The Corrections: A Study in Frustration

The title makes it sound like I didn’t like Jonathan Franzen’s novel, “The Corrections.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. Nonetheless, it was this feeling that pervaded my entire time with the book — from reading it, to finishing it, there was an eternal, lingering sense of frustration. This is the kind of book that delights book clubs and irritates the casual reader — a book that poses dozens of interesting questions, ranging from philosophical to political, from ethical to satirical — and then doesn’t give an answer to any of them. 

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The novel is a study of a modern day family. There’s Alfred, the detached patriarch, now suffering from Parkinson’s and dementia; his wife Enid, a caricature of a wannabe woman, who wants nothing more than for her family to be together for Christmas; Gary, the oldest son who is average in every way; Chip, the genius younger son who lost a professorship for sleeping with a student and spends the novel failing to write a screenplay; and Denise, a successful restaurateer who keeps sleeping with inappropriate people (ie too old for her, married, her boss, her boss’s wife, etc. etc.). There’s not a single character who stands out as a “good guy” — Alfred is emotionally distant, Enid judgmental, Gary spineless, Chip a layabout loser, and Denise, the adulteress. Nonetheless, you can’t help rooting for each to get what they want.

The overarching plot revolves around Enid’s attempts to get her family together for the holidays, but Franzen takes a circuitous route to get there. He starts out by looking at Chip’s life, and the reader is first introduced to “Mexican A”, also known as “Corecktall” also known as “the golden pill” also known as “Aslan.” It makes sense to start with Chip — he’s a literature and philosophy buff, the kind of person who likely mirrors many of Franzen’s readers. He’s a professor at a distinguished college, and seems, at first, to be a moderately likeable guy. It turns out, however, that he’s fired from that job after sleeping with one of his students (in a nice little twist, this girl is no Lolita — she’s unattractive, disliked, and a poor dresser). His downfall not complete, by the end of the book his married girlfriend has broken up with him, he’s borrowed thousands from his sister, and he ends up in Lithuania participating in a wire fraud scheme. Through Chip we’re introduced to the rest of the family, from Enid’s anxiety to Alfred’s decline. Chip loathes Gary and loves Denise, and it’s hard not to side with Chip’s opinions — though who knows why.

Chip’s story is mirrored by that of his siblings. THey all begin as put-together people, with moderate success in their jobs — but each quickly falls, subject to their own problems. Each character is sexually repressed, and each character escapes their current lives through this magical pill who has the ability to cure Parkinson’s, revive virility, reprogram criminal’s minds, and help with anxiety. What does the pill mean, though? Franzen never tells us. Its presence is everywhere in the novel, almost a sixth character, but then at the end it’s dropped. The mother flushes pills down a sink, a father doesn’t qualify for drug therapy, and a sexual deviant is married and has children. The question of narcotics and their questionable morality is raised, and then left unravelled at the end.

Similarly the characters sexual issues are just left. Enid is unsatisfied by her husband. Her husband only has sex with her at night, when she pretends to be asleep — he dreams of being attacked and hounded by feces and gives himself enemas when nobody’s around. Denise can’t decide if she’s a lesbian or not, and Gary is bewitched by the beauty of his wife — one of the most memorable scenes of the novel features him lying in bed beside his lovely wife, his hand bleeding dangerously, wrapped in a Ziploc bag and covered in tissues. But what does any of that mean? Once again, Franzen leaves it alone. It’s paralleled in all of the stories, but an answer to the dilemma is never presented.

The issue of social acceptability and “coolness” is also raised in each story, but not fully tied together at the end. Chip, who fully understands what is cool, Denise who runs the coolest new restaurant, Gary who is endlessly irritated with his wife’s ability to determine what is “cool” in their family, and the constant juxtaposition between the very “uncool” St. Jude, and the comparatively very “cool” Philadelphia. That point, at least, ties into one of the bigger themes of the novel — the idea of hiding behind closed doors, hiding in closets. It’s a joy, at the end, to discover that Alfred, who throughout the novel has been the most inaccessible — is the one character who can see into those closets and see the secrets that everyone has kept dear. Alfred, who barely even knows himself, knows what each of his children is up to, and — though we don’t see it until the very end of the novel — has spent his life self-sacrificing to help out those children. The decisions he’s made, portrayed throughout the novel as being cruel, arrogant, silly, turn out, in the end, to be magnanimous gestures of goodwill. Even the reader has been kept in the dark, though with all the tools to get to the truth. 

Perhaps that is what the novel gets to in the end — we are all struggling to make sense of a world with only random puzzle pieces of information. We put them together as best we can — fashion our own sense of self based on a history that we don’t understand, and base our understanding of others on actions that go unexplained. We don’t communicate as often or as well as we should — just as Franzen’s characters don’t, and just as he himself does not fully communicate to the reader. 

It’s a worthwhile read, if one has a bit of patience and quite a bit of time. His more recent novel, Freedom, falls in the same vein of the dark family drama, but is eminently easier to read  — partially because there’s more plot, and partially because the characters are more likeable. For all that, The Corrections is arguably the better novel — certainly the more ambitious of the two. 

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About splashfromabove

I believe firmly that through reflection, we gain in appreciation. My blog is all about taking a step back from what I read, view, or discover, and looking at it slightly askance.
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2 Responses to The Corrections: A Study in Frustration

  1. A great review of a mesmerising book, I read this one many years ago and have never forgotten it.

  2. Joel Watson says:

    I read Freedom a while back and just picked this one up yesterday. They do sound very similar, but I’m sure it will still be good. Great review!

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