By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Literature based in the Midwest tends to fall into one of two camps. The first focuses on the repression of sexuality and the overall blandness and formlessness of the culture. The Midwest is portrayed as a flat landscape dotted with harsh paternal figures and oblivious mothers who want to shield their children from the perversities of coasts both east and west while denying the far greater perversities in front of them. The second teaches readers of the sacred qualities of family and tradition; how discipline, diligence and strong work ethics made this nation great and its people virtuous, even if there is a pervasive element of the dour, Schopenhauerian outlook on life. (As Schopenhauer says in a section from Parerga and Paralipomena, "All the cruelty and torment of which the world is full is in fact merely the necessary result of the totality of the forms under which the will to live is objectified.") The former usually involves the liberation of an individual from the oppression of conformity. The latter often involves a protagonist who has returned to discover his or her roots after being corrupted or overwhelmed by the big city's hollow promises.
Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections doesn't give complete credence to either of these tired formulas, but he admits that there are elements of truth to both perspectives. This is not because they are merely literary constructs, but because people actually behave this way. People do venture out from Middle America, get caught up in their own hubris or troubles due to their scarred personalities, and then return home as prodigal sons and daughters. (Though it should be said that the reason for the return, usually, is because the family inflicted said scars.) On the other hand, a lot of people who end up on the coasts leave behind shattered families or situations where escape was necessary due to circumstances that range from the absence of economic opportunities to severe abuse. They end up leaving the past behind, coming into their own, and, ultimately, becoming integral parts of the communities they decide to call home.
Both of these dynamics are at play in The Corrections, a lengthy novel that follows the members of the Lambert family from the late 1960s to late 1990s. These storylines all converge on Christmas morning around the millennium. What is integral to the telling of the story is that Franzen does not focus upon only one of the family members. There is no protagonist in the traditional sense. Rather, Franzen tells the individual history of each member of the family, which gives the reader the opportunity to witness the evolution of the family unit as a whole. This method of storytelling grants Franzen the ability to view events and situations through the lens of different Lamberts. Consequently, the depiction of the Midwest comes from a myriad of standpoints, and even from a variety of locations—Philadelphia, New York, Connecticut, Austria—beyond the suburban area surrounding the fictional city of St. Jude, which is for postindustrial Middle America what Zenith was for the industrializing Midwest of the 1920s. The individual prejudices of each character seep into the narration during many passages, and the resultant parallax view generates a rich image of the Midwest that is far more comprehensive (and accurate) than any first person narrative could be.
One of the more memorable scenes from the book (in my opinion) concerns a trip to Hospital City, a discount medical supply chain, by the eldest son, Gary. The store is filled with pudgy, ailing zombies waddling through aisles upon aisles of tubing, pads and implements for the diabetic and the geriatric—not at all dissimilar from an experience I had at a Madison Heights Walmart not too long ago. He is disgusted by the concentration of sickness and obesity as he trudges through the store with a chip on his shoulder large enough to rival the one worn by Jason Compson.
This study in curmudgeonliness is contrasted by the manner in which Enid, the family matriarch, summons credulity upon seeing the Christmas light display in a nearby park. It is gaudy. It is ostentatious. It is silly that an adult can derive such delight from something so banal and uncool. There are few things kitschier than a Midwestern Christmas display in a public park or an advent calendar hanging on the wall of a suburban home, but to deny this would be to deny the essence of the Midwest that Enid embodies.
Witnessing this joy makes it difficult to feel anything but envy for her lack of cynicism. Though Enid may not have an appreciation of slickness of the East Coast (for Enid, it is "the alien East"), she is completely at peace with that. She is a sentimentalist, even if the ostensible pleasure she displays around all things Christmas has undertones of denial that make her seem both tragic and somewhat pathetic. However, compared with Gary, who has amassed a modest fortune, become the vice president of a bank in Philadelphia, married a beautiful (but absolutely insufferable) woman, and recently found himself suffering from adhedonia, the "inability to experience pleasure in normally pleasurable acts," Enid's lack of sophistication and awareness don't seem as sad as one may initially think.
This is what I found most pleasing and unnerving about The Corrections. It isn't just the acuity with which Franzen writes about contemporary, white, upper-middle class families in the Midwest, but, rather, his depiction of this facet of the Midwest with both the derision of a New Yorker and the pride of a Illinoisan or a Missourian (I'm not sure how he identifies himself). It's a familiar feeling for me, personally, and he captured elements of my own upbringing so remarkably that at times I felt as though the two of us were brothers, and that even the smallest details of some of the passages based in St. Jude seemed as though they were stolen from my childhood. Instead of an ancient "quart glass bottle of Vess Diet Cola" in the Lambert household, the refrigerator in the Fox's basement to this day contains a pint glass bottle of Faygo Diet Chocolate Fudge Soda that has proven to have a lifespan that has surpassed any family pet on our block or the blocks adjacent. Ask why this is so and the subject gets changed. Ask why the expired stack of coupons my mother has been saving since I left for college hasn't been thrown out, and you're told that it will eventually be pitched (yes, "pitched"). Should you stumble across the same stack of coupons a year later, you'll find that it's only grown. Watching someone save expired coupons is inexplicable and frustrating. It's also right there on page two of The Corrections. The Midwest is the land of the preterites.
The other element to the novel that was so refreshing was the level of restraint that Franzen possessed in constructing the web of converging plots. Some of his most discernible literary influences probably would have followed more tangents, but this would have ultimately made the novel weaker. Following the story arc of the youngest brother Chip, for example, could have combined elements of The Human Stain with the Slothrop portion of Gravity's Rainbow. (A disgraced former professor goes to Eastern Europe during the peak of the turmoil caused by the financial crisis of the late 1990s and gets caught up with every kind of freak, badass, warlord, drug lord and crooked politician within the former soviet satellite states. Between shootouts, bar brawls and orgies, the rotating cast of characters drop acid, smoke dope, and have erudite conversations on Derrida, Foucault, Levinas and Habermas, all while searching for their next fix of the elusive drug known as Mexican A.) He could have expanded the book by hundreds of pages. However, he doesn't. The amount of time dedicated to Chip's time in Lithuania is kept to a minimum. The same can be said of the plotlines concerning the two other children in the family, Gary and Denise.
Franzen focuses on only what is necessary in order to introduce components that ultimately develop the main impetus behind the novel. He could have expanded the section concerning the experimental Corecktall process; the manner in which the infrastructure of the Midland Pacific was stripped down by corporate greed; the unfortunate fact that people my age are just fine with capitalism and consumerism. However, Franzen doesn't. He doesn't add parallel to parallel in order to spin a web of metaphors. His interest is in what Faulkner called "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself" during his address upon receiving the Nobel Prize. Faulkner went to say that such a conflict is what makes good writing, "because only that is worth writing about."
As much as this is necessary to good writing, what I would say is the most impressive element of The Corrections is Franzen's ability to capture all of the implications within family interactions. When a family member asks a "totally innocent" question or gives a "completely honest" response, they are lying. Sharing an extended and intimate history makes "innocent" conversation virtually impossible. He is an expert at writing feigned apologies and describing the paranoia that arises when one is involved in an emotional chess match in which no pieces actually move. He knows that sometimes you can know someone too well to take anything they say at face value. While so many of the issues confronting the Lambert family are first world problems, these agonizing and petty spats represent the glue of universality that make The Corrections so successful.
Franzen understands that these kinds of human interactions are the lifeblood of the novel. There is no need to create a web so dense that it is unintelligible to all but the most perceptive readers because his work is more about the emotional problems of being human than the intellectual ones. He is both the sentimentalist absorbed in appearances and the detached intellectual. In a way, it is only because Franzen is a product of both the Midwest and the East, the dichotomy between country and city that is the heart of the book, that he was able to write such an excellent novel.