Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001
By Helen Stuhr-Rommereim, Oberlin College '09
This book probably isn't news to many people. The Corrections was published quite a few years ago now, in 2001, and received a lot of attention. I, however, just recently read it for the first time. The first and most obvious fact about The Corrections is that it is fat—almost 600 pages. The novel is ambitious in scope as well as physical size. The narrative mixes timelines and perspectives, jumping from character to character and managing to make it all the way to Vilnius and a chaotic post-Soviet Lithuania. Though The Corrections reaches far across space and time, the core issues of the narrative are quite every day, dealing with one family and its members' (relatively) typical travails.
The Lamberts are a well-educated, upper middleclass family from St. Jude, Kansas, a small city that greatly resembles Franzen's own hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The novel covers aspects of each of the three Lambert children's childhood and adolescence, but focuses on Denise, Gary, and Chip's adulthood—all in various states of crisis.
Throughout the novel, I had a sense that Franzen was trying to fully capture the spirit of the present day. He covers all the issues of the 1990s: a booming stock market, Post-Soviet nation states struggling to build a national identity and a functional economy, psychotropic drugs, and the angst of average people in a successful, ostensibly untroubled nation. Franzen succeeds, but his book was published in 2001, and everything in the United States and the world in general has come to feel much more unstable since then. The problems that at one point were burbling under the surface are now acutely visible. It is a small tragedy that this clearly great novel about life in America, a novel that seeks to capture a time so completely, was written just a little too early. It doesn't contain a vision of what was to come.
However, The Corrections is a story about family as much as it is the story of a nation. In this aspect, it is both heartbreaking and astute. I frequently found myself crying during passages about Enid's sadness, frustration, and helplessness. As a 21 year old about to finish college and facing years of difficult decision-making, the book seemed to point out how sad life can be for everyone, even when nothing monumental happens. The problems of the Lamberts are cutting because they are problems that everyone will have.
For additional reading, try Franzen's collection of essays How to be Alone, which cover similar territory to The Corrections and reveal much of Franzen's thinking about writing in general and The Corrections in particular.
Burling 3rd Floor PS3556.R352 C67 2001
How to Be Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002
Burling 3rd Floor PS3556.R352 H69 2002