I blogged about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections when I was only a quarter of the way through; at the time I was pleased at the way the narrative had shifted from a detailed portrayal of a depressingly-failed life onto a seemingly more exciting tack. I spoke too soon, of course: the ‘departure’ was in fact a brief side-step (which I guess has the narrative advantage of keeping one of the main characters ‘present’ even when he’s absent from the story itself) and we’re very quickly back into the grim world of the Lambert family, albeit focusing on different family members.
First we have Gary, the brother of Chip (it’s with Chip we begin the novel, after a short opening section at the family home in St. Jude). I found Gary the most depressing of the lot, mainly because he is so self-consciously put-upon and living a life neutered by mediocrity and depression.
Next comes the family’s mother and father – Enid and Alfred – who are buckling under the weight of Alfred suffering from Parkinson’s. The sections describing Alfred having one of his hallucinations (great chunks of the fourth part of the book) are sickeningly realistic, and not at all easy to read. Enid is no charmer either: she’s controlling, needy and inflexible. What fun!
The Corrections becomes much more likeable during the fifth part, which tells the story of Denise, the third Lambert child. This is partly because there’s much more incident – affairs, travel, more affairs – but mainly because however fucked-up Denise may also be, she does her level best to get on with her life.
Everything and everyone comes together in the last section of the novel, for Christmas at the family home, and Franzen pulls off the neat trick of making the villain of the piece – Enid – the ultimate hero. The Corrections is very well-written indeed, and does a first-rate job as a completely convincing portrayal of a family that has, for decades, been lurching from unhappiness to crisis to failure. But it’s difficult not to resort to cliché in summing up: this is a book that’s easy to admire, but difficult to enjoy. A little more of the ‘laugh-out-loud comedy’ that the man from The Observer talks of on the back cover wouldn’t have gone amiss.