The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001; 568) is a disquisition on American pop culture and the American family as it transits from a period of familial bond and quaint prohibitions to that of material bond and quick-fixes in a freer do-what-you-want world and where its [the family’s] values have shifted from a personal relationship among kin to a personal relationship with wealth, respectively.
In this unforgiving but dispassionate analysis of the middle class, Franzen single-mindedly sought to expose the effects of wanton and desperate quest for wealth as expressed in uncontrolled consumerism, materialism, profiteering and above all the satisfaction of the singular self on the unifying role of the family as an institution and, therefore, on the American system. He exposes the darker side of a system that has put premium on consumption of commodities and that has redefined success as one’s ability to consume limitlessly. So much has consumption, of goods and services, become important in the current economic system that growth and prosperity of the individual and the nation, as a whole, is predicated on it. Consequently, a drop in the Consumer Index of a country leads to a prod in the society’s flanks by either the monetary or fiscal authorities of that country to stimulate spending.
What makes Franzen’s The Corrections different from many other novelistic commentaries on America’s socio-cultural metamorphosis, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is that his is not a prognostication; his is a social analysis of present, as it unfolds. In this inductive thesis, the family as the unit of society serves as Franzen’s guinea pig upon which incisions and dissections are made to arrive at a generalised conclusion.
The five-member middle-class Lambert family divided into the first generation consisting of Enid and Alfred and the second generation of Gary, Chip and Denise, is the author’s choice. However, within this family of five could be found all the trappings of a modern society – from drugs to divorce, profit to parenting, sex to sexuality, convention and conformation to misfits and maladjustment. Each of the Lambert children is hiding something; each is facing a unique set of problems; each has his or her own views on what life should be and all have corrections to make. Gary, the eldest, is facing the challenge of bringing up his own children in a world that is vastly different from what it was when was growing; his children’s world is a world where games and self-helps books abounds, where the disease of self-aggrandisement through acquisition of goods starts young. In addition to his demanding children is a well-off wife who sees all problems as psychological and relies on self-help parenting books, games and television to raise her children and who believes that the only definition of love (especially towards her children) is to provide all their fantasies. She also is very fixed when it comes to what or who a family is – husband and children. Gary is also profit oriented and sees himself as the only successful person among all his sibs. He is a keen investor and will make profit of everything even if it includes committing his father to a nursing home so he could sell the house because of the rapid increase in house prices.
Chip is the second child whose vision of success is at variance with society’s definition. Thus, as intelligent and liberal as he is he found it through the hard way that life is like the Procrustean bed, if you don’t fit it, you will either have to be stretched or butchered. Having been fired from his position as a lecturer for bedding one of his students and using drugs – and the case was brought against him by the girl – he found himself in an Eastern European country working to defraud American investors.
Denise left school, young, to marry and elderly man. There was a divorce and a series of relationship with married men and women. Her confusion about her sexuality saw her meteoric rise to become a socialite and her immediate freefall from that acme. And though several openings were made available to her, she was reluctant to change directions from chosen path of self-destruction.
Alfred lives with his principles and has raised his children on them. But now he is suffering from Parkinson’s diseases and he is losing his sanity. He won’t agree to being committed to a nursing home, neither will he agree to use a shower even though he always gets stuck in the tub. He’s at loggerheads with Gary who believes his father isn’t acting right and understands less and he knows Denise’s childhood secret even though he chose never to confront her.
Enid believes in her children and sees them with a different set of eyes. In fact, she has chosen to believe that Chip works on Wall Street even though that correction has been made several times. She compares her life with her friends and feels she’s been short-changed. And Enid is willing to bring all her children together for one last Christmas, a Christmas that will unite a family that is on the verge of total collapse. She also has a secret, with drugs.
As a dispassionate analysis of the middle class family and consequently of society, Franzen avoided pandering to either side, remaining neutral and non-judgemental in the entire discourse; hence, do not expect to have any semblance attachment to any of the characters. The work would have greatly suffered if that were possible. However, for what the work lacked in empathy, Franzen made it up with his powerful prose that carries the story and makes the reader turn the pages. And this is where the success of Franzen’s work lies.
It must be said that even though the issues raised in this novel are peculiarly American in its fullness, it is creeping on those of us on this side of the Atlantic; however, ours have not evolved to this extent thus making comparison difficult. For instance, though the family unit has moved away from the extended family system model to the nuclear family system, similar to the Lamberts, the parent-child bond is yet to suffer the Lambert-stress. Again, regardless of the wealth status of the parents, children still serve as some form of life insurance for parents in their old age. In fact, it is respectable to be seen to be caring for your parents, at least currently and at least in Ghana, I’m yet to read of people who have committed their parents to nursing homes.
All in all The Corrections, which could easily have been titled One Last Christmas, is better than I imagined it to be. I enjoyed it immensely.