Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections: a Book Review

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
December 22, 2003

It reads like a family epic. The inner struggle, constant fighting against one’s loved ones for the elation of pure ego or life’s other mysterious force is presented in this marvelous American novel. The correction by Jonathan Franzen emits and bustles the everyday life of a family, tormented by nature’s gradual encroachment and the overwhelming feelings of helplessness from not being able to share and receive love with the beloveds.

Life has ups and down. Some are very successful in material life, some just cannot shed their life long dream, however impractical that seems to be for the rest of the world; and some finds the tragedy of this gone awry world is written on a farce. Perhaps, “life” is a “divine comedy”.

This is a story of a family: Alfred, the patriarch and Enid, the matriarch and their three emotionally wrecked grown up children, Gary, Chip and Denise.

Alfred is an executive engineer for a railroad company. He is so disciplined and methodical in his life long pursuance of railroad executive career, so much absorbed in his work but neglecting his wife and children. He represses his loving feelings to his family. He shocks them by taking an early retirement just a few weeks before he could have a full pension. His depression takes him over; he slumps in his favorite chair, in the underground basement enclave; everyday he slides into the delirium of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Enid, Alfred Lambert’s wife, likes to live in a bubble, over-conscious for uptight and wealthy neighbors’ and friends’ approval or disapproval of her family and children’s material successes. Her motherly love blinds her purposefully from seeing the failures in her youngest son, Chip, whom she parades to her friends as working in a prestigious law farm in New York or her emphasis that Chip is associated with the Wall Street Journal not the actual Warren Street Journal where Chip was actually contributing un-paid articles from time to time.

Chip is a bright man in love with literature and his non-ending strive toward finding his true love is written with comedy; he gets trapped from the seduction of his strikingly beautiful and clever freshman student. In his moment of vulnerability he breaks the sanctity of a teacher-student relationship and helps Melissa, quite improperly, in a major writing project. He gets nailed for the collapse of his ethical behavior and his all safe and sound permanent tenure as professor in literature department in college evaporate and his life crashes. Chip’s part-time work and his constant re-writing of a screenplay do not take him much up the ladder of material success. The soaring debts from his little sister Denise and his "maxed" out credit cards compel him to accept a job offer from a Lithuanian (desired to be) warlord Gitanas who offers Chip a job in building a Lithuanian website to defraud the American investors. Gitanas’ project seems quite preposterous on the outset, but perhaps Jonathan Franzen wanted to pinch in capitalism’s invincibility.

A few conversations among Chip, Gitanas and Chip’s publisher Eden:

“Yeah. We’re selling a country,” Gitanas said.

“We need a satisfied U.S. customer on site. Also, much much safer to work on the web over there.”

Chip laughed, “You actually expect American investors to send you money? On the basis of what. Of sand shortages in Latvia?”

“They are already sending me money,” Gitanas said, “on the basis of little joke I played. Not even sand and gravel just a mean little joke I played. Tens of thousands of dollars already. But I want them to send me millions.”

“Gitanas,” Eden said. “Dear man. This is completely a point incentive moment. There could not be a more perfect situation for an escalation cause. Every time Chip doubles your receipts, you give him another point of the action. Hm? Hm?”

“If I see a hundred times increase in receipts, trust me, Chip will be a wealthy man.”

“But I’m saying let’s have this in writing.”

Gitanas caught Chip’s eye and silently conveyed to him his opinion of their host. “Eden, this document,” he said, “what is Chip’s job designation? International Wire Fraud Consultant? First Deputy Co-Conspirator?”

“Vice President for Willful Tortuous Misrepresentation”, Chip offered.

Eden gave a scream of pleasure, “I love it!”

“Our agreement is strictly oral,” Gitanas said.

“Of course, there’s nothing actually illegal about what you are doing,” Eden said.

Gitanas answered her question by staring out the window for a longish while. In his red ribbed jacket he looked like a motocross rider.

“Of course not,” he said.

“So it isn’t wire fraud,” Eden said.

“No, no. Wire fraud? No.”

“Because not to be a scaredy-cat here, but wire fraud is what this almost sounds like.”

“This collective fungible assets of my country disappeared in yours without a ripple,” Gitanas said. “A rich powerful country made the rules we Lithuanians are dying by. Why should we respect these rules?”

“This is an essential Foucaultian question,” Chip said.

“It’s also a Robin Hood question,” Eden said. “Which doesn’t exactly reassure me on the legal front.”

And Chip is partly sold on this Robin Hood or Foucaultian question and is partly leaded by his economic desperation. He accepts Gitanas’ lucrative job offer and flies with him to Vilnius, a city of Lithuania, where he sets up a website, a sleek one, and writes numerous eyewitness accounts (made up) of Lithuanian emerging economy. Chip and Gitanas offer many perks to the investors for having a stake on Lithuania’s political and economic future. These perks include the name of an investor to be the name of a road; a village or a city; a lordship title with the flogging rights to the persons who do not acknowledge their lordship, etc. of various quite farcical innovation of for profit political party and a for profit nation. Jonathan Franzen was sometimes using metaphor in his critique of solely profit-based economy.

Denise is quite a complex character. She yearns for love but finds herself in a divorce from her Jewish husband both of them worked in restaurant as chef. Denise is confused because of her confounding feelings, her bewildering sexual orientation. In the end, her confusion remains but she is gravitated to the life of hurting her lovers; her self-denial from this truth is masterfully described.

This is also a story of Gary, the elder son, who is a staunch materialist, a successful banker and investor. Also, Gary finds himself in the midst of conflicting emotions with his unsuccessful bid to make his wife and children to love his extended family, his parents and siblings. Gary’s wife, Caroline, is like a belligerent war enthusiast, likes to keep Gary “under her thumb”, who despises her mother-in-law and cleverly manipulates her children to dislike them as well. Jonathan Franzen’s portrayal of Gary’s struggle to take his family to his parent’s home for one last Christmas re-union with his parents and siblings is reasonably emotive. Gary feels angry in his failure to win ally from his own children and soul mate and in his constant torment from his wife’s mendacious political maneuver in winning the family battle, in her utter determination of not letting any of her children to participate in Gary’s family reunion is shocking but was written with acute observation of a real family life. His anger makes him lashing out toward everyone: his wife, his frenzied mother, mulish father, and emotionally ravaged siblings.

Death is the ultimate destination. And Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections descends toward its logical end. With the writer’s magisterial ability to involve the readers in a plot that has the up and down swing of sentiments, the painful delineation of a family’s continuous erosion, the joy and excruciating anticipation of one hopeful mother who yearns for a last family reunion for one last Christmas in the failing but nostalgic place she and her husband had raised her three children, a father’s journey through dementia and realizing at last that the end is near, and they all reunite in the end, in the middle of bitter arguments but still in a cherished family gathering, is absorbing.

When things get agonizing for Alfred, when he couldn’t bear to live in a life filled with memory lapses and hallucinations, he asked his son, “’For God’s sake, Chip,’ he said loudly, because he sensed that this might be his last chance to liberate himself before he lost all contact with that clarity and power and it was therefore crucial that Chip understand exactly what he wanted. ‘I am asking for your help! You’ve got to get me out of this! You have to put an end to it!’ Even red-eyed, even tear-streaked, Chip’s face was full of power and clarity. Here was a son whom he could trust to understand him as he understood himself; and so Chip’s answer, when it came, was absolute. Chip’s answer told him that this was where they story ended. It ended with Chip shaking his head, it ended him saying: ‘I can’t, Dad. I can’t.’”

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a highly readable and a moving novel.


Other Reviews By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)

1. Monica Ali's Brick Lane: a Book Review.

2. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: a Book Review.

3. Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: a Future of Hope or Despair?

4. Anil's Ghost: a Book Review.

5. War's Wraths and Devastations: Excerpt from Ian McEwan's The Atonement.

6. Spielberg's Minority Report: a Movie Review.

7. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver - a Review.

8. To Say Nothing of the Dog: a Book Review.

9. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible - a Book Review.

10. A Review of Joseph Stiglitz's Globalization and its Discontents.

11. A Review of Clash of Fundamentalisms by Tariq Ali.

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Part 5:


Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) is a freelance writer. His email address is: