Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen; drawing by David Levine

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

—The Book of Job, 5:17

1.

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 certainty. 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 his mind. In The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), while mourning a marriage that took itself too much for granted, watching decency corrupted by politics, race, and real estate, and singing a sorrow song (the St. Louis Inferiority Complex Blues), he also imagined an invasion of Missouri by dark subversive hordes from the Indian subcontinent. In Strong Motion (1992), he combined the love story of a seismologist and a slacker and the hate story of a mother and a son with the provincialities of Boston, the fanaticism of the anti-abortion movement, the geophysics of earthquakes, the chemistry of toxic waste, and a Marxist critique of American colonial history. So it ought not to come as a surprise that in The Corrections he has urgent things to say about consumerism, pharmacology, biotechnology, the “optimistic egalitarianism” of the American Middle West, the superstitious magic of the stock exchange, and the unbearable lightness of virtual being on the home pages of the Infobahn, not to mention asparagus steamers, refrigerator magnets, a vacuum pump to keep leftover wine from oxidizing, cell phones, and class hatred.

Full of understatement and overreaction, irony and anger, anthropology and surrealism, glut and glee—the rising gorge, the falling tear, politics, parody, pratfall, and prophetic snit—The Corrections is the whole package, as if nobody ever told Franzen that the social novel is dead and straight white males vestigial. You will laugh, wince, groan, weep, leave the table and maybe the country, promise never to go home again, and be reminded of why you read serious fiction in the first place: to console and complicate the extreme self with the beauty and truth of sinewy sentences and the manners and mystery of characters from outer space, to see the shadow, and then the teeth, of social context and momentous history coming like cats into the crib where the baby private life is sleeping.

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What The Corrections is not is therapeutic. While Franzen may forgive a few characters, he won’t fix them. The universe is full of error, which is why we correct course, usage, proofs, midterms, and, of course, the record; why we have correction boxes and correctional facilities, corrective surgery and corrective lenses; how come we stand corrected, under our dunce caps, by parents, teachers, umpires, priests, magistrates, and grammarians who admonish, chastise, exhort, rebuke, and rehabilitate. Not, however, by novelists. Or not by this novelist, anyway, who lives, as it were, on a margin for error. Instead of therapy, he proposes transcendence.

But first—as if it were a blood-tide table or the prototype “Web” page or even Original Sin; as if Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams were sitting around trying to decide whether attention must indeed be paid to Arthur Miller’s Willie Loman—the family romance of the Lamberts.

2.

Would you believe Schopenhauer? He shows up at the Lambert dinner table, in Alfred’s head, in a brilliant set piece at the center of the novel, allowing himself to be quoted on the world as a penal colony and on the suffering of women and animals. That Alfred, a railroad engineer otherwise chary of books, should have consoled himself in the Depression by contemplating Schopenhauer as Schopenhauer consoled himself by contemplating the Upanishads is perhaps unlikely. But it’s a terrific excuse for Jonathan Franzen to throw in this black pearl from the hermit of Frankfurt:

The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.

Chip refuses to eat his liver. Alfred ordains that he shall not leave the table until he has. Enid, who has cooked the liver to spite them all and who is pregnant with the future chef Denise, enforces her husband’s edict to its angry letter. Hours later, when Alfred comes upstairs from his basement workshop, he finds Chip face down on the placemat, unconscious. He carries his son to bed—one of two fatherly acts of which he has any right to be proud, and the other is a secret.

In this basement on his first night back from a business trip that tormented him with the next-door sounds of random sex on rented motel sheets, while Chip isn’t eating his liver and Enid is waiting to wheedle, what Alfred has been up to is “growing crystals” to seek a substance that can “electroplate itself.” He’s engaged in a war of cultures where immoral plastic is winning out over the rectitude of metal:

Unfortunately, metal in its free state—a nice steel stake or a solid brass candlestick—represented a high level of order, and Nature was slatternly and preferred disorder. The crumble of rust. The promiscuity of molecules in solution. The chaos of warm things. States of disorder were vastly more likely to arise spontaneously than were cubes of perfect iron. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, much work was required to resist this tyranny of the probable—to force the atoms of a metal to behave themselves.

And this is the evening he happens upon a “ferroacetate gel” that years later, after he has almost forgotten that he patented it, will become the basis of a biotechnology that purports to “correct” damaged neural pathways in brains like Alfred’s own. And his banker son, Gary, will want more money for the old patent than corporate scammers are prepared to pay. There is quite a lot in The Corrections about molecules that spontaneously polymerize and tuna-red brains sliced up like sashimi. When you read Franzen, as when you read Pynchon, DeLillo, Roth, John Irving, and Richard Powers, you have to expect to learn things—in The Twenty-Seventh City, about the history of St. Louis, the politics of urban renewal, and the criminal justice system of Bombay; in Strong Motion, about FM radio, rupture propagations, induced seismicity, New Age moonbeams, and Red Sox baseball—whether you think you need to or not. And you do need to, because hardware and mysticism will be on the midterm.

But meanwhile we have learned what we need to about Alfred Lambert. In the chaos of misbehaving molecules and the promiscuity of warm slatterns, Alfred is steel and his children plastic. Steel, of course, has virtues. The railroad he works for is soon to merge with another, and he refuses to take financial advantage of his insider knowledge. (Refusal is what he’s best at.) “I don’t give a damn what other people do,” he shouts at Enid. “I am not that kind of person.” And this is the night of the liver and the gel, when Enid, who usually plays dead to arouse his sexual interest, has actually offered to fellate him. “Succubus,” he thinks, and then quotes to himself some more jolly Schopenhauer.

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Enid doesn’t know—because husbands and wives in the Middle West only seem to talk to each other about sugar cookies and power tools—that Alfred secretly dreams of not worrying about money, of being “truly comforted” by a woman “when the misery overcame him,” of the “radical transformation” of waking up one day to find himself a wholly different person, “more confident,” “divinely capable.” He will wake up instead, decades later, in penny-pinched retirement, his faculties deserting him as if he were a bankrupt college, from an anal-retentive nightmare about a talking turd—“Civilization? Overrated. I ask you what it’s ever done for me? Flushed me down the toilet! Treated me like shit!”—to incontinence, incomprehension, and unintelligibility:

He began a sentence: “I am—“ but when he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he’d entered, he would realize that the crumbs he’d dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds, silent deft darting things which he couldn’t quite see in the darkness but which were so numerous and swarming in their hunger that it seemed as if they were the darkness, as if this darkness weren’t uniform, weren’t an absence of light but a teeming and corpuscular thing…as of a kind of sinister decay; and hence the panic of a man betrayed deep in the woods whose darkness was the darkness of starlings blotting out the sunset or black ants storming a dead opossum, a darkness that didn’t just exist but actively consumed the bearings that he’d sensibly established for himself, lest he be lost….

3.

About Enid, Gary’s wife, the dreadful Caroline, explains: “It’s not my fault if she chooses to live in the future.” Nothing is Caroline’s fault. To make sure this continues to be so, she gobbles pop-psych paperbacks like steroids. But she’s right about Enid, who has chosen to live in the future because she doesn’t like the past, and who spends most of the novel nagging the kids to come home for the last turkey and the last Nutcracker: “The disappointment on Enid’s face was disproportionately large. It was an ancient disappointment with the refusal of the world in general and her children in particular to participate in her preferred enchantments.”

But keep your eye on her. Presbyterian passive-aggressive is also a survival strategy. She underestimates herself: “A capacity for love was the only true thing she’d ever had.” She does the best she can with the cards she’s dealt, is no more envious or devious than the rest of us, is tireless, fearless, and smarter than she looks, and perfectly capable of “waiving the oral exam for gift horses” when she needs kindness from strangers or Denise. So what if her idea of a festive salad is water chestnuts, green peas, and cheddar cheese cubes in a mayonnaise sauce? If anyone in The Corrections is radically transformed—and all of them are turned like sucklings on a spit—it’s Enid at age seventy-five. When Alfred at last is safely dead, she puts on her sudden freedom like a jaunty hat.

About Gary: Leave him be, a lost cause at the mixed grill in his backyard in Philadelphia, consulting the dipstick of his serotonin, “key indices of paranoia,” and his “seasonally adjusted assessment of life’s futility,” wondering whether he is clinically depressed: “He was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties…[and] never win another argument.” (This is very funny. But while wondering if you have a problem with alcohol means that you do, in a genuine depression you can’t introspect.) Coming home early from the office, letting the kids watch too much television, even trying to cash in on insider information about Alfred’s patent, Gary’s “entire life was set up as a correction of his father’s.” And yet to his mother he wants to cry out: “Of your three children, my life looks by far the most like yours! I have what you taught me to want! And now that I have it, you disapprove of it!”

Gary probably deserves to lose money, during the market “correction” of inflated technology stocks, on his furtive investment in the “Corecktall” process that couldn’t do anything for brains like his father’s, which is verging on dementia. He certainly deserves, if not Alfred, at least Caroline, his manipulative, blackmailing Slinky of a wife, for whom he cooks, on whom he waits; who refuses ever to visit St. Jude; who organizes the children against their own father; who even weans the precocious Jonah away from the C.S. Lewis books into on-line Internet Narnia games and a Prince Caspian CD-ROM. When you exchange one tyranny for another, what you’ve got is a slave habit.

About Denise: “I’m not a good person,” she tells Robin, the wife of her employer at the high-end Philadelphia restaurant where she chefs up a saucy storm, during an intimate moment in their S/M lovenest. This isn’t true, even if I do think she needs to decide once and for all whether she’s lesbian. But I’m not her mother, the one she can’t recall ever having loved till she suddenly sees it’s just possible that “Enid’s problems did not go much deeper than having the wrong husband,” a problem Denise has had, too. And it is Denise, who ate her first raw oyster with the gay high school drama teacher, who talks about flavor “the way Marxists talked about revolution,” who has been to France and Italy and Brooklyn, and loaned Chip $20,000, whose knifework is as admirable as her cheekbones—it’s this Denise, cleaning up her mortified father’s incontinent mess and realizing how her mother spends her grueling days, who delivers Franzen’s humanist message: “How could you permit yourself to breathe, let alone laugh or sleep or eat well, if you were unable to imagine how hard another person’s life was?”

Denise is more complicated and lovable than Gary or Chip. And so was Barbara, compared to her husband Martin, the Alfred-alike in The Twenty-Seventh City. And so was the seismologist Renee, compared to the slacker Louis in Strong Motion. In fact, Caroline in The Corrections, Jammu in The Twenty-Seventh City, and Lauren in Strong Motion are all more complicated and hateful than any of the men in these novels. This is really amazing.

About Chip: We have met more persuasive versions of him in novels by David Lodge and A.S. Byatt. While his brief career as a teacher of literary theory, “Consuming Narratives,” on a college campus where he crosses a Lucent Technologies Lawn to linger in the Viacom Arboretum, is a hoot—even if we agree with one of his students that “I think you’re here to teach us to hate the same things you hate”—the essays he writes on “Creative Adultery” and “Let Us Now Praise Scuzzy Motels” for a journal of “the transgressive arts” sound no less ludicrous than his screenplay with its monologue on the “anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama.” And his sojourn in Lithuania, where he arranges a Web site to sucker investors into buying time shares in beachside Palanga villas, parking privileges in the Old City of Vilnius, and top-of-the-list priority rights for cornea transplants at the “famed Antakalnis Hospital,” seems to belong to another novel entirely, along with Schopenhauer, although Franzen is setting us up for his Internet rant, and I’d hate to lose the cell phone riot.

But it’s Chip who, making it back to St. Jude from the “enlightened neotechnofeudalism” of Lithuania just in time for the meltdown of the turkey, is flabbergasted to discover that “I am the least unhappy person at this table.” And it is Chip who delivers the novel’s most plaintive sentence: “When had it happened that his parents had become the children who went to bed early and called down for help from the top of the stairs?”

4.

I’ve spent more time with the Lamberts than I intended, probably because Alfred rages in my bathroom, and Enid in the kitchen sticks marshmallows on top of the canned pineapples in the apricot Jell-O, and Chip at my computer has logged on to a chatroom for detached signifiers and recovering Lithuanians, and Denise is in the garden smoking crack; because, before this novel, I had never heard of the drug Mexican A, also known as Aslan, although why anybody would name a “club drug” after the leonine Christ figure and propagandist for Catholicism in The Chronicles of Narnia is a mystery, like wonderful novels.

So I lied. We can’t help going home again. From marriage, family, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and the very idea of kinship, we hope for sanctuary; for someplace where not only do they have to take us in but we needn’t have earned it; for a hammock and a trampoline. Before the starlings get him, and the ants, Alfred thinks:

Maybe the pleasures of a swing set, likewise of sky- and scuba-diving, were tastes from a time when the uterus held you harmless from the claims of up and down. A time when you hadn’t acquired the mechanics, even, to experience vertigo. Still luxuriated safely in a warm human sea.

This is too much to ask. We ask it anyway.

Of the much else on Franzen’s mind, anti-therapy is major. On the one hand, from the Axon Corporation, we have Corecktall, the printed-circuit answer to our dependence on chemicals to mess with our synaptic switchboard, “a revolutionary neurobiological therapy” promising “for the first time the possibility of renewing and improving the hard wiring of an adult human brain.” On the other hand, from dope dealers near Chip’s college campus, who call it Mexican A, and from the doctor on board the Gunnar Myrdal, who calls it “Aslan,” we have a new miracle drug, no mere antidepressant but a “personality optimizer” with “a remarkable blocking effect on ‘deep’ or ‘morbid’ shame” that “switches your anxiety to the Off position,” and comes in a variety of customized compounds including Basic, Ski, Hacker, Teen, Club Med, Golden Years, and California, not to mention Performance Ultra for those who have to work all night like Jack the Ripper.

Neither Corecktall nor Aslan is recommended for any brain that verges on dementia, so Alfred with his talking Freudian turd is out of luck. Enid, though, gives Aslan a shot; then later decides, a heroine of consciousness, that “I want the real thing or I don’t want anything.”

As contemptuous as Franzen is of these electric and chemical designer therapies that fail to touch the mind’s wounds or the world’s, he is equally disdainful of the buzz ministries, Spam slanguages, and image pimps that distract, distort, simplify, and stupefy us—Chip’s literary theory; Caroline’s pop-psych feelgood babble; the microphone, surveillance camera, and servo controls in Gary’s kitchen to catch him sneaking into the liquor cabinet; the spiderspeak in green decimals of international currency speculation and of nation-states for sale; an entire “Perfect Cool” culture of yupscale twenty-six-year-olds “who thought Andrew Wyeth was a furniture company and Winslow Homer a cartoon character”; virtual Narnia; virtual Lithuania.

On board the Gunnar Myrdal, the artist-mother of a torture-murder victim tells Enid that all she has been able to do since she lost her daughter is draw guns and download porn from the Internet:

She wondered: How could people respond to these images if images didn’t secretly enjoy the same status as real things? Not that images were so powerful, but that the world was so weak. It could be vivid, certainly, in its weakness, as on days when the sun baked fallen apples in orchards and the valley smelled like cider…but the world was fungible only as images. Nothing got inside the head without becoming pictures.

Whereas her husband had gone into such deep denial that he decided to behave as if nothing had happened or ever would:

He thinks our culture attaches too much importance to feelings, he says it’s out of control, it’s not computers that are making everything virtual, it’s mental health. Everyone’s trying to correct their thoughts and improve their feelings and work on their relationships and parenting skills instead of just getting married and having children the way they used to, is what Ted says. We’ve bumped up to the next level of abstraction because we have too much time and money, is what he says, and he refuses to be a part of it.

Then where do we go, besides home? Georgia O’Keeffe once wrote about a Texas walk with her sister Claudia, when an evening star came out: “My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.” We go to Texas for those watercolors. Or to Franzen’s St. Jude, where so many sentences seem to have been made out of evening stars, where we find solace and wit and courage and swing sets, the smell of cider and a plain vanilla closeness, silent deft darting things and a call for help from the top of the stairs.

This Issue

September 20, 2001