As much as I can allow myself on The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

How is everyone? [A perfunctory question. Yes, I am self-involved this holiday season. And frantically tying bloggie loose ends.] Aherm.

Last Christmas Eve, if I wasn’t gorging myself with fruitcake or cram-wrapping children’s presents, I was thinking about how I could possibly talk about [that block of paper on top of that block of wood,] The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

It is very thick, rather yummy, and thus, rather a pain to write about. I finished reading it on the second day of the month, and since then, I’ve been agonizing about how to present a coherent — and not as word-vomit as I could manage — post on the book. My notes, of course, are a mess only I can make sense of, but can’t quite figure out how to share. I think I’ve written a informal book report already. And there is no way I can force that Dorkery on you guys. It’s Christmas-ish, after all. I lay off just a wee bit.

Oh, and in case I fail to make it clear: I loved this book. [Although it has be said: I will never forgive Franzen for describing somebody’s penis as “a faintly urinary dumpling” — cripes, and I didn’t even have to run to my notes to look up that odious phrase.] Aherm. Yes. Here:

* * *

I think central to my notes on this chunkster is this: I am in love and in awe with Franzen’s investment in his characters. So much time, effort, patience, and pages — devoted to exploring his characters with no apparent aim but to, well, elaborate on them. To dissect them without the need to justify them. To complexify them even as archetypes are hinted at.

Of course, the characterizations will serve the author well when he sets up the bigger landscape: The Corrections is, basically, a story of family politics. And, as in all politics, there comes a shifting of roles, and with it, allegiances.

For example, as with all families [I hazard to generalize], the Lamberts are chock full of sorrows. Goddamn everyone’s sorrows, most of them secreted. And what’s particularly juicy and compelling is that when these are brought to light, it’s because one is in need of a weapon. Of course.

I mean, hello, given the inner life of Alfred Lambert? His loneliness, so at odds with his leonine stance in life: “He bowed his head at the thought of how much strength a man would need to survive an entire life so lonely.” This is something that shouldn’t be revealed. This is a weakness, not unlike love was something that should be hidden: “The odd truth was that love, for him, was a matter not of approaching but of keeping away.

And so the use of these weapons isn’t always so blatant. Take the marriage of Enid and Alfred: at first glance, Enid is a mother hen, a nag; we encounter Alfred — the indomitable lion of a man, husband, father — debilitated, addled with the onset of Parkinson’s and dementia, his own body suddenly alien to him. Issues of control, how the body betrays.

You were outfitted as a boy with a will to fix things by yourself and with a respect for individual physical objects, but eventually, some of your internal hardware (including such mental hardware as this will and this respect) became obsolete, and so, even though many parts of you still functioned well, an argument could be made for junking the whole machine.

Which was another way of saying he was tired.

But with Alfred in particular, this means an alarming shift of power: an imbalance in favor of his long-suffering wife Enid, of the children. He’s not in control anymore, and his hold of that power characterized their marriage, the rearing of the children — reverberating to how those three led their lives.

With Enid. Then, “his work so satisfied him that he didn’t need her love, while her chores so bored her that she needed his love doubly.” And now: “Holding his hand she felt married and, to that extent, grounded in the universe and reconciled to old age, but she couldn’t help thinking how dearly she would have treasured holding his hand in the decades when he’d stridden everywhere a pace or two ahead of her. His hand was needy and subdued now.

Enid loved him. Loved him too much: “Her life would have been easier is she hadn’t loved him so much, but she couldn’t help loving him. Just to look at him was to love him.” This was a love palpable even to their children. Artfully, Franzen notes that the youngest Denise, in utero, feels this: “She already knew the main hungers. Day after day the mother walked around in a stew of desire and guilt, and now the object of the mother’s desire lay three feet away from her. Everything in the mother was poised to melt and shut down at a loving touch anywhere on her body.

* * *

There are two pivotal dinners in The Corrections: the first, a flashback, to The Dinner of Revenge, the second, the rather anti-climactic Christmas dinner [as Christmas has become a harried preoccupation for the Lamberts — Enid wants everyone present; the children would rather stay away.

The Dinner of Revenge—how else can Enid fight back? The kitchen is her domain, and these is her ammunition. Here,  as felt by Chip Lambert:

Chipper trembled in the bathroom doorway. You encountered a misery near the end of the day and it took a while to gauge its full extent. Some miseries had sharp curvature and could be negotiated readily. Others had almost no curvature and you knew you’d be spending hours turning the corner. Great whipping-big planet-sized miseries. The Dinner of Revenge was one of these.

[I wish I can go on at length about the Dinner of Revenge — I have such a soft spot for Alfred Lambert, and in these scenes, good lord, Franzen plugs him with so much humanity, the tips of my fingers hurt just thinking about it all. Sigh.]

It’s in the present, other dinners — we see those shifts in family politics. Here, from  Denise, a thought that would have been so blasphemous when she was younger:

Her father at the lunch table looked insane. And if he was losing his mind, it was possible that Enid had not been exaggerating her difficulties with him, possible that Alfred really was a mess who pulled himself together for his children, possible that Enid wasn’t entirely the embarrassing nag and pestilence that Denise for twenty years had made her out to be, possible that Alfred’s problems went deeper than having the wrong wife, possible that Enid’s problems did not go much deeper than having the wrong husband, possible that Denise was more like Enid that she had ever dreamed.

And so on, and so forth.

* * *

In his essay “My Father’s Brain,” from How to Be Alone, Franzen writes about his relationship with his father before and after the elder Franzen’s Alzheimer’s, and the relationship between his parents. Included in the essay is a letter from Jonathan Franzen’s mother, dated 1989:

It is extremely difficult living with a very unhappy person when you know you must be the major cause of the unhappiness. Decades ago when Dad told me he didn’t believe there is such a thing as love (that sex is a “trap”) and that he was not cut out to be a “happy” person I should have been smart enough to realize there was no hope for a relationship satisfactory to me. But I was busy & involved with my children and friends I loved and I guess, like Scarlett O’Hara, I told myself I would “worry about that tomorrow.”

I am giddy enough to note that a large part of The Corrections was wrought from real life. Of course, it has to come somewhere. But Franzen’s admissions — him citing scenes involving his mother and father, mirrored — sometimes the dialogue quoted verbatim — in his novel. In the essay, Franzen notes, too, the shift in roles between his mother and father:

For my mother, the losses of Alzheimer’s both amplified and reversed long-standing patterns in her marriage. My father had always refused to open himself to her, and now, increasingly, he couldn’t open himself. To my mother, he remained the same Earl Franzen napping in the den and failing to hear. She, paradoxically, was the one who slowly and surely lost her self, living with a man who mistook her for her mother, forgot every fact he’d ever known about her, and finally ceased to speak her name. He, who had always insisted on being the boss in the marriage, the maker of decisions, the adult protector of the childlike wife, now couldn’t help behaving like the child. Now the unseemly outbursts were his, not my mother’s Now she ferried him around town the way she’d once ferried me and my brothers. Task by task, she took charge of their life. And so, although my father’s “long illness” was a crushing strain and disappointment to her, it was also an opportunity to grow slowly into an autonomy she’d never been allowed: to settle some very old scores.

Which is also reflective of one of the most stirring [to me] passages in the novel, Enid looking upon her husband fiercely, to make up for those old scores:

. . . Enid couldn’t tolerate the least error. If he mistook her for her mother, she corrected him angrily: “Al, it’s me, Enid, your wife of forty-eight years.” If he mistook her for Denise, she used the very same words. She’d felt Wrong all her life and now she had a chance to tell him how Wrong he was. Even as she was loosening up and becoming less critical in other areas of life, she remained strictly vigilant at the Deepmire Home. She had to come and tell Alfred that he was wrong to dribble ice cream on his clean, freshly pressed pants. He was wrong not to recognize Joe Person when Joe was nice enough to drop in. He was wrong not to look at snapshots of Aaron and Caleb and Jonah. He was wrong not to be excited that Alison had given birth to two slightly underweight but healthy baby girls. He was wrong not to be happy or grateful or even remotely lucid when his wife and daughter went to enormous trouble to bring him home for Thanksgiving dinner. He was wrong to say, after that dinner, when they returned him to the Deepmire Home, “Better not to leave here than to have to come back.” He was wrong, if he could be so lucid as to produce a sentence like that, not to be lucid at any other time. He was wrong to attempt to hang himself with the bedsheets in the night. He was wrong to hurl himself against a window. He was wrong to try to slash his wrists with a dinner fork. Altogether he was wrong about so many things that, except for her four days in New York and her two Christmases in Philadelphia and her three weeks of recovery from hip surgery, she never failed to visit him. She had to tell him, while she still had time, how wrong he’d been and how right she’d been. How wrong not to love her more, how wrong not to cherish her and have sex at every opportunity, how wrong not to trust her financial instincts, how wrong to have spent so much time at work and so little with the children, how wrong to have been so negative, how wrong to have been so gloomy, how wrong to have run away from life, how wrong to have said no, again and again, instead of yes: she had to tell him all of this, every single day. Even if he wouldn’t listen, she had to tell him.

That’s awesome. No other word for it: awesome.

* * *

In his essay, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Franzen describes The Corrections as “a family novel about three East Coast urban sophisticates who alternately long for and reject the heartland suburbs where their aged parents live.” I realize that most of this post concerns Enid and Alfred Lambert — those aged parents. The novel is about the Lambert brood — and, yes, there is much richness to be found in each of the three Lambert children — their successes and failures, the decisions they made to get where they were now, their loves, their families, their disappointments, their deceptive joys.

But I’m going to have to settle for Enid and Alfred for now. That is, I’m going to have to calm down and settle for sharing just Enid and Alfred for now.

Thank you, Universe, for your patience. [Please know that this post is like that proverbial thorn off my side.]

* Reading Begets Reading >> As mentioned above, I am making my way through Franzen’s collection of essays, How to Be Alone. And, of course, his much-hyped Freedom is waiting in the wings. I don’t much care about the hype messing it up for me. I mean, y’all know that I only marked as To-Read all them Freedom posts. I think I only read Charles Baxter’s review, and this was when the book wasn’t even released yet. And since I trust Charles Baxter’s views on literature, I let that give me permission to indulge in Franzen. So, yeah. Sometime within January, I guess?

And, yes, you can totally skip that review.

8 thoughts on “As much as I can allow myself on The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

  1. Sasha, as always, a thorough and broad review. I’ve just read Franzen’s Freedom and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t find myself desperate for more Franzen. It was very readable though and I can see what you mean by his investment in his characters because that definitely came through in Freedom.

  2. My very favorite thing about Franzen is his characters. I think he always nails them spot on, especially the dialogue and conversations they share. This is one book where even though the characters are fairly odious, I can’t help but love it because of how real everyone is. I mean, I wish I didn’t know an Enid in real life but boy oh boy do I ever.

    His newest novel, Freedom, is also good but I still say The Corrections is his book to beat! Freedom just isn’t as tight or as focused.

  3. Hi Sasha! Happy New Year!

    Did I miss this review before, or was it just put up? You did a terrific job. Who could write a review of the Corrections, really feel it at a gut level, and not angst about how to put the experience of reading it into words?

    I admired the book for perhaps–but not necessarily–different reasons than a lot of people did. As a psychotherapist, for me it was a bit like seeing a realistic portrayal of depression, narcissism, borderline personality disorder–and oh, let’s throw in dementia, because why not? It happens in families, right?

    Right. It happens a lot.

    It was a compelling portrayal, and like one of your commenters said, ‘we all know people like that.’

    We do. Franzen’s gift in The Commitments was portraying it with raw honesty. Yes–it can be compelling, just as it can be repelling. I liked this book because it took an honest look at the stuff we might glimpse in warped form in the entertainment news or in the shadows of our friends’ and relatives’ behaviors. These are real, understandable people in this book. We KNOW them. Yet the facades of everyday life make Franzen’s characters seem blindingly fresh, like he’d whisked back a curtain and showed us things we’d suspected, but never seen quite so clearly.

    The addition to any type of organic dementia to some intelligent people with healthy doses of neuroses, of course, throws gunpowder on an already snarling family flame. Personality disorder or mood disorder? Meet dementia. I’ve seen it before, and it’s not pretty. Franzen’s talent was that he did it in a way I wanted to keep reading about this sad, compelling group of people.

    I can’t even remember the character’s names anymore….but it was the brother with the family? I just recall Franzen describing how he sat in front of the computer viewing porn and drinking, and wondered how many serotonin molecules he was diminishing in the process, increasing his depression? *shaking head*

    That’s just a classic depressive thought.

    A very nicely done review, Sasha, of a book that compelled a lot of people, but was hard to put into words. Sorry that I got inspired to write my own min-review. :)


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