Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

We can never be certain that Jonathan Franzen was on a mission to write the first Great American Novel of the 21st century (capturing the last days of the previous one), but regardless, many critics think he did, at least one comparing The Corrections (2001) to Mann's Buddenbrooks. However, comments in his Harper's essay "Perchance to Dream" reveal that he harbored that desire (see post below). Franzen spent most of his youth in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, Missouri. It is interesting to note that Saul Bellow, generally credited with sharing the mantle of best American 20th century author with Faulkner, spent much of his life in Chicago, and first leveraged that regional experience into The Adventures of Augie March, which many consider, to this day, a major triumph of American literature. Certainly, Franzen leveraged his own personal experience, for which an article entitled "My Father's Brain" in The New Yorker (the day before 9/11), is a testimonial to his own experience with a father with Alzheimer's. Franzen's fear of losing his street cred as a result of Oprah's Book Club is now ancient history.

Franzen has set out to write a Social Novel in a Tragic Realism style in the genre of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Whereas Sinclair revealed the horrific and unsanitary working conditions of the working class hidden from literate Americans, Franzen uses the same approach to reveal that the well educated classes who wallow in abundance harbor social ills just as severe as the downtrodden and that "successful" Americans are also diminished. Because the concerns seem trivial in relation to starvation, poverty, and violence (and maybe war) in the daily lives of the poor, the characters wallow in a world characterized by the character Gitanas Misevičius as "tragedy rewritten as farce" (p. 534). The Corrections confronts the banality and the vacuousness of the American dream. Compared to the Holocaust or Stalin's purges, tragedy on this small scale can only be relegated to farce. These tragedies are dealt with by adopting minor "corrections" based on many small epiphanies. Of course, Franzen has implicitly drawn comparisons between our personal lives and the stock market by using a term for a short-lived drop in stock prices.

Oddly enough, at 568 pages, the novel is a fast read, gratefully unladen with obscure references to the Western Canon (Amis and Bellow are much more dense and require much greater effort on the part of the reader, not to denigrate), although Tolstoy and Schopenhauer figure into the book explicitly joining numerous playful references to contemporary authors. There are brief references to literary theorists Michel Foucault (p. 48) and Walter Benjamin (p. 36). Franzen pokes fun by adopting a "pomo" trope in the playful use of parens (parentheses), like (The Mercer) Kitchen (see photo). The phrase "sexual (trans)act(ion)" befits the fatuity of Chip, literary theorist (p. 91). Also note the Swedish liqueur dubbed "Sp(breve)ogg" (p. 300).

The novel is replete with references to other authors who were influential to Franzen. The book's title echoes that of William Gaddis' novel The Recognitions. Other references include a slasher movie called Moody Fruit (p. 409)(Rick Moody); Chip's email domain (p. 431)(William Gaddis); a cruise ship passenger named Roth (p. 296)(Philip Roth); a city park with same name as college where Nabokov's Pnin taught - Waindell (p. 476); and a magician named Alain Gregarius (p. 486)(Alain de Botton).

Franzen's friend, David Foster Wallace (author of Infinite Jest) wrote a 90-page essay for Harper's (1995) entitled "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" about an all-expense-paid Caribbean cruise. He hated it. This undoubtedly had some impact on Franzen's The Sea chapter.

In fairness, intertextual references (a hallmark of postmodern novels) are de minimus in this tragic realism-style novel. One exception is the references to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (pp. 64, 268), specifically quotes from his famous essays On Pessimism (pp. 256, 258, 262, 268, 276) and On Women (pp. 266, 280). Here's a sample: "Woman pays the debt of life not by what she does, but by what she suffers; by her pains of childbearing and care for the child, and by submission to her husband, to whom she should be a patient and cheering companion" (p. 266) and "The people who make money are men, not women; and from this it follows that women are neither justified in having unconditional possession of it, nor fit persons to be entrusted with its administration" (p. 280). Franzen uses the ideas of Modernism and connects them with the father figure, Alfred, who lives by principles established by Schopenhauer, while Chip abides by those who followed Schopenhauer (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan). Mahanes (Library Fetish) opines that "the tension between the father and son, between Schopenhauer and the Post-Modern mix of theorists drives the narrative."

In Proustian fashion, all the characters are interconnected. The law firm where Chip works is the one that pays Alfred $5,000 (pp. 72, 88); Denise's lover's brother is in prison for assaulting the president of the company whose money makes her restaurant possible; the VCs (Wroths)who force Alfred into retirement have endowed buildings at the college that fires Chip (pp. 36, 152); a film director, Jerry Schwartz, supported by Denise's boss makes the only American film to open in Vilnius while Chip is there (pp. 408, 445); Khellye Withers, who murdered Sylvia Roth's daughter (Enid meets her on the cruise (p. 303)) is previewed on the radio news (p. 236) and then reappears in Al's hospital TV (p. 466). There must be more.

The novel is rich with detail that the rereader is more likely to pick up than the casual initiate. Salient observations (in no way comprehensive) chapter by chapter:

ST. JUDE: This brief opening chapter exposes the guerrilla (p. 7) warfare between Alfred and Enid Lambert, in the "gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude (p. 3), a mythic Midwestern idyll. "Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety" (p. 3). What anxiety ? Well, "The anxiety of coupons" (p. 4) - Enid collects coupons that are well past their "historical" expiration dates. Guerrilla actions ? How about "a Nordstrom bag surprised in broad daylight on the basement stairs, nearly precipitating a tumble..." (p. 7) - ooh, I can relate ! For his part Alfred, a train engineer, has odd habits (efficient ?) in the basement, his laird, like peeing in "Yuban coffee cans...Enid chose not to believe were filling up with her husband's urine" (p. 8, 465). We learn that his "life came to be lived underground" (p. 10) on the basis that his favorite blue leather chair was banished by Enid from the living room to the basement. As we learn later, Enid has total control in certain aspects: Enid knew that Alfred hated liver, but the meat was full of health-bringing iron, and whatever Alfred's shortcomings as a husband, no one could say he didn't play by the rules. The kitchen was her domain, and he never meddled" (p. 254). After all, Enid spelt backwards is "dine."

THE FAILURE: 38-year old Chip, is the family failure, obsessed with sex, is tenure track professor at a liberal arts college in Connecticut (p. 17), who loses job over sex escapade with student, Melissa. Chip is writing a screenplay of 'turgid academic theorizing" (p. 91), "The Academy Purple," which features (p. 26) Bill Quaintence, Mona (his student) and Hillaire (his wife). Obviously a parody on Monica Lewinsky: soon we hear the Clintonesque "I never had sexual relations with that woman" (p. 79) in his defense against his own student affair. At one point, the lovers stop off at Wesleyan (p. 55) to score some drugs, on the way to the Comfort Valley Lodge (p. 83), Franzen poking fun at the defranchised Comfort Inn. One of the campus buildings is Hillard Wroth Hall (p. 36)(Wroth a VC (pp. 69, 152) who is involved in M&A activities on his father's railroad). Chip has doctorate in field of "textual artifacts", a fancy name for Literary Theory. "Chip's problem was a loss in confidence. Gone were the days when he could afford to épater les bourgeois" (p. 19).

Chip, who now lives on 9th St. in NYC, is chasing girlfriend Julia to gain access to Eden Procuro, film producer. Chip's script "The Academy Purple" begins with long academic monologue, not unlike Franzen's novel itself ! "'My idea,' Chip said, 'was to have this 'hump' that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it's a classic modernist strategy" (p. 25). It's obvious that Chip is a clone of the author - note that he claims himself modernist, not post-modern.

Chip is happy to let Enid think he's working for Wall Street Journal, while he really works for arts rag Warren Street Journal. He works part time at legal firm Bragg Knuter & Speigh, which also represents Axon pharmaceuticals in bid to license Alfred's patented technology. The parents have come to New York to embark on a cruise. Chip has stolen a salmon in anticipation of his parents' arrival: he "took the salmon right up inside his leather jacket and underneath his sweater" (p. 94). Enid proposes that the family get together for one last Christmas in St. Jude. Chip meets Julia's husband, whom he was "cuckolding" (p. 90), Gitanas Misevičius, deposed deputy prime minister of Lithuania. Gitanas offers Chip a job designing website to defraud US investors.

THE MORE HE THOUGHT ABOUT IT, THE ANGRIER HE GOT: Gary is the oldest son, who hopelessly conforms to others' expectations. More than any sibling, Gary seeks approval from is father. Yet "his entire life was set up as a correction of his father's life" (p. 181). Franzen pushes the stock market lingo in describing Gary: "he estimated that his levels of Neurofactor 3 (i.e. serotonin: a very, very important factor) were posting seven-day or even thirty-day highs" (p. 139). He tries to negotiate a better deal with Axon, but is emasculated by the female CEO. Denise, his kid sister, accompanies Gary to Axon's pre-IPO presentation, where she learns that Corecktall (so named because it can correct criminal behavior), a product which falls under Alfred's patent claims, can be used to treat Parkinson's. Gary then tries to get in on Axon's IPO but is frustrated by his inability to purchase stock, another blow on his masculinity. Finally, he fails to convince his wife Caroline and 3 kids to go to St. Jude for Christmas.

There is a scene where Gary and his son visit the St. Jude Museum of Transport (p. 177). They enter the world of trains, now destined only for scrap yards and museums, the detritus of his father's vocation. One hundred pages later, Franzen refers to Alfred and Enid's marriage bed as the "museum of antique transports" (p. 276).

C.S. Lewis' children's book Narnia is introduced here (p. 141), with the hero Aslan, a furry lion. So the lamb-lion tension is invoked. This is made obvious in next chapter when Enid spells out her last name, but stops at "B": "Enid. Lambert. L-A-M-B-" (p. 317). The "parents were cowed by authority of all kinds" (p. 151), a rather lambish trait. Later the drug Aslan® is referred to as "leonine caplets" (p. 324). No doubt the urbanized offspring Gary, Chip, and Denise, are the lions pitted against their parents, the lambs.

AT SEA: This is Alfred's section, and follows the North Atlantic cruise. It is in this chapter that Enid discovers he is a devoted reader of Schopenhauer (p. 268). His mind recedes to the past when seeds of marital tension were sown. Enid wants Alfred to buy stock in a rival railroad that Midland Pacific is about to acquire. Enid gets very aggressive one night in bed (p. 279) and goes down on him (a first ?!) to coerce him to make the purchase, but he knows that it would be unethical under the guise of insider knowledge. To spite her, he tips off the neighbors, the Meisners, and they buy the stock and ultimately retire off their earnings.

Alfred learns to evade Enid by sleeping, which he refers as his "new lover" (p. 282): "There was no mess in their affair, no romantic osculation, no leakages or secretions, no shame. He could cheat on Enid in Enid's own bed" (pp. 282-283). One night on the boat he imagines himself under attack by turds (yes, feces - remember the Yuban cans ?). Enid pays a visit to the ship's Dr. Hibbard (like Mother Hubbard), and he gives her "mother's little helper" (as per the Rolling Stones song, btw Chip's favorite song is Wild Horses (p. 181)), namely Aslan® (p. 292)(not available in US, but available on high seas), which is similar to Ecstasy. Franzen takes issue with our self-medicated culture, aware of the greed of the pharmaceutical companies. For his part, Alfred falls overboard into "the wine dark sea" (p. ), an allusion to Homer's Odyssey.

There is a wonderful description of Alfred going overboard at chapter's end: "Discounting the minimal effects of wind drag at low velocities, something "plummeting" (a thing of value "plunging" in a "free fall") experienced an acceleration due to gravity at 32 feet per second squared, and, acceleration being the second-order derivative of distance, the analyst could integrate once over the distance the object had fallen (roughly 30 feet) to calculate its velocity (42 feet per second) as it passed the center of a window 8 feet tall, and assuming a 6-foot long object, and also assuming for simplicity's sake a constant velocity over the interval, derive a figure of approximately four-tenths of a second of full or partial visibility....if you happened to be gazing directly at the window in question....four-tenths of a second was more than enough time to identify the falling object as your husband of forty-seven years" (p. 338).

THE GENERATOR: This chapter begins with a digression into Robin Passafaro, daughter of "a family of troublemakers and true believers" (p. 341), members of the mob and Teamsters, particularly her adopted brother Billy. He is in prison for beating up the President of W- Corporation, a company which made Robin's husband, Brian, rich on a patented technology license, allowing him to indulge his every whim, including the desire to create a top restaurant which he will house in an old abandoned power plant. He hires Denise, the youngest Lambert, Philadelphia's hottest chef.

Denise's background is revealed including a teenage deflowering affair (p. 372) with one Don Armour (amour?), her father's employee, who ultimately blackmails Alfred with this information as a means to job security, forcing him into early retirement to avoid scandal, revealed at the end of the novel as the secret carved into the bench (pp. 524-525). Fast forward to present and the bisexual Denise is having torrid affair with Robin. Brian discovers the ruse and fires Denise. The phone rings - Gary informs her that Alfred has fallen overboard on the cruise (p. 429). Denise's life is in shambles, but this correction enables her to attend the Christmas celebration.

ONE LAST CHRISTMAS: Well, Enid "loves Christmas the way other people love sex" (p. 432). "Although Enid generally fell far short of fervor in her Christian beliefs, she was devout about [her] ornament[s]" (p. 471). All the individual corrections put the family members on a collision course. Alfred laments the fact that he didn't have the courage to let himself drown (p. 465). Enid spends the chapter withdrawing from Aslan®. Gary helps out with Alfred's needs including buying a shower stool in local medical aids store, he quips to checkout girl "You know what these stools would really be good for...would be to hang yourself. Don't you think ?" (p. 485). For her part, DEnise helps her mother with the cooking: "You forget how much restaurant there was in restaurant food and how much home was in homemade" (p. 515), great line.

Just before the whole Lithuania imbroglio falls apart, Gitanas comments on the political situation as "A tragedy rewritten as a farce" (p. 534). This comment underlies the book's theme. Chip manages to escape Vilnius with only a few dollars in his pocket, the last member to arrive at St. Jude. Alfred is hospitalized and asks Chip to help him end things, this is one correction he cannot make. Alfred asks "How to get out of this prison?" (p. 553) harking back to Schopenhauer's quote (p. 256). Of all the siblings, surprise, Chip has fared the best. Near the end of the chapter, Chip thinks "I'm the least unhappy person at this table" (p. 548), a reference to the opening page of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The final scene in the chapter is heartbreaking - Alfred wants to speak to Chip from deep inside, but can only muster a single word: "'Dad, Dad, Dad. What's wrong?' Alfred looked up at his son and into his eyes. He opened his mouth, but the only word he could produce was 'I--'
Chip imagines what words will come forth:
I have made mistakes--
I am alone--
I am wet--
I want to die--
I am sorry--
I did my best--
I love my children--
I need your help--
I want to die--"(p. 559).

THE CORRECTIONS: In this epilogue, Enid finds happiness unshackled from Alfred. Chip marries a sugar mama, Alfred's neurologist and finds freedom to write in the Midwest suburbs. Gary takes a bath on the Axon IPO. Denise moves to Brooklyn as a chef. And of course, Alfred dies.


  1. 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.

  2. Good write-up. There are also allusions to Wallace Stevens (at one point Enid wakes up on the cruise and the narrator writes "the only thing stirring was the eye of Enid) and Denise's teacher/confidante in St. Jude is based on Wing Biddlebaum from the story Hands in Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.