Gifted chronicler of American life, Jonathan Franzen offers a rather quiet plot in The Corrections (FSG, 568 pages), which follows the lives of the Lambert family headed by Enid and Alfred, typical Midwestern parents, whose children have scattered, eager to find their own definitions of happiness. The oldest, Gary, is a money manager, an asshole son, whose inner workings are described with surprising compassion; the middle son, Chip, is a lecherous and pretentious academic who’s just lost his position and his girlfriend and is working on an autobiographical screenplay that betrays a dreadful lack of self-awareness; the youngest, daughter Denise, is a talented chef who keeps throwing herself into undesirable relationships. Will they succeed? Is the aging patriarch going completely mad? And why is Alfred such an unhappy old man? Will Enid get all her children to come home for one last Christmas together?
The novel relates the perspectives of different family members in turn. Chip’s sordid adventures are the first of the three children to be described and the most interesting, to me, because he is the writer character in the book. His observations entertain with ironic self-deprecating humor mixed with self-defeating egoism. Although Chip is an amusing failure in the beginning, it is he who ends up being the helpful child in the end, the unlikely hero, stumbling his way to a more or less happy ending, which, at times, the novel seems set on subverting.
Chip’s story begins as he is waiting at LaGuardia airport in New York for his parents to arrive for a quick lunch before boarding a luxury cruise liner. Regretting slightly his decision to assert his independence by wearing leather pants, Chip is anxious and preoccupied with recent wounds. Franzen relates several layers of complex emotions in this familiar portrayal of the adult-child uncomfortably confronting his past.
He had time for one subversive thought about his parents’ Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bags—either Nordic Pleasurelines sent bags like these to every booker of its cruises as a cynical means of getting inexpensive walk-about publicity or as a practical means of tagging the cruise participants for greater ease of handling at embarkation points or as a benign means of building esprit de corps; or else Enid and Alfred had deliberately saved the bags from some previous Nordic Pleasurelines cruise and, out of a misguided sense of loyalty, had chosen to carry them on their upcoming cruise as well; and in either case Chip was appalled by his parents’ willingness to make themselves vectors of corporate advertising—before he shouldered the bags himself and assumed the burden of seeing LaGuardia Airport and New York City and his life and clothes and body through the disappointed eyes of his parents.
He noticed, as if for the first time, the dirty linoleum, the assassin-like chauffeurs holding up signs with other people’s names on them, the snarl of wires dangling from a hole in the ceiling. He distinctly heard the word “motherfucker.” Outside the big windows on the baggage level, two Bangladeshi men were pushing a disabled cab through rain and angry honking.
Every transplanted New Yorker who has waited, clothed all in black, for parents to deplane at LaGuardia suddenly becomes aware of the third-world appearance of the airport in particular and of New York in general. With “assassin-like chauffeurs,” Franzen finds just the right phrase to describe the seediness and thrilling hazards that give New York its strange charm.
Chip’s story takes a surprising turn early in the novel. After dropping his parents off at his apartment, he decides he needs to dash out to his agent to submit corrections to his screenplay. (The idea of “corrections”–in behavior, in the stock market, in a screenplay–is a subtle thread that runs through the novel, providing ornament more than coherence.) While Denise prepares lunch for Enid and Alfred, Chip is at the agent’s office meeting his ex-girlfriend’s ex-husband, a former Lithuanian diplomat. On a whim, Chip decides to work for Gitannis on a scheme to sell off Lithuanian democracy to private investors, and they are on their way to JFK.
The evils of late Capitalism touch the Lamberts’ lives throughout the narrative, but if Franzen has a political agenda, he downplays it, favoring family drama and interpersonal relationships instead. When the major midwestern railroad company, that had employed Alfred as a high-level manager for decades, is downsized and merged with another corporation, the fallout is mentioned not dwelt upon. Franzen does make the new corporate owners brothers, in an obvious dig at the Koch brothers, but the runaway neoliberalism is not described as outrage so much as just another one of the many disappointments of life. While in Lithuania the privitization of public assetts has left the country without an airline, failing infrastructure and corruption all around, in America, regulations keep things in check.
In his political career, Gitannis had been critical of privatization. When his country began to fall apart, he created a satirical website, claiming to be able to offer Lithuanian government for sale. But investors took him seriously and started sending in cash. Gitannis hires Chip–who as a New York academic is, of course, also a Marxist–to play a role in this scheme. The irony is delightful. Chip lives in Gitanis’ Villa and they are successful for a time, until revolution begins.
After some trouble, Chip gets to the airport hoping to flee before the serious fighting begins, hoping to get home in time for Christmas. When things go completely wrong, Franzen is at his best, describing “tragedy rewritten as a farce” in a wonderfully comic scene. An American Valley Girl is waiting ahead of Chip in the LOT airlines line. Annoyed that her vacation has been ruined and that she has been inconvenienced by the revolution, she
looked out of the window and asked with withering undergraduate disdain: “Excuse me, but why is there a tank in the middle of the runaway.”
A minute later the lights went out and the phones went dead
Franzen ends the scene there, and the reader has to wait several chapters before learning about Chip’s unlikely escape, which reminds one of an episode from Hogan’s Heroes. Chip almost doesn’t make it back to the U.S. for that last Christmas dinner.
In the end, Enid does get the dinner she wanted with her husband and three children, and Alfred gets checked into a hospital, leaving Enid to lead a stress-free life, such as she has not been able to enjoy living with a misogynist and racist husband. Franzen’s descriptions of Alfred’s Schopenhauerian reflections are some of the most interesting, if disturbing, sections of the novel. The reader is almost relieved when he finally succumbs to dementia and dies.
Franzen’s writing is wonderfully clever and his characters are all thoroughly developed, believable and likable, despite their obvious shortcomings. However much I enjoyed Franzen’s narrative wit, I have to say that his overall message is a bit predictable, if not bland. Booklist tells readers that Franzen “aligns the spectacular dysfunctions of one Midwest family with the explosive malfunctions of society-at-large.” Not quite. Instead of “spectacular” and “explosive” would have been more accurate to say, “ordinary” and “run-of-the-mill.” Franzen is not a novelist whose goal is to shake things up. In fact, the novel clearly works hard to present and support liberal Democrat norms and does not fail to preserve the status quo–as represented on Oprah, i.e., We’d all be fine, if it weren’t for those obstructionist Republicans. (The Corrections is an Oprah’s Book Club pick.) Politically Franzen seems most interested in gender and racial equality, and, as mentioned, he singles out Koch brothers types. Fine, but he, like most Oprah Democrats, ignores America’s biggest problems altogether, such as the institutionalized racism of our prison system, and he leaves the likes of Goldman Sachs pretty much alone. Comfortably complacent, Franzen is of a generation who mistakes Obama for another MLK. There is nothing here to raise an eyebrow. He offers nothing courageous, insightful or radical, which he needs to be the truly great chronicler of 21st century America that we look for. He’s got talent, but lacks vision. The next generation of writers will likely be as critical of Franzen as Franzen is of the elder Lamberts, with their own failures of imagination and their own forms of complacency.
–V. N. Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, 2015