Jonathan Franzen knows his Pynchon, but he loves Dickens, too. Half brainiac hipster (like Brown classmates Rick Moody and Donald Antrim, he spins clued-in riffs almost without thinking), half social anatomist, Franzen finds the minor rivalries and major calamities of stay-at-home moms and workaday dads as dramatically compelling as the tides of multinational finance. In its mostly successful attempt to encompass the personal reverberations of the contemporary economy, The Corrections spares a good word for cheerful Midwestern hand clasping, loyalty to a single company, and most of all, family. Even after registering any number of complaints with the institution, in the end Franzen seems actually to agree with Robert Frost: Whether or not you like it, home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.
Not without a struggle, though. Already optioned for the movies, The Corrections ponders the almost cosmic changes necessary for the widely dispersed Lambert family to spend one last Christmas together in St. Jude. Grouchy paterfamilias Alfred retired from his job as an engineer for the railroad just before his pension kicked in, for entirely admirable reasons that only later become apparent. Pinched spiritually and emotionally, still paying his subscription to bankrupt notions of hard work and character, Alfred condenses every narrowness that Midwesterners since Sinclair Lewis have resented. Franzen, however, admires and maybe even adores the cranky old bastard, seeing in his principled refusal to enjoy himself an admirable internal moral compass rather than the externalized go-go bounce of the mass-marketed soul. A devoted reader of Schopenhauer, Alfred nonetheless frets that “his feeling of righteousness, of uniquely championing the real, was just a feeling . . . . If the world refused to square with his version of reality then it was necessarily an uncaring world, a sour and sickening world . . . . And he was doomed to be violently lonely in it.” Now, incipient Parkinson’s disease rendering his days even more unstable, Alfred lives out his stoic philosophy with ill grace.
Alfred’s wife, Enid, gives up any career aspirations early on in her marriage, only to endure 50 years of smothered emotion during which she hoards absolutely everything that comes into her orbit—”the brandy-pumpkin ‘spread’ that had turned a snottish gray-green . . . the Nixon-era bottle of Mai Tai mix with an oozing crust around its neck, the collection of Paul Masson Chablis carafes with spider parts and moth wings at the bottom”—as if somehow, somewhere, one of these kitsch cadavers will yield its burden of love and meaning. Shrill, well-meaning, and perversely driven to elbow away her loved ones, Enid steers the family together through sheer force of will.
Unsurprisingly, their children flee at the first opportunity, lugging with them far more than two pieces of emotional carry-on. Oldest son Gary is a prosperous investment banker whose wife’s millions cannot stave off a lingering depression and a fear that his sons, aside from his sweet-natured youngest, continually mock him. Smugly au courant middle child Chip is a rising cultural studies star at a small New England college, until he theorizes his way into what he would call a “sexual (trans)act(ion)” with one of his students that gets him fired; at sea in New York, he proofreads and slaves over a dreadful screenplay, exonerating himself. Like their father, neither son quite banishes misgivings about his (respectively, hyper-capitalist and putatively anti-capitalist) worldview, adroitly maneuvering around the holes in his personal ozone. Maybe, it sometimes troubles Chip, “there was nothing wrong with the world and nothing wrong with being happy in it.” Youngest daughter Denise, the only Lambert child to appreciate their father, becomes a wildly successful celebrity chef but never sustains more than the merest grasp at a personal life.
Tracing the trajectories of each character almost from birth (Alfred and Enid’s sublimated child-achievement battles with their neighbors, Denise’s peripatetic gender identity, Gary’s struggle to accept his part-satiric role in his own family) through the current holiday season, Franzen is wonderfully broad-minded, casually mastering an enormous array of styles and subjects. He does academic satire as well as Francine Prose, kitchen confidential with the zest of Anthony Bourdain, commercialized meaninglessness with DeLillo’s historicity and the relentless eye of David Foster Wallace, and quirky personal sketches with the compressed wit of Lorrie Moore. Yet his voice is his own, an astonishingly versatile instrument capable of satire and compassion in equal measure—this is a writer with truly worldwide reach. He also sprinkles the book with in-jokes just for the heck of it: a Swedish liqueur named Sp(breve)ogg, compounded of vodka, sugar, and horseradish; a hallucinatory talking turd that nods to Mr. Hankey of South Park; Aslan as both the Narnian Christ-figure and a banned Mexican version of Ecstasy whose SampLpak (he also cherishes a perverse affection for capitalist sloganeering) blows Enid’s mind. When absolutely everything can be recirculated as advertising copy, he asks, shouldn’t we reimagine human ties?
Franzen’s central trope, however, reads people and countries through the vagaries of Wall Street; in both frames of reference, the step from “adjustment” to “depression” (or the reverse) can be surprisingly quick. Suddenly abashed by what he has done to his college-student prey, “like a market inundated with a wave of panic selling, [Chip] was plunged into shame and self-consciousness.” When we first meet Gary, he estimates that “his levels of Neurofactor 3 (i.e. serotonin, a very, very important factor) were posting seven-day or even thirty-day highs. . . . Declines led advances in key indices of paranoia . . . . And his seasonally adjusted assessment of life’s futility and brevity was consistent with the overall robustness of his mental economy.” Perhaps the ultimate example of this is Lithuania, in this telling a procession of governments without a state—”we have the highest annual per capita output of elections of any country in the world”—for which the jobless Chip spends three months as chief spinmeister, learning along the way that opposition to commodity culture perfectly outfits you to out-signify the competition.
Franzen hints wonderfully at the mutability of personality in an age of globalized industry. Even if his resort to home-and-hearth verities feels unduly traditional, his vision of emotional terrain overrun by forces both large and small tells us something we need to hear about the late-capitalist self—willfully privatized, but also able to mold that global megaculture to re-create itself in new configurations. Could this be the first great novel of the 21st century?