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Jonathan Franzens strength as a
fiction writer lies in his micromanagement of characterization. Its no oxymoron to
call The Corrections a large-scale intimate
portrait of an American family. By burrowing deep inside the bruised middle-class psyches
of Alfred and Enid Lambert and their three grown children, Franzen intends to expose not
just this particular nuclear family but the nucleus of our collective desires and fears as
human beings and as a nation. The author is on record as wanting to forge a hybridized
link between cerebral postmodern literature and character-driven mainstream novels.
Indeed, this is exactly what hes done. At its best, the mixture makes for dazzling
fiction. When the balance falters, the narrative lapses into self-indulgence or flirts
with soap opera. Whats remarkable is how often this 568-page novel succeeds on its
own grandiose terms.
Alfred Lambert, retired railroad inspector and family patriarch, is deteriorating. Hes suffering from Parkinsons disease, hes medicated, hes listless and confused. At home in St. Judethe novels mythical Midwestern cityAlfred has retreated underground to his basement enclave and workshop. His wife Enid wants desperately to rally the family for what she fears might be their final Christmas together. This isnt as easy as it sounds. Gary, their investment banker son, is coping with depression in Philadelphia, and Garys wife Caroline wants nothing to do with Christmas in St. Jude. Chip, the Lamberts rebellious middle child, has been fired from his college teaching post and taken an unlikely job in Lithuania working for a post-Communist dot-com start-up. Daughter Denise, a sexually conflicted chef at an exclusive Philadelphia restaurant, is barely on speaking terms with her mother, who believes Denise is having an affair with a married man.
Each Lambert family member is fitted with an interconnected story line comprised of elaborate set pieces and sharp detail. Here, for example, is a vivid flashback to Alfreds job as a younger man inspecting stretches of railway for the Midland Pacific:
In his shirt and tie and wing tips he nimbly took the catwalk over the Maumee River, forty feet above slag barges and turbid water, grabbed the trusss lower chord and leaned out upside down to whack the spans principal girder with his favorite whacking hammer, which he carried everywhere in his briefcase; scabs of paint and rust as big as sycamore leaves spiraled down into the river. A yard engine ringing its bell crept onto the span, and Alfred, who had no fear of heights, leaned into a hanger brace and planted his feet in the matchstick ties sticking out over the river. While the ties waggled and jumped he jotted on his clipboard a damning assessment of the bridges competence.
The 42-year-old author has a protean talent for processing complex data and finding heightened literary uses for the way things work. From stock market transactions to the neurochemistry of antidepressants, The Corrections refuses to skimp on minutiae. In his two previous novelscritically praised but little readFranzen utilized a similar strategy of injecting three-dimensional characters into metafictional frameworks that allowed his brainy knowledge-crunching skills to shine. The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) fused elements of the mystery/suspense genre with an intricate vivisection of St. Louis machine politics. Strong Motion (1992) wove a fanciful thematic skein around the disparate topics of earthquake research, abortion rights, and corporate malfeasance.