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Book Analysis & Review: The Corrections

Book Analysis & Review: The Corrections
By: Jonathan Franzen

Review By: Grant Catton

Description and General Synopsis

The Corrections is over 560 pages long and the majority of the action in the book takes place shortly after the turn of the recent millennium, in the year 2000. The book centers around the Lambert family, who are originally from St. Jude, Kansas. The father, Alfred, is losing his mind due to dementia or Alzheimer's, or a combination of the two, and is wearing on the nerves of his wife, Enid. Enid is still sprightly and in full grasp of her senses, and coming to terms with the compounded anxiey of nearly five decades under Alfred's stoic and affection-less thumb. They are in their late 70s and have three children who represent Generation X to a stereotypical T.

Gary, the oldest, is a successful financial planner who appears even more successful in the heady days of the internet technology stock market bubble. While it seems he can't lose in his career, he is not as sucessful in his home life. His wife, whom he adores for her looks, uses their three boys as proxy to wage a brutally taxing psychological campaign against him, a campaign in which he seems only too happy to play the frustrated pawn. Gary is on the verge of depression and functional alcoholism.

Chip, the middle child, is in his mid- to late-thirties and almost a total mess. He was fired from a tenure-track position as a professor at a well-known liberal arts college in the northeast for having had an affair with one of his students. He has since moved to New York and started writing a screenplay about the affair, while working as a legal proofreader and freelance writer and sponging off his much-more-financially-successful younger sister. Much of Chip's time in the book is taken up by his involvement in a scheme to get people to invest in post-communist Lithuania; a scheme that requires him to live in that country and almost gets him killed.

Denise, the youngest child, is in her early thirties and has already had a successful career as a chef at a new restaurant in Philadelphia, and subsequently been fired from that position because she had simultaneous affairs with the owner of the restaurant and his wife. She is sexually confused, having already been through a divorce prior to her career at the restaurant, and by the end of the book she is virtually out of the closet.

These are the main players in a drama that pits old-school American "values" (which in this case are stubborness, sexual inhibition, and resistance to change) against the modern world of the new millennium. We watch each of the characters, mostly the children, navigate their lives as best they can with the yokes of general maladjustment, misplaced intellect and sexual dysfunction that seem to have been passed to them from their parents. Their experiences are frightfully similar; they each battle their own impulses and question their own tendencies until they find themselves in worse trouble than they ever would have endured had they followed those impulses in the first place. They each seem hell-bent on living out their own versions of reality, at the expense of their individual sanity. This goes on, in various forms and in various entertaining iterations, until they are all reunited for Christmas dinner in St. Jude one last time. Shortly after that, Alfred is confined to a hospital and lives out his remaining years as a confused invalid. Alfred's acquiescence to his illness seems to free the characters--especially his wife Enid--from a certain shackle that kept them in a cycle of self-destructive neuroses. Hence, I believe, the title of the book.

The Elements

This novel is a complex one and it is rich with various themes that drive the plot. Among those are; generational conflict; the inability of people to let go of themselves; sexuality and gender roles; drug use and abuse; the absurdity of the post-millennium, pre-bubble financial markets; and the absurdity of the modern world in general.

Generational Conflict

The conflict between the two generations of the family plays out directly in the form of each child's relationship to his parents. The children (and I will refer to them en masse at times, bear with me) are resentful of their parents and the way they live, and yet none of them has completely separated themselves from their parent's influence. The father is stuck in a mental time warp that stopped advancing sometime in the late '40s, it seems, and the mother is stuck in the same warp, if only because she had not the will or the capability to get away from her husband. Their own refusal to accept themselves and the world has kept their values and beliefs stuck in the past, refusing to move on.

An example of this is when Gary discovers that a corporation, for which Alfred used to work, bought one of Alfred's patents for an electromagnetic gel. The corporation wants to pay Alfred $5000 for use of the patent. Gary is irate, insisting the corporation should pay twenty times that much. Furthermore, Alfred wants to give half the already meager payment back to the corporation, because part of the research was done with company materials. Gary insists his father should bleed the company for every cent it is willing to give, also to buttress his father's retirement income. Alfred staunchly clings to his principles, in spite of apparent financial good sense.

Gary and his father clash about this issue until the end of the book. It is merely one of a number of ways Alfred holds to his beliefs despite the realities of the modern world, to the constant frustration of his wife and children.

Now that Alfred has been established as someone who holds on to his beliefs, his out-of-date reality, we come to another element of this book; the ability to "let go" and its salutary effects on one's sanity.

The mother in the book, Alfred's wife Enid, is on the inside of a neurotic and anxious bubble, biting her lip as she looks out. It is clear she has been frustrated in every way by Alfred--sexually, mentally, emotionally--and it has taken a toll on her sanity. From early on in their marriage she wanted more from Alfred than he was willing (but not more than he was capable) to give her. Instead, he remained physically and emotionally distant from her. She remained his wife, dutifully, but instead lost herself and drifted into sentimental angst at her children and her life in general.

Alfred was unwilling to let go of his hopelessly iconic and cold vision of himself, and to love his wife. Whether this was out of stubborness, fear or simple dislike of his wife, we are not sure. Enid, in turn, was unable to let go of Alfred and find another mate. Thus, they lived their lives in a constant state of up-tightness; emotional constipation. Alfred's emotional constipation turns into real constipation, and later incontinence, as the book wears on.

Each of the children also battles this unwillingness to let go in some form or another. Luckily, it seems that they each begin to overcome it before they reach middle age.

Drug Use to Cure Depression And Anxiety

Another theme of this book is brain chemistry, and modern attempts to manipulate it through drug use. Throughout the book, the Lamberts plan to put Alfred on a psycho-tropic drug called Corecktall. Chip, early in the book, has a sex-filled weekend with one of his students, fuelled by a drug referred to as "Mexican-A," which we later find out is a legal anti-anxiety drug in which Enid dabbled on a vacation cruise with Alfred. Gary attempts to medicate himself with alcohol throughout the book. Denise's drug, for a time, is sex with her boss's wife, however, Denise and her father Alfred are the only ones who are unwilling to chemically medicate themselves.

One scene is particularly indicative of Franzen's message about the lunacy of tampering with brain chemistry. Gary and Denise are in a stock-holder's meeting for the company who created Corecktall. In that meeting, psycho-tropic medication is advertised like a new kind of dish-soap and with the same kind of "Gee-Whizz!" results.

Almost all of the characters' attempts to alter their brain chemistry are met with bad results. Drugs enable Chip to have an affair with a student, which results in his losing his job. Alcohol causes Gary to severely cut his finger with an electric hedge-clipper in the midst of spite and anger at his wife. A legal psycho-tropic drug causes Enid to have little or no reaction to Alfred's accident on their pleasure cruise. However, Enid's drug use almost seems to help her in this case.

The Financial Markets

Having been written, or at least published, in 2000 and set largely in the present day, this book could not help but be laden with references and plot twists concerning the financial markets. The year 2000 was the zenith of the technology bubble, which, not coincidentally, parallels the tribulations of the characters of the book. The tech bubble was a great upward progression, a growth of the financial markets and the economy, based on something that was 10% substance and 90% illusion. When the illusion got out of control, there was a "correction," and the market came tumbling back to earth.

The lives of the characters in the book unfold in much the same way. Each ultimately has his or her own "correction" that causes them to come back to earth, stop living in fantasy land, and accept who they are.

Sexuality And Gender Roles

This element relates to the modern world versus old world theme, however, it must be treated as separate in an examination of this novel.

The vortex of this story, the eye around which the entire hurricane spins, is Alfred and the craziness which he has wrought on his entire family. Each of the characters expresses a deep frustration with Alfred and, by extension, Enid. Though sometimes they may seem to love Alfred at the expense and to the spite of Enid.

We see through the book that the dysfunction in the family came as a direct result of the fundamentally dysfunctional relationship between Enid and Alfred. Alfred is dead-set on his out-dated vision of masculinity, which entails discipline, emotional unavailability, and a bizarre prudish-ness which will not even allow him to enjoy sex with his wife. The results of that vision are plainly visible in Alfred's mental deterioration.

Enid is, in her own way, guilty of living out the same out-dated vision of womanhood. She sticks by Alfred in spite of his coldness and his invalidation of her. She very well could have acted out, left him or at least threatened to leave him, and forced some sort of change. However, she stubbornly bore everything, and in the end, the spite and frustration almost killed her.

Each of the children deals with a similar burden. Gary cannot distance himself from his wife's psychological games and assume the role to which their relationship has led him; Chip cannot be with a woman who is genuinely available or hold down a productive job and become an adult; Denise cannot confront her sexuality openly enough to allow her to function at her peak.

It is all, ostensibly, because of Alfred. However, it must be noted that, under-girding the deep frustration and resentment of the man is a deep love and a stong, shared family spirit. For all his faults--and the book paints him with many--Alfred was truly the patriarch of the family and was beloved by his wife and children. His failure was only that he could not and would not allow himself to be loved, or allow himself to be an individual.

General Comments

As evidenced by the foregoing, some may say excessive, analysis of this book's many themes, there is a lot going going on in this book. It is nearly 600 pages, and is sweeping in its treatment of the various character's lives and thoughts. With a section of the book devoted to each one, it is difficult to know which is the main character. That is, most definitely, Alfred.

Franzen's writing is direct and human, and he communicates his thoughts in a current and modern style. The book is truly of the new millennium, for the new millennium. As a result, I do not think it will stand the test of time as a "classic" of literature. But perhaps that very period-sensitive quality will make it the foremost classic of our time. I don't know, and any attempt on my part to speculate would surely be wrong.

However, this book works. Probably because each of us--most of us--can see ourselves in any and all of the characters in this book. Franzen gives us such a varied smörgåsbord of neuroses that anyone who reads this book will be able to pick out something with which he can identify, and, my friends, is what makes compelling literature. However, as I said, since this book deals so intimately with the tribulations of the immediately modern world, it may survive only as a period piece.

It could be argued (and if I had the time or the inclination, I would argue it properly) that Franzen tries to do too much with this book, and tries to do it with the wrong materials. There are so many themes in this book that none of them is properly ex foliated. Furthermore, the modern world, the minutiae of modern lives, just seemed too inconsequential as a canvas on which to paint those themes.

The plot devices in general are too linked to early-millennium fads and trends that may be lost on readers over the next ten years. I think the impact of those fads and trends is already wearing off and, as a reader, I even had to tax my memory to understand some of the references.


This book is absolutely worth a read, however, it takes endurance, and like with all books, if it doesn't hook you quickly you will be tempted to abandon it. Do not. At times it is convoluted and the micro- and psycho-plot lines will fatigue you, but it is entertaining and it ultimately has a powerful message. Though it may be too linked to its time-period for its own good, you still have time to read it before the effect of it's period references wears off.


Anonymous said…
the only comment i can make is how in the opening 4 words of your review, you allow the reader to appreciate what type of work you did to make this book review, '...560 pages long.' i love it. what happened to cliff notes?? it would have been more revealing in your review once establishing how long the book was, to state how long it took you to read. a 560 pager that took a week, that is a good read. a 560 pager that took 3 months, that is a library donation, or better yet, an offering to one of those coffee shops or restaurants that has bookshelves all over the place that people look around at the bindings only to realize they have not read anything since judy bloom's worm eating book.

the cuz

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