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.
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.
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.