By Jonathan Franzen
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
“With The Corrections, Franzen emerges as one of premier interpreters of American society and the American soul.”
Most of the group liked the book, though one member disliked it to the extent of refusing to finish it.
If nothing else, Franzen is an excellent narrator with a captivating style and rich language, even if the deviation into Lithuania with Chip is a bit too long. Yet it has a message:
"The main difference between America and Lithuania, as far as Chip could see, was that in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence."
The novel explores the lives of the Lamberts, a traditional and somewhat repressed Midwestern family, whose children have fled to the East coast to start new lives free from the influence of their parents. Chronologically, the novel shifts back and forth throughout the late 20th century, depicting in detail the personal growth and mistakes of each family member.
The separate plot-lines converge on Christmas morning back in St. Jude, when Enid and her children are forced to confront Alfred's accelerating physical and mental decline.
The title of The Corrections refers most literally to the decline of the technology-driven economic boom of the late nineties and the transition from an industrial economy to an economy based largely on the financial, high-tech and service sectors.
This economic correction parallels the simultaneous "corrections" that Franzen's characters make to their own lives in the novel's final pages. Enid becomes more flexible in her worldview and less submissive to her husband's authority, and Chip begins a more mature relationship with a woman, simultaneously reconciling with his father. Gary, the only central character who fails to learn from his mistakes and grow during the course of the novel, loses a lot of money as technology stocks begin to decline.
The book addresses conflicts and issues within a family that arise from the presence of a progressive debilitating disease of an elder, with a touch of kindly humour. But as Alfred’s dementia and parkinsonism unfold mercilessly, they affect Enid and all three children, causing different and, over time, changing reactions. Medical help does not provide a solution. At the end, Alfred refuses to eat and dies, the ultimate “correction” of the problem.
Franzen has since published two other novels, Freedom (2010), which I also found very good, and Purity (2015), not so well received.