In James Wood’s influential review, “Human, All Too Inhuman,” of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, he discussed what he calls “the littleness of the big novel.” His point, put somewhat crudely, was that as the ambition of novelists grows to include encompassing the entire geographical, political, and philosophical spectrum, works of fiction end up losing their humanity. As Smith herself said, “It is not the writer’s job to tell us how somebody felt about something; it’s to tell us how the world works.” As a result, Wood claims, the movement that he termed “hysterical realism” produces work that “knows a thousand things, but does not know a single human being.”
About a year after Wood’s condemnation of contemporary fiction first appeared in The New Republic, The Corrections was published. Jonathan Franzen’s novel certainly does not lack the kind of ambition Wood talks about: The Corrections spans cities, countries, and continents, covers multiple generations, deals with financial disasters and Eastern European political instability, looks at modern academia and middle-class suburbia. In short, the book does seem to know a thousand things.
And yet Franzen’s story remains wholly grounded and deeply personal. At its heart, The Corrections is a story of a Midwestern family, the Lamberts. The Lambert patriarch, Alfred, is a stubborn, straight-laced, intelligent, and principled man who is suffering from early but unmistakable signs of senility as the novel begins. As Franzen puts it:
“…Alfred, for whom the problem of existence was this: that…the world moved forward in time by adding cell after cell to its leading edge, piling moment on moment, and that to grasp the world even in its freshest, youngest moment provided no guarantee that you’d be able to grasp it again, a moment later.”
Such a gentle portrait of dementia is not merely sympathetic, but presents a lost grip on reality as almost completely understandable. Alfred opting “to spend his days among the unchanging historical roots of things” almost makes sense as a rational choice, as if senility were something one chooses.
Of course, the empathy the novel has with Alfred is not shared by most of the other characters, particularly by his wife Enid, who is now trying to hold her family together for one last Christmas before Alfred is completely gone, both physically and mentally. For Enid, Alfred’s dementia is a burden. Viewing dementia as something like a conscious choice is not merely an invented conceit of the novel, after all, but something that the loved ones of senility’s victims often perceive: He doesn’t remember me because he is being deliberately hurtful, or he is choosing not to cooperate. From Enid’s perspective, as the wife of someone who has always been stubborn and secretive, Alfred’s behavior doesn’t seem like just the symptom of a disease, but as part of his personality.
Franzen employs this ability to look at characters from all sides throughout the novel. The novel’s empathy is extended so universally that he ends up portraying a character like Alfred as almost a contradiction: In Enid’s eyes he is a dictatorial head of the household who has failed to provide for them in his retirement, while in his daughter’s eyes he is a put-upon old man who has given up everything—including his mind—for the sake of his family. Such contradictions, though, only enrich the dynamic of the Lambert family and make the characters come more fully to life.
The real heart of the story of the Lambert family is the story of Alfred and Enid’s kids. Amid Enid’s attempts to reunite her family—her kids now all live on the East Coast—Franzen depicts the lives of her three children. Gary, the eldest son, is married with kids, living in a middle-class suburb, and may or may not be clinically depressed. Chip, the second son, is a failed academic-turned-failedscreenwriter who has just been dumped; his situation at the start of the novel is so bad that he has to steal a piece of fish from the store to cook for his visiting parents. Denise, their youngest, is a successful chef in Philadelphia who is caught up in a bizarre love triangle with her boss and his wife.
The Corrections depicts each of their lives individually, one at time. The portrait of the Lambert family, then, gets deeper and richer as the story unfolds. Denise, for example, is first presented through the eyes of her brother Chip—who owes her a large sum of money—and then Gary. In these chapters, she comes off as put-together and almost cold. Only when the novel’s attention focus on her more directly do we see that she may be in the most dire position—emotionally and professionally—of all three children. Similarly, Gary comes off as the domineering oldest child to his siblings, only to be revealed as a beaten and (probably) clinically depressed man who feels at war with the rest of his family.
As the portrait of the family grows, so does Franzen’s look at the world. In direct refutation of Wood’s claim, as the novel grows to incorporate “a thousand things” the portrait of the human beings in the story gets more vivid. Chip’s personality, for example, is shaped by the academic setting in which he thrived, until he was fired. Franzen’s depiction of an academic setting is both a witty, incisive commentary on academia and, more importantly, an illustration of a formative venue for Chip.
At one point in the novel, set at Chip’s school prior to his termination, he tries to teach his class, “Consuming Narratives,” about the evils of a corporate breast cancer awareness advertisement called “You Go, Girl”: “Baudrillard might argue that the evil of a campaign like ‘You Go, Girl’ consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer signifies sadness.” To which one of his students responds:
“It is so typical and perfect that you hate those ads!… Here things are getting better and better for women and people of color, and gay men and lesbians, more and more integrated and open, and all you can think about is some stupid, lame problem with signifiers and signifieds. Like, the only way you can make something bad out of an ad that’s great for women—which you have to do, because there has to be something wrong with everything—is to say it’s evil to be rich and evil to work for a corporation.”
This scene represents not just a witty illustration and condemnation of the modern liberal arts, but also a key element of Chip’s personality. His self-identity, the disconnect between himself and his students, and his own doubts about the social value of his work are all underlined with this presentation.
Franzen’s feel for social commentary and his ability to create scenes that serve as biting satire and simultaneously retain enough realism to color his characters and lend his story added resonance extend throughout the entirety of the novel. The typical middle-class family of Gary, the modern single woman lifestyle of Denise, and the elderly middle-America retiree community of Alfred and Enid are all depicted in a way that is both critical and sympathetic. Franzen is unafraid to depict Chip as a dogmatic, lazy postmodernist, or Gary as a selfish, avaricious member of the upper middleclass, or Denise as a cruel, cold member of the social elite, or Alfred as closed-minded, or Enid as self-centered; he can depict his characters as part of social institutions he is subtly criticizing without losing sympathy for them as individuals.
As the story heads towards Enid’s desired final Christmas, the lives of each member of the Lambert family start to spiral downward. Chip heads off to war-torn Eastern Europe on a business venture; Denise loses her job and tries to sabotage a relationship; Gary ends up totally alienated from his wife and kids; and Alfred’s ties to reality are almost completely severed. The “corrections” of the title refer to market corrections, for a bubble bursting. But more generally they refer to the way mistakes catch up to people. Market corrections destroy wealth; political corrections destroy governments. When mistakes—whether they are individual mistakes or societal ones—are corrected, particularly mistakes that have been lived with for a long time, there are many casualties.
So The Corrections does seem like a kind of “big social novel.” And it does go a long way towards telling us how the world works. This thematic notion of the world “correcting” itself seems particularly relevant at the end of the Aughts: financial disasters are the corrections of long-tolerated mistakes in the economy; bloody wars and “exit strategies” in Iraq and Afghanistan are the supposed corrections for foreign policy blunders; health care reform is the supposed “correction” to a fundamentally flawed system. Nothing should take away from the impact, and prescience, of these themes of the novel.
But The Corrections is only concerned with these things, with illustrating, satirizing, and condemning the institutions of the world, to the extent that they have impact on its characters. The novel is poignant and sad, and the “institution” most vividly depicted is the Lambert family. Franzen wants to tell us about the world, but most of all he wants to tell us about the people in it.