The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Some novels, such as Ulysses or Lolita, became well-known among
the general public due to the legal wrangling that hindered their
publication. Other books gain fame through awards or movie
adaptations. The Corrections, one of the masterpieces of new
millennium fiction, is unfortunately best remembered for the
In 2001, when Oprah Winfrey announced that
The Corrections would be a selection for her
book club, Franzen's publisher increased the
planned print run tenfold - from 80,000 to
800,000 copies. Everyone should have
celebrated. One of the finest contemporary
novels would be exposed to an enormous
audience, and a successful TV show was
offering a platform to a brilliant young writer.
And lots of people did celebrate . . . except
author Franzen. The novelist seemed to mock
Oprah's program in an interview on NPR
(although he admitted he had never watched an
episode), and expressed concerns that men might not read The
Corrections because the Winfrey imprimatur would mark it as a
book for women.
The ever gracious Winfrey stepped into resolve matters. "Jonathan
Franzen will not be on The Oprah Winfrey Show," she announced,
"because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being
chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make
anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. . . We're moving on
to the next book."
Needless to say, this was not Franzen's finest moment. I don't see
anyone calling Cormac McCarthy or William Faulkner sissies
because they found a million new readers via Oprah. Even worse,
Franzen became the focal point for a host of other petty gripes.
Pundits did everything from attack the author photo on his book
jacket to blame Franzen for the death of experimental fiction.
By the time Franzen followed up with a modest book of essays, The
Discomfort Zone, critics felt compelled to review the writer instead
of the book. Michiko Kakutani dissected this inoffensive collection
of occasional pieces and issued an autopsy report that passed for a
book review. The Discomfort Zone was "an odious self-portrait of
the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish
and overwhelmingly self-absorbed." I wouldn't be surprised if the
future editions of the Merriam-Webster dictionary include blurbs
from this review next to the definition for "ad hominem."
So why waste time actually reading The Corrections? After all, this
is a book you don't need to read, since you already have been
assured by the experts that the author is a pathetic dweeb (although
he does have a nice photo on the dust jacket of his book). 'Nuff said.
Yet I am here to tell you that The Corrections is worthy of your
attention. Everything clicks in this remarkable novel, which
deserves to be more than a footnote to the life story of Oprah
Winfrey. Franzen's prose is artfully crafted, the characters vividly
realized, and the storylines diverge and converge with the virtuosity
of the Blue Angels doing tricks in the skyline. Frazen can be funny
or serious, sardonic or insightful.
Above all, Jonathan Franzen is bluntly honest. The same trait that
irritated Ms. Kakutani and Ms. Winfrey also contributes to his
greatness as a writer. He is willing to open himself up completely,
not worried what you might think about him. He understands the
foibles of the human condition, and lays them out for all to see —
and, if they want to ridicule or dismiss, so be it. I find this honesty
invigorating, and wonder about critics who bring out their cudgels
when a writer lets down his guard and speaks with such candor.
Yet the true subject of The Corrections is the vanity of human
wishes, not the vanity of Jonathan Franzen. The mind-expanding
range of sub-plots here — involving Lithuanian organized crime,
academic politicking, white collar drinking, cruise ship narcotics,
small town hypocrisy, life as a railroad engineer, medical correction
of the human brain, the sexual politics of the cooking profession,
and inter-generational strife (to cite some highlights) - all manage to
expose the characters at their most vulnerable and least attractive
moments. Below the surface gloss of the flashy narratives, deep and
dark issues loom: depressions, dementia, addiction, and physical
And, above all, the dysfunctional family. This may be the most
prominent theme in modern fiction: the ugly psychic baggage we
inherited from Mom and Dad. We rarely encounter this as a
dominant theme in great novels of the past, except for a few
depressing classics such as The Way of All Flesh (which Samuel
Butler didn't dare publish during his lifetime). But just look at the
celebrated modern fictions of Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx,
David Foster Wallace, Marisha Pessl, Jonathan Lethem and dozens
of other literary stars, and you have enough material for an anti-
Doctor-Spock, a blow-by-blow guide to lousy parenting.
Franzen is a great connoisseur of the dysfunctional family, and this
is the unifying theme in The Corrections. Alfred and Enid Lambert
and their three children guide us through all the beauty and ugliness
that is passed down from generation to generation. If they ever
make a reality show out of that popular yuppie pastime of "my-
family-was-more-bizarre-than-your-family," the Lamberts may be
the last ones voted off the island.
Yet this novel is also endearing and affectionate, and full of a light
humor, that sets it apart from your typical modern novel of bad
parenting. Franzen is too shrewd to play the blame game and just
dish out mindless rants. What a shame that his critics can't manage
to do the same.
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985. These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time.
In this installment of The
New Canon, Ted Gioia
reviews The Corrections by
|The Best in Fiction Since 1985