Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen- Review by Carlyn and Jon *with spoilers*

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen tells the story of a dysfunctional American family. The Lamberts consist of parents Enid and Alfred and their adult children, Gary, Chip and Denise. Alfred suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and the family struggle to help him. Enid and Alfred want to maintain their independence but it is clear that they need more help than they will admit. They all have secrets from each other that lead to depression and resentment.

The Lamberts

Alfred is a former railway engineer who suddenly quit his job instead of accepting a promotion. His family do not understand his decision and resent him for his choice. Alfred is a restrained man who has strong morals. His family sometimes think he’s hard to please and cold hearted.

Enid is an old fashioned housewife and a hoarder. She has conservative views on life and is dismayed at how her children have turned out. Enid lies about her children to her friends in order to project the image of a perfect family.

Gary is the oldest Lambert child. He works as an investment banker. Gary works hard to maintain an affluent image and to not resemble his father in anyway. He is depressed but in denial. Gary’s wife and kids think he’s paranoid.

Chip is a bit of a sleazebag and amoral person. He is a former Literature professor who goes to Lithuania to dupe foreign investors for the Lithuanian government.

Denise is an up and coming celebrity chef whose love life is a mess when she comes between a married couple.

Carlyn’s thoughts:

I heard that there were attempts to have this book made into a movie. I think it would make a great movie and I can easily see Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in it. The book is raw and dramatic and there are some funny moments as well. There were times when I found the characters unlikeable because they were so unkind or resentful towards each other. The Lambert siblings found their parents to be overbearing and annoying.  The parents were disapproving of their children’s life decisions.

 In addition, they all make some poor choices that cause them some stress. The book alternates between the characters in each chapter so as I read the chapters I began to understand the characters motives and be a bit more sympathetic towards them. I found the problem with the family was that they are not honest or accepting of each other.

I’m more interested in Young Adult fiction where the characters are not as messed up so maybe that is why this book didn’t appeal to me. I find that YA fiction has more likeable characters and they have a determination to resolve their problems. Also they tend to have sidekicks who act as their conscience and prevent the protagonists from too much damage. The Lamberts don’t really have anyone to talk to and they don’t talk to each other so I can understand why they make some poor decisions.  

I thought the book was well written and each character had their own voice.  I could relate to the family dynamics and how you can love someone and be annoyed by them too. I thought some parts of the book were boring to read about such as when Gary and Denise go to a neurological seminar and there is lot of medical jargon. Another moment I found hard to read involved faeces.

I felt hopeful at the end of the novel when the characters started to overcome their problems and change their attitudes, especially Enid.  While not all the problems are resolved I get a sense the characters want to live more positive lives at the end. 

Jon's thoughts

If you enjoy good character development then Franzen is a writer you'll like.  He does a wonderful job of description in scene setting and in his development of the personalities of each member of the Lambert family.  It's possible the descriptive nature of his writing can be a bit of overkill at times for some readers. 

If you have a good understanding of the bible I think it would probably be an asset in reading The Corrections, as it would be truthfully in so many novels.  The Corrections is set in the early 1990s and seems largely to be a commentary not only on dysfunctional family dynamics but also a dysfunctional America that's headed for a crash. The Lamberts grow up in an innocent Midwest Protestant American lifestyle. You'll note how Christ is the Lamb of God and of course a symbol of innocence.  The story is suggestive of the fact that when the Lambert Children move away from their parents to the East Coast they become corrupted by this distancing from the wholesome Midwestern values when thrust into Corporate America .

C.S. Lewis' book the Lion the Which and the Wardrobe  which is a biblical allegory also plays a large part in the story.  The book is being read by Gary's son Jonah and Aslan, the Lion is the name of one of the drugs used to try and bring competency to patients suffering from dementia. 

A big theme I could not help but consider as well when I read the novel given the dysfunction of Gary, Enid, Chip, Arthur and Denise was the second law of thermodynamics or the law of entropy, which suggest that out of chaos comes order. The lives of the characters that seem to be most chaotic, Chip's life, which is rife with failure and an insatiable sexual appetite and Enid's, which had been dominated by her husband Alfred in health and later dominated by Alfred in his sickness seem to become most ordered by the end of the novel while the lives of those who might appear least chaotic and more stable, those of Gary who has a stable job as a banker and Denise a successful career as a cook move more towards disorder. 

I found Chip and Alfred to be the most interesting characters in the story.  Alfred is presented as having been so domineering by all the characters with the exception of Denise and yet we see him at a stage in his life, when he is losing his mental faculty, where he is the complete opposite of a domineering and in control figure.   The chaos and dysfunction of Alfred's deteriorating mind seems to be a microcosm of the entire family dynamic.  Chip is probably the least redeemable character when you read the book early on.  He seems to lack moral value, responsibility and decency.  Gary and Denise appear to be the stereotypical models of responsibility. 

At the end of the book though when everyone was fearing who would be responsible for Alfred's care, it was Chip (the least likely of all the children) who visited Alfred in the hospital and stayed with Enid to care for Alfred.  Not only that, but Chip actually starts a family, gets married and seems to have his life back on path by the end of the book.  Denise ends the story confused sexually involved in affairs with women and men and disgraced professionally having lost her job.  Gary ends the story being the epitome of his father Alfred who he was so trying to avoid becoming.  He's depressed and is controlling and domineering in his relationship with his wife Caroline and with his children.  He's also lost a good deal of money in a failing market.  Enid is finally in control of her own life and has the freedom of movement, thought and action that escaped her while living with Alfred her whole life.

It's interesting in the Christmas Dinner near the end of the story that Enid was working so hard at organizing when Chip who has felt like such a failure and loser realizes that he is the happiest person at the Dinner table.

Ultimately I found that all the characters did a horrible job of understanding each other's point of view.  They all possessed a strong sense of selfishness about them and their situations.  So they are all unlikeable, and yet they all have qualities too that make sense.  Not enough to really redeem them, but enough to bring some level of empathy for each of them. 

I think Franzen is very talented and a lot of people would love The Corrections.  I came away from it feeling like it was a good, very thought provoking but unspectacular read. 

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