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A love of characters
By Steven Martinovich
These days Jonathan Franzen may be better known as the man who spurned Oprah Winfrey then one of America's most promising novelists. Although he's been compared to Thomas DeLillo, it was his recent dustup with Winfrey that made headlines both in and out of the publishing world. That's unfortunate because Franzen is an immensely talented novelist as his most recent effort, The Corrections, proves.
The publishing event of the fall, The Corrections tells the story of Alfred and Enid Lambert in the midwestern community of St. Jude. A retired engineer, Alfred is slowly deteriorating thanks to Parkinson's Disease. Enid takes pride in maintaining the life of an upper-middle class housewife who unfailing has her husband's dinner on the table every evening as she has done every evening for the past 35 years. Revolving around them at a distance are their three dysfunctional children: former professor Chip, banker Gary and recently fired chef Denise, all of whom left for the East.
Throughout the novel, Enid's main preoccupation is to have the entire family back home for what she terms "one last Christmas together," until it becomes an almost manic obsession. The three grownup children, mired in their own personal problems, are reluctant to return for a number of reasons. To flesh out the story, Franzen gives each of the three children their own subplots and wraps them around the thread of a promising new drug which would seem to cure every malady the family suffers, from Alfred's Parkinson's Disease to Gary's alleged depression.
Decidedly unfriendly to traditional family values, The Corrections is nonetheless a compelling if uncomfortable look at the politics that many families keep behind the closed doors of their perfect homes. Where it fails is its indictment of modern life. Each of the three children has chosen a lifestyle that their parents would be disapproving of if they knew the full extent of their activities. Chip, on track to become a tenured professor, destroys his career thanks to a dalliance with a student. Denise, who had mostly ever had intimate relations with older men, launches into a relationship with another woman. Gary, who is economically the most successful of the entire family, may be the worst off as he fights a losing battle with his wife for the control of his family and life.
Franzen uses Enid, a character that could charitably described as a light-minded woman preoccupied with status throughout most of the novel, as his balm for the children's problems. Her psychological battle to bring her children home to celebrate a traditional family holiday is one of the "corrections" that Franzen utilizes to heal the family until the very ending when it becomes Alfred's death that gives release to her.
Where Franzen fails, unfortunately, is Enid herself. In recent interviews Franzen has identified that he believes Enid to be the hero (or at least the most sympathetic character) of the story, but he leaves her transformation to essentially the last pages of the novel. Seemingly reborn with the death of Alfred in a nursing home after he starves himself to death, Enid ends the novel with a declaration that, at 75 years of age, she is a new woman who "was going to make some changes in her life." While Chip seems to make some semblance of fixing his battered life, Gary and Denise mostly end the novel as they began it.
Despite its weak -- and in my mind unfinished - ending, minor flaws related to plot and a callous portrayal of Alfred that leaves little to the reader to investigate, The Corrections nonetheless is a riveting entry in the field of social novels. Although the major characters are largely unsympathetic people responsible for their own problems, Franzen manages to imbue each of them with life and its clear that he loves them despite their flaws. The interaction between the characters, especially at the long awaited Christmas reunion, strikes the ear as dialogue one would expect to hear between family members who love each other but nonetheless share little of their lives with each other.
Injecting occasional humour, notably a cruise Alfred and Enid take, to keep The Corrections from being an overwhelmingly negative experience, Franzen has managed to produce an example of what the American novel used to be about: good story telling combined with a point or two to make. You may disagree with what Franzen is arguing, as I certainly did, but you would be hard-pressed to find another recent example of a novel that confidently makes its points.
Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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