I came across this novel on the TIME Magazine Top 100 Novels Since 1923 List (see the Bookmarks page for details) a little while ago, and thought it sounded interesting, so I bought a copy. It’s been sat on my bookshelf for a few months, but after finishing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold I fancied something completely different, so picked this doorstop of a book (my edition runs to 653 pages) off the shelf. I have to confess that I had not heard of Jonathan Franzen before seeing this on the TIME list, but it seems that he is all the rage across the pond right now.

The Corrections is ostensibly a novel detailing the lives of one troubled Midwestern family. In it we become well acquainted with Alfred and Enid Lambert, a traditional, conservative but now aging couple, and their three grown-up children, Chip, Gary and Denise. Although the number of characters is fairly small for such a large book, the amount of detail given to each one is vast. In fact, as Franzen writes long sections focusing on just one of the family members at a time, it almost feels as though you are reading four or five short novellas until you reach the finale where the characters all come together for one last Christmas.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The title could refer to several things; some at the individual level, others at a broader cultural level. For example, during the course of the novel, several references are made to the ‘corrections’ happening to the financial markets at the end of the nineties, after so many years of growth, and the impact this has on the lives of individuals. Then there are the many  smaller, more subtle ways in which the three children are each trying to live up to (or rebel against) their parents’ expectations and values. Indeed, all five of the main characters are constantly attempting to make corrections to their lives and to their family history.

This is an often stark portrayal of modern American family life, with all of its ups and downs, its inconsistencies and its tensions. I understand that Franzen is being compared to authors such as Phillip Roth and Don DeLillo – and I can see why. I can also understand why this novel elicits strong reactions in different people. To some it captures the spirit of  a postmodern, progressive, consumer-orientated America; whilst to others the inherent cynicism and delight in unresolved chaos probably seem a little immature and even indulgent.

I personally have very mixed feelings about The Corrections; it is very readable, it is intelligently written (at least the vast majority is), it is funny and at times poignant. Franzen has certainly created a believable  set of characters and he excels at writing dialogue, expertly capturing each person’s character in the way that they speak. In fact I was particularly impressed by this: I don’t think writing  convincing dialogue is ever easy, but here there is much to be admired. There is always so much more conveyed in the dialogue than the surface subject being discussed.

However, on the less positive side, as compelling as some passages were, I did also find that certain parts of the novel could probably have been omitted. Plus, as I hinted at above, because Franzen delves so deeply into each character in isolation, it does feel a little like you are viewing a series of portraits  that have little overall relationship to one another. I know that supporters of the novel may argue that the complex, sprawling tangle of plot lines and perspectives is the very strength of the piece, however I personally felt the work would have benefited from some tougher editing.

So, although I did enjoy reading The Corrections and although it is clear that Franzen has much talent, I felt that, on balance, I could only rate this as a good, rather than great novel.  I would probably be interested in reading his latest novel, Freedom, at some point, though not just yet.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.