbusters novel, The Corrections. For anyone who was on cultural leave-of-absence this fall, here's the story: after Franzen's novel was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, he disdained her "logo of corporate ownership" and made other swipes. Oprah—no fool she—rescinded her invitation, but Franzen (who had published his first two novels to decidedly smaller-scale notice) skipped off with the National Book Award, The Corrections ensconced on the bestseller list with more publicity than even Oprah could have garnered.

So after all the to-do, mightn't the last reviewer in America be resistant to the charms of a novel that's been the subject of so many late-night jokes, news bites, editorials? So much gossip and praise? A novel that's made so very much money? I bring the matter up because, in fact, I disliked The Corrections at first and forced myself, a child taking her medicine, to read fifty pages at a time. Then, two-thirds of the way through, I softened and allowed myself to swallow it down whole. I was, finally, as charmed as Oprah herself must have been when she first announced her pick.

Though I don't want to discount any envious teeth-baring on my part, it is certainly true that this is a novel that depends, conceptually, on a broad satirical setup of one middle-American family, the Lamberts (note the "lamb" embedded in their name. One of the novel's major motifs is the lion). The Lamberts are Midwestern and middle-class: retired railroad man, aging homemaker, capitalist elder son, failed academic younger son, lonely celebrity-chef daughter. The younger generation of Lamberts think that they will be able to make corrections, to live more engaged lives than their parents have, but all five Lamberts are sad cases.

Franzen's method of introducing them is hyperrealist: He notices what any moderately sophisticated American might notice what a fellow citizen is eating, wearing, discussing—and then makes a point of knowing more. He torments the reader with every last trendy food and clothing detail. At points I felt I'd been cornered at a party by an intelligent, sarcastic observer who could not stop talking and who, furthermore, was so superior to his subjects that he wasn't above making them sound mildly retarded. Here is the matriarch, Enid: "Questions of doctrine had always seemed to her forbiddingly complex, and Reverend Anderson at their church had such a kindly face and often in his sermons told jokes or quoted New Yorker cartoons or secular writers such as John Updike and he never did anything disturbing like telling the congregation that it was damned, which would have been absurd since everyone at the church was so friendly and nice..." For most of the novel, Enid is about that stupid. Franzen is so intensely focused on each character's consciousness that he appears to have climbed into that character's skin. Really, though, his method is more akin to shining a spotlight at his subjects till they—frightened, sleep-deprived—give up their most pathetic secrets. The second son, Chip, who has been fired for stalking a student, has sad sexual habits. Gary, the eldest, is a tight-fisted capitalist with a manipulative wife who's locked in mortal psychological combat with his manipulative mother. Denise, the baby of the family and the most sympathetic character throughout, is a media star whose sexuality is her deepest secret. And the patriarch, Alfred, whose Parkinson's disease has worsened to the point of hallucination, is either his wife's victim or a man incapable of making human connection, depending on whose version you buy.

In waltzing these lives past a reader, Franzen's narrative is deft, often dazzling. He'll embrace one of the Lamberts, then change partners in a swift, graceful move. Though most of the novel is caffeinated realism, Chip's sections—particularly as he becomes involved in a scheme to sell Lithuania as a corporate entity (yes! Lithuania)—read almost as cartoons, with Chip such a bad boy that the most apt comparison might be to Bart Simpson. The novel moves from New York to Philadelphia to Vilnius to the Midwestern family home in Saint Jude (note, again, the name), from the worlds of banking to screenwriting to Internet defrauding, all at breakneck speed and with a compulsive need not to leave anything out. Other satiric traditions depend on brevity for the soul of their wit (think Waugh or Spark), but this is American fiction! The stakes have been raised! Has to top DeLillo, Wallace, Eggers! Must be excessive, like America! Self-indulgent! (The worst indulgence here is a clever and ultimately exploitative execution motif.)

Franzen's coolly amused reportorial stance reminded me first of Tom Wolfe, but the surprising pleasure is his gradual move to warm sympathy for the souls he has been skewering. And the means by which he takes his generous stance is...Christmas. Christmas is the plot device that has fueled the story all along (Enid has been finagling to lure everyone home for the holidays) but in its last third, the novel shifts from a condemnation of contemporary American materialism to the possibility of family (and, by implication, human) forgiveness. The narrative has been dallying with philosophical questions, but now it lingers. An Advent calendar holds a mood pill named after C. S. Lewis's Christ-figure, the lion Aslan; it's a highly ironic image, and hardly an endorsement of religion, but one that acknowledges all our clumsy attempts at transcendence. Chip, the cartoon boy-man, becomes a prodigal son by means which are not, in realistic terms, the least believable but which are, in narrative terms, joyful. I cannot say whether Franzen could have pulled off this miraculous redemption of his story had he not so cruelly set up his Lamberts as crass sinners, but I was sorry it took him so long to acknowledge their capacity for decency, and sorry it took me so long to see the breadth of his vision.

Published in the 2001-12-21 issue: 

Valerie Sayers’s new collection, The Age of Infidelity and Other Stories, was published this year. The author of six novels, she is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at Notre Dame. 

Also by this author
Brooklyn, Bewitched

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads