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Book #12: The Corrections

Have you ever read a novel that includes talking poop? No, you say? Well here’s your chance. Before I get to the talking poop, though, let’s back up a bit.

In all honesty, I was extremely skeptical of this book before I read the first word. First off, I’m always leery of books in which the front cover features the author’s name larger than the title itself. Author ego?

Second, reviews on The Corrections from non book critics (read: normal people like you and me) are mixed. Take one look at The Corrections on Amazon and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a three-star novel with more than 1,000 reviews. Why is it three stars? People either really love it or really hate it.

Critics and other established writers rave about The Corrections. The novel nearly won the Pulitzer and did win the National Book Award in 2001. So, if you haven’t heard of this book before now, you should know it is a much-hyped novel.

The general story itself isn’t anything overly unique. The Lamberts are a traditional Midwestern family, set in the late 1990s, with all sorts of dysfunction.

Jonathan Franzen. Image: David Shankbone/Flickr

Alfred Lambert, the proud, stern, and emotionally detached patriarch of the family, is a retired railroad engineer who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and a gradually building case of dementia. Most of the tension in the novel results from his progressively declining situation.

His wife, Enid, is really the star of the show. She’s an overbearing, out of touch, and judgmental mother, obsessed with Christmas, whose entire focus is to get her adult children back home “for one more Christmas” while Alfred is still around.

Gary, the oldest, is a depressed, alcoholic banker with three kids and a wife who can’t stand his mother. Chip, the second son, is a former Marxist college-professor, who, after being fired for having a relationship with a student, becomes head lackey for a Lithuanian crime boss. Denise, the daughter, is an accomplished chef with a propensity to have affairs with married men (and women).

Franzen divided The Corrections into sections. Each section follows one individual character, and the book culminates in the much-anticipated Christmas gathering at the end.

To me, the most powerful characters in the novel are Enid and Chip. Enid is a woman who will do anything in her power to get her kids home to see her for Christmas. After eight years of traveling to Gary’s house, Enid is obsessed with hosting one last gathering while Alfred is still lucid.

She’s manipulative, overbearing, and judgmental in that “sweet old lady” type of way that we’ve all probably experienced at some point in our lives. She speaks but doesn’t listen. She a hoarder, a collector, who equates stuff with status and makes sure all of her friends know how well her children are doing, even if she has to stretch the truth—which she often does.

Chip, 39,  is a lonely and searching character who goes off the deep end after he doesn’t get tenure at his college. Though I love how Franzen framed Chip’s character, Chip’s story sometimes stretches believability. How does a northeastern college professor, fresh off a forbidden relationship with a student, end up working for a Lithuanian crime boss—in Lithuania? It’s a reach.

Outside of the final 40-50 pages of The Corrections, I thought the second half of the book moved slowly. Denise’s story was mostly uninteresting. Gary’s story had its moments. But neither character, to me, held up well to Chip and Enid, and even Alfred.

Speaking of Alfred: As his condition worsens, he becomes prone to hallucinations, especially at night while sleeping. In one sadly hilarious scene during Alfred and Enid’s much anticipated cruise, Alfred awakes believing that an army of talking poop is out to get him. Yes, poop.

Talking poop scurries across the floor, hangs from the ceiling, all while mocking him and calling him names. Why poop? Well, it all connects back to Alfred having lost control of his functions. The poop, disturbed with this, mock him at every halluconogenic opportunity.

On the surface, this little three to four page sideplot might seem ridiculous. But it’s actually extremely funny, further reveals the extent of Alfred’s worsening condition, and just shows Franzen’s creativity. Though writers have written from the point of view of a crazy or dimented person before, Franzen’s descriptions of Alfred and the talking poop take it to a new level.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Franzen is incredible at writing dialogue. It’s difficult to give a specific example without writing 200 words of copy. But here’s one small example that occurs when Chip comes home for Christmas, after barely escaping Lithuania with his life.

Invoking his charm, which was all he had now, the paltry sum of his identity, he stepped through the doorway.

“My word, you’re scratchy and smelly,” Enid said, kissing him. “Now, where’s your suitcase?”

“It’s by the side of a gravel road in western Lithuania.”

“I’m just happy you’re home safely.”

A unique aspect of Franzen’s dialogue is how the characters don’t listen to each other. They talk but don’t listen. Culprit #1: Enid, as in the example above. I think that’s ultra-realistic, and not something I’ve seen a lot of. Conversations aren’t always give and take, and Franzen’s dialogue writing illustrates that reality.

His characters speak so naturally and unforced. Their conversations say most everything you need to know about them—without a lot of unneeded extra narrative. I’m just a big fan of that element of his writing.

I do believe that The Corrections is a powerful book. Thematically, it illustrates two contrasting worlds—a traditional couple with their conservative, midwestern values with three adult children who have, for the most part, abandoned those values to seek their own way.

The traditional overtaken by the new. It’s not an original theme. But it’s a theme Franzen explores well, and we even see it in the world the Lamberts live in–Alfred, a retired railroad man, losing his mind as the fast-paced world of dot coms and the booming economy of the late 90s explodes around him.

In all, I’m not really sure where to place this book in my rankings. I loved portions of The Corrections, while other portions lulled me to sleep. Despite some of its faults–or what I would define as faults–I still really enjoyed this book.

At some point, I thought The Corrections might be a first or second place book in my rankings. I don’t think I’ll place it that high, but I’m still chewing on this book and comparing it to the other novels.

All that said, know one thing if you read The Corrections–you’ll probably love it or hate it, just like all those reviewers on Amazon.

Other Stuff

Opening Line: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it; something terrible was going to happen.”

The Meaning: “The Corrections,” as described in the book’s epilogue, were the changes each character made in their lives following the fateful Christmas gathering. The most prominent “corrections” occur to Enid, who embraces her life in a new way following a major change ( I won’t ruin the plot for you). All that doesn’t mean the book ends with a nice little tidy bow–believe me, it doesn’t end that way. But, at the same time, it’s no Blood Meridian-style ending either.

Highlights: The dialogue. I’ve said it several times, but Franzen writes excellent dialogue.

Lowlights: Denise’s story was a little on the tedious side. Chip’s story, while more interesting than any of others, was unbelievable from the moment he hopped on a plane to go to Lithuania. With the obvious exception of the talking poop and Alfred’s dramatic situation in the last few pages, the section covering Enid and Alfred’s cruise didn’t do much for me.

Memorable Line: “Because in the end, when you were falling into water, there was no solid thing to reach for but your children.”

Final Thoughts: If you’ve never read Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections is a great place to start. You may hate it. You may love it. But this is a book worth reading. Besides that, this may be your only opportunity to see talking poop in an award-winning novel.

40 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m one of the ‘haters’. I’ve read this novel before, but better. See, when men write “serious” novels about family, culture and emotions it’s labeled “Literature” and highly lauded. It wins awards. When women write the same novel it’s labeled “women’s fiction” or even worse, “romance”. Those never win awards and no one invites them to be keynote speakers. Eh, I don’t know. Everyone who reads this and loves it should read a Sue Miller or two and then decide who’s the better writer.


    March 14, 2011
    • Bobbo #

      Franzen himself would agree with you. I read an interview with him where he said, he feels it is unfair that women write competently about family, its chick lit, but when he did, everyone went nuts over the fact that a man could be so sensitive. He feels overrated.


      March 7, 2012
  2. I’m part way through Freedom, which someone bought me for Christmas but I’ve been unable (unwilling?) to start til now (it’s a biggie…) It is proving a slow burner with moments of brilliance and passages of tedium, but I am getting into it. I look forward to reading the Corrections once I’ve finished; your review has whetted my appetite. Thank you for such a great blog – I found you via wordpressed and have stuck with you since.


    March 14, 2011
    • Thanks for checking out the blog and staying with me.

      Good luck with Freedom. Let me know how it goes. I’m sure I’ll read it one day.


      March 14, 2011
  3. Patti #

    Interesting review – agreed about the gigantic author’s name on the cover, but that may not be his decision.
    The memorable line you mention about falling in water and reaching for your children provides a horrifyingly vivid image.
    And the snippet of conversation you included kind of reminded me of some I’ve had with my mother : )


    March 14, 2011
    • The line about falling in water is one of many memorable lines. It was hard to choose just one.


      March 15, 2011
      • Patti #

        I just started reading The Corrections – talk about tragedy and comedy combined! I’m enjoying it. Maybe because I’m from the midwest and spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia….


        January 13, 2012
  4. Great review, much like all your reviews. Your site is a regular stop for me.

    I probably wouldn’t have considered this book without your review (or until I commit to the Time 100 list myself). Now I’m intrigued. Plus, it has been a while since I read contemporary “literary” fiction. It might be a good place to get back to this genre, which I abandoned after college. But I find myself needing to work through some of my experiences with managers at various work places. Perhaps Franzen would be a good inspiration.

    Sorry for the digression. Again, great review!


    March 14, 2011
    • Thanks for reading the reviews and checking out my blog. I’d definitely recommend The Corrections…a lot of great moments overshadow some of the duller moments.


      March 14, 2011
  5. I haven’t even finished reading this post yet, but I had to stop and praise you on one quote: “First off, I’m always leery of books in which the front cover features the author’s name larger than the title itself. Author ego?” Thank you thank you thank you! That is one of my pet peeves that no one ever understands!

    While it doesn’t always mean the book will be completely cliched and over-produced mass gibberish, it does make me weary. I’m sure this isn’t one of those cases, but I’m glad to hear someone else notices these things too!


    March 15, 2011
  6. Haha I will be one of the first to admit, I too have read a novel while taking a poop 5 hour long steamy dump in a public urinal.
    Anyone beat me?
    I know, you wish you were me 😀


    March 15, 2011
  7. You’re absolutely correct about people either loving this book or hating it. My mother and I, who typically have the same taste in books, read this at the same time. I loved it, and she didn’t. I also found that I loved some parts more than others, but the really great parts of the book carried me through the parts that were kind of dull. It’s actually been some years since I’ve read it… I think I’ll have to give it a reread soon and see how I like it the second time around.


    March 15, 2011
  8. You said in this post that “a unique aspect of Franzen’s dialogue is how the characters don’t listen to each other.”

    I completely agree. Everyone is talking, no one is listening, as you pointed out. This is one of the most compelling aspects of this novel, and I think it speaks well to the emptiness that Franzen urges the reader to consider. It says something about the condition of American culture, or the American family.

    Really interesting project and blog post. I’m dabbling in a similar project at my own blog, Critical Margins, where I plan to read long-form novels and comment on my experiences with them. I just finished The Corrections and find Franzen to be a compelling author. I hope to read more about your reading project as it goes along!


    March 19, 2011
  9. I just finished this novel the other day and wanted to read what you thought of it. I am on the side that loved it. Truly, I thought it was excellent. And I completely agree that Franzen is a dialogue master. Didn’t you just cringe during half the book? Such a painful family dynamic…that I couldn’t get enough of. I can’t fully decide whether I like The Corrections or Freedom better. Have you read Freedom, yet? I certainly recommend it after your list is finished if you haven’t!


    June 23, 2011
  10. I wished I had discovered your blog before so I could’ve read the books with you. I’m reading the same list and I’m about ten books in. I loved this book. It kept me reading till the end and yes I cried at the end.


    October 19, 2011
  11. I went back and reread the first chapter of Corrections. It convinced me that I didn’t want to read it. One thing I walked away from it thinking was that Franzen’s trying to write like Updike. I am currently reading an Updike novel and I am thinking this is the kind of writing Franzen’s aiming for. Not sure he makes it.

    One of the things that puts me off about Franzen’s storytelling is how many times he tells something instead of showing it. I quote an excerpt from you dialogue excerpt as an example: “Invoking his charm, which was all he had now, the paltry sum of his identity, he stepped through the doorway.” Why can’t he just show the character doing something or have the character give me dialogue that would show how charming he is? From what I remember from the rereading I saw that telling a lot.


    May 8, 2014

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