Nuclear Fission

The Corrections

by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 568 pp., $26.00

Happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty.

—The Book of Job, 5:17

When Alfred Lambert plunges from the top deck of the Scandinavian cruise ship Gunnar Myrdal eight stories down into the North Atlantic, past the Henrik Ibsen Promenade, the Ingmar Bergman Cinema, the Alfred Nobel Infirmary, the Knut Hamsun Reading Room, the Par Lagerkvist Taproom, the Soren Kierkegaard Dining Room, and the Pippi Longstocking Ballroom—where Enid Lambert, his wife of forty-seven years, happens to be listening to a lecture on “Surviving the Corrections” of a market economy—he will briefly recall long ago reading The Chronicles of Narnia to his children:

These were evenings, and there were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, when nothing traumatic enough to leave a scar had befallen the nuclear unit. Evenings of plain vanilla closeness in his black leather chair; sweet evenings of doubt between the nights of bleak uncertainty. They came to him now, these forgotten counterexamples, because in the end, when you were falling into water, there was no solid thing to reach for but your children.

Gary, Denise, and Chip recollect another Alfred. When they were young, “it was in their nature to throw their arms around him, but this nature had been corrected out of them. They stood around and waited like company subordinates for the boss to speak.” As if money, food, and art were assigned chores in the great world’s clockwork, Gary grew up to be a banker, Denise a chef, and Chip a teacher of literary theory and a writer of awful screenplays. But what all three remember worst about their midwestern childhood in St. Jude is silence and absence, shouting and rage, disapproval and pontification, tyranny and punishment: “the berserk wind,” “the negating shadows,” and “the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.”

The Corrections, then, addresses not only the gap between generations, but also the grasp of one on the other. The flyaway children who feel themselves wronged return like boomerangs to the parents whose business it has always been to stamp out errancy. Even after Alfred survives his deep sea dive, Gary, Denise, and Chip don’t want to go back to St. Jude for yet another Christmas and still more blame. But Enid knows how to push the buttons she’s installed. She will wheedle, whine, and whammy, implying that, because of what Parkinson’s is doing to their father’s motor skills and brain, this Nativity could be his last. When Marx predicted in the Communist Manifesto that “the bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course with the vanishing of capital,” he must have been smoking something. We are talking about the “family values” of the House of Atreus, the Brothers Karamazov, the Mafia, and the Manson Gang.

Or are we? Jonathan Franzen has written a wonderful novel about nuclear family fission, with more on his mind than Marx or Freud. He always has more on …

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