The Pequod Review:
Jonathan Franzen pulled it all together with The Corrections, an enthralling and intricate novel that traces the troubled lives of a Midwestern American family. The book focuses on five members of the Lambert clan: the patriarch Albert (whose dementia is rapidly worsening), his wife Enid (well-meaning but oblivious to the problems around her), and their three children Denise, Chip, and Gary (all of whom have moved to the East Coast and are struggling with their own forms of unhappiness or lack of direction). The plot of the book loosely revolves around Enid’s attempt to bring the family together for one last Christmas, a build-up that allows Franzen to explore the lives and histories of each character.
The overall story is extremely well-crafted, but some of the best parts of The Corrections involve Franzen’s rich characterization. Here for example he describes Alfred’s declining mental state:
Enid could hear Alfred upstairs now, opening and closing drawers. He became agitated whenever they were going to see their children. Seeing their children was the only thing he seemed to care about anymore.
In the streaklessly clean windows of the dining room there was chaos. The berserk wind, the negating shadows. Enid had looked everywhere for the letter from the Axon Corporation, and she couldn’t find it.
Alfred was standing in the master bedroom wondering why the drawers of his dresser were open, who had opened them, whether he had opened them himself. He couldn’t help blaming Enid for his confusion. For witnessing it into existence. For existing, herself, as a person who could have opened these drawers.
“Al? What are you doing?”
He turned to the doorway where she’d appeared. He began a sentence: “I am — ” but when he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he’d entered, he would realize that the crumbs he’d dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds, silent deft darting things which he couldn’t quite see in the darkness but which were so numerous and swarming in their hunger that it seemed as if they were the darkness, as if the darkness weren’t uniform, weren’t an absence of light but a teeming and corpuscular thing, and indeed when as a studious teenager he’d encountered the word “crepuscular” in McKay’s Treasury of English Verse, the corpuscles of biology had bled into his understanding of the word, so that for his entire adult life he’d seen in twilight a corpuscularity, as of the graininess of the high-speed film necessary for photography under conditions of low ambient light, as of a kind of sinister decay; and hence the panic of a man betrayed deep in the woods whose darkness was the darkness of starlings blotting out the sunset or black ants storming a dead opossum, a darkness that didn’t just exist but actively consumed the bearings that he’d sensibly established for himself, lest he be lost; but in the instant of realizing he was lost, time became marvelously slow and he discovered hitherto unguessed eternities in the space between one word and the next, or rather he became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him, the thoughtless boyish part of him crashing on out of sight blindly through the woods while he, trapped, the grownup Al, watched in oddly impersonal suspense to see if the panic-stricken little boy might, despite no longer knowing where he was or at what point he’d entered the woods of this sentence, still manage to blunder into the clearing where Enid was waiting for him, unaware of any woods — “packing my suitcase,” he heard himself say. This sounded right. Verb, possessive, noun. Here was a suitcase in front of him, an important confirmation. He’d betrayed nothing.
But Enid had spoken again. The audiologist had said that he was mildly impaired. He frowned at her, not following.
“It’s Thursday,” she said, louder. “We’re not leaving until Saturday.”
“Saturday!” he echoed.
She berated him then, and for a while the crepuscular birds retreated, but outside the wind had blown the sun out, and it was getting very cold.
Later he describes Gary’s empty suburban rituals:
To Gary there was indeed something endlessly delicious, something irresistibly luxurious, about a bit of lamb, a bit of pork, a bit of veal, and a lean and tender modern-style sausage or two – a classic mixed grill, in short. It was such a treat that he began to do his own mixed grills at home....
On the deck, in the radiant heat, as he blackened the prawns and seared the swordfish, a weariness overtook him. The aspects of his life not related to grilling now seemed like mere blips of extraneity between the poundingly recurrent moments when he ignited the mesquite and paced the deck, avoiding smoke. Shutting his eyes, he saw twisted boogers of browning meats on a grille of chrome and hellish coals. The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned. The parching torments of compulsive repetition. On the inner walls of the grill a deep-pile carpet of phenolic black greases had accumulated.
I also liked this description of the uniquely severe Midwestern thunderstorms:
It was the season of thunder in St. Jude. The air had a smell of Mexican violence, of hurricanes or coups. There could be morning thunder from unreadably churning skies, ominous dull reports from south-county municipalities that nobody you knew had ever been to. And lunch-hour thunder from a solitary anvil wandering through otherwise semifair skies. And the more serious thunder of midafternoon, as solid sea-green waves of cloud rolled up in the southwest, the sun shining all the brighter locally and the heat bearing down more urgently, as if aware that time was short. And the great theater of a good dinnertime blowout, storms crowded into the fifty-mile radius of the radar's sweep like big spiders in a little jar, clouds booming at each other from the sky's four corners, and wave upon wave of dime-sized raindrops arriving like plagues, the picture in your window going black-and-white and fuzzy, trees and houses lurching in the flashes of lightning, small kids with swimsuits and drenched towels running home headlong, like refugees. And the drumming late at night, the rolling caissons of summer on the march.
These small pleasures occur frequently in The Corrections, and the overall narrative comes together in quite impressive fashion. This is a big, entertaining and intelligent novel, and Franzen finds a way to successfully combine a number of fictional elements — comedy, drama, tragedy, and social criticism. The book is not without flaws; it sometimes feels a bit overwritten, and Franzen’s plot relies on a few implausible twists. But all in all, this is an exceptional work and by far Franzen’s best to date.