Corrections (Franzen)

The Corrections 
Jonathan Franzen, 2001
Macmillan Picador
576 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312421274

After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson's disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives.

The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man-or so her mother fears.

Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—August 17, 1959
Where—Western Springs, Illinois, USA
Education—B.A., Swarthmore College; Fulbright Scholar at Freie Universitat in Berlin
Awards—National Book Award; Whiting Writer's Award; James Tait Memorial Prize;
  American Academy's Berlin Prize
Currently—lives in New York, New York, and Boulder Creek, California

Jonathan Earl Franzen is an American novelist and essayist. His 2001 novel, The Corrections, a sprawling, satirical family drama, drew widespread critical acclaim, earning Franzen a National Book Award. His next two novels, Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015) garnered similar high praise. Freedom led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine, and both novels continue to elicit the epithet "Great American Novelist." 

His next two novels, Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015) garnered similar praise. Freedom led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine, and both novels continue to elicit the epithet "Great American Novelist."

In recent years, Franzen has been recognized for his blunt opinions on contemporary culture:

  • social networking, such as Twitter ("the ultimate irresponsible medium")
  • the proliferation of e-books ("just not permanent enough")
  • the disintegration of Europe ("The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people.")
  • the self-destruction of America ("almost a rogue state").

Early life and education
Franzen is the son of Irene Super and Earl T. Franzen. He was born in Western Springs, Illinois, but grew up in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.

He majored in German at Swarthmore College, studying in Munich during his junior year. (While there he met Michael A. Martone, on whom he would later base the Walter Berglund character in Freedom.) After his 1981 graduation, Franzen became a Fulbright Scholar at the Freie Universitat in Berlin. He speaks fluent German as a result of these experiences.

Franzen married Valerie Cornell in 1982 and moved to Boston to pursue a career as a novelist. Five years later, the couple moved to New York where, in 1988, Franzen sold his first novel The Twenty-Seventh City.

Early novels
The Twenty-Seventh City is set in St. Louis and follows the city's decline from what had been its place in the late 19th century as the country's "fourth city." The novel was well received and established Franzen as an author to watch. In a conversation with novelist Donald Antrim for Bomb Magazine, Franzen described the book as "a conversation with the literary figures of my parents' generation[,] the great sixties and seventies Postmoderns." In a Paris Review article, he referred to himself as

...a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely knowledgeable middle-aged writer.

Strong Motion (1992), Franzen's second novel, focuses on the dysfunctional Holland family and uses seismic events on the U.S. East Coast as a metaphor for quakes that can disrupt the veneer of family life. Franzen has said the book is based on the ideas of "science and religion—two violently opposing systems of making sense in the world."

The Corrections
The Corrections, Franzen's third novel, came out in 2001. A novel of social criticism, it garnered considerable acclaim, winning both the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. The book was also a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award, and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (won by Richard Russo for Empire Falls).

The Corrections was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club in 2001. Franzen initially participated in the selection, sitting down for a lengthy interview with Oprah, but later expressed unease. In an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he worried that the Oprah logo on the cover would dissuade men from reading the book:

So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry—I'm sorry that it's, uh—I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say "If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it." Those are male readers speaking.

Soon afterward, Franzen's invitation to appear on Oprah's show was rescinded. Winfrey announced,

Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book.

These events gained Franzen and his novel widespread media attention. The Corrections soon became one of the decade's best-selling works of literary fiction. At the National Book Award ceremony, Franzen thanked Winfrey "for her enthusiasm and advocacy on behalf of The Corrections."

In 2011, it was announced that Franzen would write a multi-part television adaptation of The Corrections for HBO in collaboration with director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and The Whale). The project was canceled, however, because it was feared that the "challenging narrative, which moves through time and cuts forwards and back" might make it "difficult...for viewers to follow."

After the release of Freedom in 2010, Franzen appeared on Fresh Air. He had drawn what he described as a "feminist critique" for the attention that male authors receive over female authors—a critique he agreed with.

While promoting the book, Franzen became the first American author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King in 2000. The photo appeared alongside the headline "Great American Novelist."

In an interview in Manchester, England, in October 2010, Franzen talked about his choice of a title for the book:

I think the reason I slapped the word on the book proposal I sold three years ago without any clear idea of what kind of book it was going to be is that I wanted to write a book that would free me in some way. And I will say this about the abstract concept of "freedom"; it’s possible you are freer if you accept what you are and just get on with being the person you are, than if you maintain this kind of uncommitted I’m free-to-be-this, free-to-be-that, faux freedom.

On September 17, 2010, Oprah Winfrey announced that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would be an Oprah book club selection, the first of the last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show. On December 6, 2010, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote Freedom where they discussed that book and the controversy over his reservations about her picking The Corrections and what that would entail.

Purity, released in 2015, is described by the publisher as a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents. The novel centers on a young woman named Purity Tyler, or Pip, who sets out to uncover the identity of her father, whom she has never known. The narrative stretches from contemporary America to South America to East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall; it hinges on the mystery of Pip's family history and her relationship with a charismatic hacker and whistleblower.

Like Franzen's two previous novels, Purity was published to strong reviews: New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that it was Franzen's "most intimate novel yet" and that the author "has added a new octave to his voice." Time called it "magisterial," while Ron Charles of the Washington Post referred to Franzen's "ingenious plotting" and perfectly balanced fluency." Sam Tannenhaus of the New Republic said of Franzen that "his vision unmasks the world in which we actually live."

Other works
In 2002, following The Corrections, Franzen published How to Be Alone, a collection of essays including "Perchance To Dream," his 1996 Harper's article about the state of the novel in contemporary culture. In 2006, he published his memoir The Discomfort Zone (2006), recounting the influence his childhood and adolescence have had in his creative life.

In 2012, two years after his release of Freedom, Franzen published Farther Away, another collection of essays on such topics as his love of birds, his friendship with David Foster Wallace, and his thoughts on technology.

In various lectures given while on tour, Franzen has mentioned four perennial questions often asked of him that he finds annoying:

  1. "Who are your influences?"
  2. "What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?"
  3. "I read an interview with an author who says that, at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters 'take over' and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too?"
  4. "Is your fiction autobiographical?"

Personal life
Franzen and Valerie Cornell separated in 1994 and are now divorced. Franzen still lives part of the year in New York City but also spends time in Boulder Creek, California. While in California, he lives with his girlfriend, writer Kathy Chetkovich.

In 2010, Franzen's glasses were stolen, then ransomed for $100,000, at an event in London celebrating the launch of Freedom. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/7/2015.)

Book Reviews 
You will laugh, wince, groan, weep, leave the table and maybe the country, promise never to go home again, and be reminded of why you read serious fiction in the first place
New York Review of Books

We were rocking: I only put the book down again when my life needed tending to . . . I can't scrape together much outrage when I'm basically having a good time . . . If you don't end up liking each one of Franzen's people, you probably just don't like people . . . It's often the microfelicities that keep you barreling through The Corrections toward its larger satisfactions. Wordplay worthy of Nabokov . . . Tiny, revelatory gestures . . . Magically precise images . . . Knowing one-liners . . . Franzen writes with convincing authority about the minutiae of railroads, clothing, medicine, economics, industry, cuisine, and Eastern European politics, and he knows just when to push his conceits over the top . . . But he also knows his way around more intimate territory . . . No one book, of course, can provide everything we want in a novel. But a book as strong as The Corrections seems ruled only by its own self-generated aesthetic: it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we're under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read. But I guess that is everything we want in a novel—except, when it's rocking along, for it never to be over. In that respect, The Corrections ends as disappointingly as it began. And in that respect only.
New York Times Book Review

Let's not mince words or pussyfoot with fancy lit-crit lingo. This is a great book. It needs to be read . . . A panoramic work that frequently zeroes in, with almost claustrophobic clarity, on human foibles . . . A huge, ambititious, powerful, funny, imaginative yet realistic novel. This book is a gift.
Philadelphia Inquirer

A big, showy powerhouse of a novel, revved up with ideas but satisfyingly beholden to the traditions of character and plot.... Smart and boisterous and beautifully paced . . . Franzen's epic study in irony suggests Wolfe running into Don DeLillo .... The greatest strength of The Corrections, and there are many, is its skillful narrative relativism, the way it delivers one version of the truth about a character, then fleshes out that reality over time into something larger and more complex.... His rendering [of the autumnal prairie of millennial America] is frighteningly, luminously authentic.
Boston Globe 

More engaging and readable than other chilly magnum opuses in the same league . . . Unlike his Big Book peers, [Franzen] wants things tidy—not in the middle, maybe, but at the end. The chaos-theory math wizards of antimatter fiction don't often show such good manners, such politeness, and it's touching to find it here. Not just dazzle—warmth. Novels dealing with domestic crises and familial dysfunction are part of a long and honorable tradition. (As Tolstoy said in 1877, "All happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.") Jonathan Franzen, gifted author of The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, now claims a place in that tradition with The Corrections, his funny, desolating, unsparing account of a divided, deeply unhappy American family.
Miami Herald 

If some authors are masters of suspense, others postmodern verbal acrobats, and still others complex-character pointillists, few excel in all three arenas. In his long-awaited third novel, Franzen does. Unlike his previous works, The 27th City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992), which tackled St. Louis and Boston, respectively, this one skips from city to city (New York; St. Jude; Philadelphia; Vilnius, Lithuania) as it follows the delamination of the Lambert family Alfred, once a rigid disciplinarian, flounders against Parkinson's-induced dementia; Enid, his loyal and embittered wife, lusts for the perfect Midwestern Christmas; Denise, their daughter, launches the hippest restaurant in Philly; and Gary, their oldest son, grapples with depression, while Chip, his brother, attempts to shore his eroding self-confidence by joining forces with a self-mocking, Eastern-Bloc politician. As in his other novels, Franzen blends these personal dramas with expert technical cartwheels and savage commentary on larger social issues, such as the imbecility of laissez-faire parenting and the farcical nature of U.S.-Third World relations. The result is a book made of equal parts fury and humor, one that takes a dry-eyed look at our culture, at our pains and insecurities, while offering hope that, occasionally at least, we can reach some kind of understanding. This is, simply, a masterpiece. Franzen has always been a writer's writer and his previous novels have earned critical admiration, but his sales haven't yet reached the level of, say, Don DeLillo at his hottest. Still, if the ancillary rights sales and the buzz at BEA are any indication, The Corrections should be his breakout book.
Publishers Weekly

Here's a family that will never be mistaken for the Royal Tennenbaums. Meet the Lamberts: Dad is a retired railroad man who is slipping into dementia; Mom is still trying to believe in the rosiest possible marriage and family life; and their grown children are each living out a catastrophe. The youngest son is failing miserably as a sort of screenwriter in Lithuania, the daughter is a chef of some accomplishment who can't seem to keep out of bed with just about anyone, and the oldest son is yelling at and withholding affection from his family just as his father did before him. The family home is in St. Jude (aptly named for the patron saint of hopeless causes). Enid, the wife and mother, wants the whole family together for one last Christmas before her husband, Alfred, slips beyond reach. Getting them all under the same roof even for a few hours is a massive undertaking. Franzen is a keen observer of the way the world works, and it is a tribute to his skill as a novelist that the listener remains interested in the craziness of these lives. Reader Dylan Baker brings these quirky characters to life. Recommended for fiction collections in public libraries. —Barbara Valle, El Paso P.L., TX
Library Journal

The recent brouhaha about the death of realistic fiction may well be put to rest by Franzen's stunning third novel: a symphonic exploration of family dynamics and social conflict and change that leaps light-years beyond its critically praised predecessors The Twenty-Seventh City (1998) and Strong Motion (1992). The story's set in the Midwest, New York City, and Philadelphia, and focused on the tortured interrelationships of the five adult Lamberts. Patriarch Alfred, a retired railroad engineer, drifts in and out of hallucinatory lapses inflicted by Parkinson's, while stubbornly clinging to passe conservative ideals. His wife Enid, a compulsive peacemaker with just a hint of Edith Bunker in her frazzled "niceness," nervously subverts Alfred's stoicism, while lobbying for "one last Christmas" gathering of her scattered family at their home in the placid haven of St. Jude. Eldest son Gary, a Philadelphia banker, is an unhappily married "materialist"; sister Denise is a rapidly aging thirtysomething chef rebounding from a bad marriage and unresolvable relationships with male and female lovers; and younger son Chip-the most abrasively vivid figure here-is an unemployable former teacher and failed writer whose misadventures in Lithuania, where he's been impulsively hired "to produce a profit-making website" for a financially moribund nation, slyly counterpoint the spectacle back home of an American family, and culture, falling steadily apart. Franzen analyzes these five characters in astonishingly convincing depth, juxtaposing their personal crises and failures against the siren songs of such "corrections" as the useless therapy treatment (based on his own patented invention) that Alfred undergoes, the "uppers" Enid gets from a heartless Doctor Feelgood during a (wonderfully depicted) vacation cruise, and the various panaceas and hustles doled out by the consumer culture Alfred rails against ("Oh, the myths, the childish optimism of the fix"), but is increasingly powerless to oppose. A wide-angled view of contemporary America and its discontents that deserves comparison with Dos Passos's U.S.A., if not with Tolstoy. One of the most impressive American novels of recent years.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Consider the atmosphere of suburban St. Jude (named for the patron saint of hopeless causes) in comparison to the more sophisticated surroundings of Philadelphia and New York. Why has the Lamberts' neighborhood evolved into a gerontocratic refuge? "What Gary hated most about the Midwest was how unpampered and unprivileged he felt in it." What negative and positive qualities are attributed to the Midwest? How are the characters shaped by the cities or towns they live in?

2. What is the significance of "one last Christmas"? Is Enid's obsession with the holidays predictable for a mother of her generation or is it, as Gary fears, "a symptom of a larger malaise" ?

3. Why does it take so long for the Lamberts to acknowledge the seriousness of Alfred's illness? Is Al's deteriorating mental health solely a result of Parkinson's disease? How are his physical deterioration and mental decline linked? "Irresponsibility and undiscipline were the bane of his existence, and it was another instance of that Devil's logic that his own untimely affliction should consist of his body's refusal to obey him." Why are these ailments especially humiliating for Alfred?

4. What is the source of Gary and Caroline's marital problems? Whose version of the truth do you believe? Why does Gary feel so alienated from Caleb and Aaron? What draws him to Jonah? Compare this family with the glimpses we have of the young Lamberts. In what ways is Gary different, as a father, from Alfred?

5. What is your impression of Enid and Alfred's marriage? Which version of their marriage do you believe-Enid's image of Al as a pessimistic brooder or Al's image of Enid as an unrealistic optimist? In what ways do Enid's capacity for hope and Alfred's low expectations manifest themselves? How do their temperamental differences play out in the course of the narrative?

6. Discuss the alliances that formed in the Lambert family after the children left home. What occurrences might account for Denise's loyalty to Al and for Chip and Gary's sympathy for Enid? How do these alliances shift during the course of the novel?

7. Why does Denise choose to lose her virginity to Don Armour? Which qualities of her co-worker simultaneously attract and repel her? Why does Al sacrifice his job for Denise's privacy?

8. What is the significance of the title The Corrections? How does the idea of "corrections" play out during the course of the story? What does "What made correction possible also doomed it" mean?

9. What is revealed about the dynamics of the young Lambert family during the liver dinner? When Al finds Chip asleep at the dinner table, what upsets him more: concern for his son or disgust with Enid? Do we know the source of Enid's neglect? "There was something almost tasty and almost sexy in letting the annoying boy be punished by her husband." To what extent are the book's children shaped by their upbringing, and to what extent is their character predetermined?

10. What do Chip's relationships with women reveal about his character? How does his attitude toward women change over the course of the novel? Considering the details of his earlier relationships, does it seem probable that his marriage to Alison Schulman will survive? How did his time in Lithuania prepare Chip to deal with Alfred's decline and death?

11. Is Alfred's death the key to Enid's happiness? How does the quality of her life change once Al is hospitalized? What reaction do his children have to his death? Are we meant to believe that their father's death is the catalyst for their "corrections" ? For how much of the unhappiness in the Lambert household was Al responsible?

12. Are elements of the Lambert family universal characteristics of the American family? How do the world in general and family life in particular change during the half century that the novel spans? In what ways is life better now than when the Lambert children were young? In what ways is it worse?

13. Which character has undergone the most fundamental change? Is the change positive or negative? Have any of the characters evolved enough for their "corrections" to endure? Are these corrections deliberate, or are they the result of outside occurrences that force the characters to change?

14. Discuss the different moral codes members of the Lambert family adhere to. Consider Enid's fear of her children's "immorality," Gary's obsession with Caroline's dishonesty, Alfred's refusal to engage in insider trading, Denise's rage at Gary for having betrayed the sibling code of honor, and Chip's animus against the W Corporation and big business in general. Which of these judgments seem most valid? Does the book favor one moral view over another?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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