Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections

by Jonathan Franzen
published 2001
completed January 2011

I was really hesitant to pick up The Corrections.  Until the controversy over Jonathan Franzen appearing on the cover of Time, I knew nothing about it.  I completely missed the debacle in 2001 over its selection for Oprah's Book Club.  I'm not too surprised since I'm not an Oprah watcher, and I was in the midst of a  grad school vortex.  Sadly, knowing that Jonathan Franzen snubbed Oprah kind of piqued my interest enough for me to pick it up.  I'm so glad that I did.  It was brilliant.

Alfred and Enid Lambert have three adult children--Chip, Gary, and Denise--who have fled their Midwestern home in St. Jude (patron saint of lost causes) and have ventured to the East Coast.  With Alfred deteriorating rapidly from Parkinson's Disease, Enid wants the family to gather for one last Christmas in St. Jude.

I cannot do this book justice.  Every time I sat down to write this I couldn't come up with a coherent thought.  Please forgive me if this becomes a bit rambling.  I started out hating every single character in this book.  We meet them all surrounding the initial talks of gathering for Christmas while the parents are in New York on their way to board a cruise ship.  Each chapter focuses on one of the children and Franzen slowly shares their life experiences that make them who they are at present.  He never tries to justify his characters actions or garner sympathy for them.  He presents facts so that you can understand the characters.

The Lambert Family is about as dysfunction as families get.  It is bad.  On the surface they are congenial, but underneath is festering bitterness, hatred, and blaming.  There are a number of unique uses of the word corrections throughout the novel.  The main reason is that it is set during the stock market boom and ends when the market corrects itself in the late nineties.  Aside from that, it also focuses on the corrections that each character feels they need to make-up for their childhood.  Each child feels scarred in some way by their upbringing, but by the end, they finally come to see their parents and childhood in a better light.

What happens in The Corrections is tragic, but it never feels that way.  Without the humor, The Corrections would have been unbearable.  Chip has a realization towards the end of the book that a script he has been working on should be "tragedy rewritten as a farce."  After this realization
"he bore down with a mental read pencil on his mental reconstruction of these pages, made a little trim here, added emphasis or hyperbole there, and in his mind the scenes became what they'd wanted to be all along: ridiculous." 
I believe Franzen is speaking a little about himself here and his intention to push The Corrections to the point of a farce.  It was a brilliant move.  Toward the end of the book, Chip is trying to make his way to St. Jude for Christmas and is robbed by rogue police in a foreign country that is in upheaval.  During which the following happens.
Chip's sphincter had meanwhile dilated to the degree of unconditional surrender.  It seemed very important to contain himself, however, and so he stood in his socks and underwear and pressed his butt cheeks together as well as he could with his shaking hands.  Pressed and pressed and fought the spasms manually.  He didn't care how ridiculous he looked.
Chip is possibly about to die and not make it back to see his parents for Christmas, but I am laughing out loud because of this ludicrous situation.  Brilliant Mr. Franzen.  Brilliant.

There isn't a lot of plot to The Corrections.  The focus is on the characters.  By the end, I think what I gathered from this is that family really matters.  I could relate to the Lambert children in that used to look back on my childhood with disdain.  I don't agree with some of the choices my parents made in raising me.  I want different for my children, but I've learned to love and respect my parents.  They did the best they could, and I think the Lambert children also came to that conclusion.  The Lambert children ran far away as adults, but they slowly made their way back, not literally, but at least in their hearts.  Our families are never going to be perfect, but they are a part of us regardless.

This book has been so over-hyped that I don't intend to change anyone's mind about it.  I loved it, but even saying that, I can see how this book is disliked by so many.  If you're looking for fast-paced, this is not that kind of book.  It's slow and meandering at times, but I was happy with the journey and the eventual destination.  I feel obligated to warn that there is a generous helping of graphic language and sex.  It wasn't gratuitous and seemed necessary to the understanding of the characters.  I'm sorry this is so long!  I could gush about it all day.  I'm really looking forward to picking up Freedom when I get a chance.


  1. I hope you read Freedom soon ... I'm dying to see what you think of it. And the more I think about it, the more I think I have to The Corrections again. I've forgotten SO MUCH of it.

  2. Okay, I only skimmed your review, since I'm reading this one in April. But, I did figure out that you liked it, which is good!

  3. Jenners--I'm dying to read it too. I'm going to try to get it from my library but heir reservation system is sooo sloooow. I would love to see what you think if you decide to read The Corrections again.

    Erin--I completely understand the skimming. I do that too if it's about a book I'm reading soon. I really hope you like it. I think it's a love it or hate it book. It's not for everyone, but it really sucked me in.

  4. Two confessions:
    1. I've never heard of this book
    2. There was controversy with Oprah?

    I've heard of Freedom (hard to miss it on every shelf everywhere a book is being sold) but didn't realize there were more and that there was previous drama! have me very intrigued!

  5. Trish--The Corrections was picked for Oprah's book club when it was first published in 2001. After which Franzen made some disparaging remarks in interviews about her previous book selections as schmaltzy and about her audience (the book might be hard for them). He also expressed a fear that having her name associated with the book would detract males from reading it.

    Oprah was offended and rescinded his invitation to be on the show. The media blew it up and everyone was calling him an elitist. I guess it was a bit of a drama back then, but I didn't hear about it until Freedom came out this year.

  6. I read The Corrections this summer and was blown away by it - I also could hardly write my review. I didn't expect to like it so much but I am now really looking forward to Freedom!

    Great review!

  7. I actually heard Frazen make those remarks in an interview on National Public Radio. I really didn't think much of it at the time since I don't follow Oprah's bookclub so was very surprised at the hullabaloo. Overreactions on both their parts as far as I'm concerned.

  8. Lesa--How interesting that you heard the interview. I agree. I think they both overreacted. I'm glad they worked it out since she picked Freedom.

  9. An enjoyable read The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen . loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.

  10. The Corrections' is a adeptly written novel about a family.