If John Irving and Tom Wolfe stopped bickering about how to write the Great American Novel long enough to sit down and tap one out together, they’d probably end up with something a little like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections—only not as good.
Like Irving, Franzen has crafted the sort of introspective, character-driven, literary work that Wolfe and other boosters of so-called social realism love to loathe. In this case, it’s a domestic drama about the disintegrating Lambert family—father Alfred, who’s slowly melting into a Parkinson’s haze; his long- suffering wife, Enid; their successful but miserable son Gary; their less successful, also miserable son Chip; and their sexually befuddled daughter, Denise—whose emotional lives Franzen fastidiously dissects over the course of 500-plus pages.
But like Wolfe, Franzen has also drawn a sweeping social panorama of life in our times. The book is crammed with exactly the sort of cultural reporting and trendy brand-name-dropping that Irving and others wave away as observation masquerading as fiction: club drugs, Internet millionaires, stock market jitters, even celebrity cameos (by Mira Sorvino and Stanley Tucci, of all people).
It’s a big, ambitious, unwieldy hybrid of a book—a literary novel and a social document, an intimate family portrait and a sprawling cultural landscape, a floor wax and a dessert topping—but Franzen somehow manages to glue it all together with surprising warmth and wit.
Most of The Corrections‘ multiple plotlines pivot around Alfred and Enid’s Midwestern home, a sinkhole of childhood guilt and repression where even the lights on the Christmas tree are dysfunctional. But Franzen seldom stays in one place for very long. There’s a brief stopover in Lithuania, where Chip finds work as an Internet scammer. Philadelphia figures prominently in the plot as well — it’s where stock-market-obsessed Gary works as a banker and Denise briefly shines as a star chef (until she’s fired for sleeping with the boss’ wife). And Enid and Alfred take a hapless voyage on a seniors’ cruise ship, where psychedelics are passed out to passengers as freely as shuffleboard pucks (it turns out to be a bad trip in more ways than one).
For a book bursting with so much wild energy and raw information—including lengthy discourses on the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience and gourmet recipes for sauerkraut—it’s a remarkably smooth read. Even when Franzen is engaged in the gloomy business of anatomizing his characters’ emotional lives, he has a light touch, if not always a sympathetic one. Gary’s inner monologue, for instance, often sounds as if it should be running on CNBC: ”Declines led advances in key indices of paranoia…, and his seasonally adjusted assessment of life’s futility and brevity was consistent with the overall robustness of his mental economy.”
The Corrections may not be the Great American Novel by either Irving’s or Wolfe’s definition—or anyone else’s, for that matter—but it is a very good one. That’s impressive enough. A