THE CORRECTIONS. By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar Straus Giroux. 568 pages. $26.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is a big book. It's big because it's 568 pages long. It's big because a decade ago Franzen was widely proclaimed to be the next seminal novelist, a crabby storyteller who mixed John Irving with Tom Wolfe while trying to wrap up the world in one book, just like Don DeLillo.
It's big because until the terrorist attacks in New York City, it was the only thing the publishing community was buzzing about. It's big because it garnered a pile of high-profile notices from every major news outlet, and because many of those proclaimed The Corrections the first important novel of the 21st century.
And now it's big, somewhat more astonishingly, because Oprah Winfrey just stamped it with her gold seal of approval, and so The Corrections, after many famously touchy-feely Oprah suggestions, will ironically bring cranky, paranoid literature to her loyal audience at the moment they probably want it the least.
The Corrections tells the story of the Lambert family, a disintegrating Midwest clan from fictional St. Jude. It opens with one of the most haunting lines in recent memory: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it; something terrible was going to happen.” I know - what fun! But this is how Franzen works: He keeps us jumping through hoops by hinting at a warm, stark, accessible novel waiting for us around the corner - “The madness of an autumn prairie” could have been written by Annie Proulx (The Shipping News).
In those first pages, we get Ping-Pong tables in basements and a workshop that's “now home to a colony of mute, dust-colored crickets.” It's all lyrical disintegration with more than a whiff of nostalgia.
Enid Lambert is the mom. She's frazzled, doting, prone to denial, trying to generate energy when she's so clearly tired. Her husband, Alfred Lambert - also Franzen's biggest literary symbol (of older times, common sense, and decay) - has Alzheimer's disease. He wanders around the house, trying to find a purpose for himself. (At one point, in a flashback, we even find Alfred walking across the Cherry Street Bridge - now the Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge - in Toledo, a stop on his Midwest business rounds.)
Then it's on to the Lambert kids, who moved out long ago. They live in a world not so poetic. Like the parents, Franzen gives each of their children their own novella-sized chapter. Chip is in New York City, escaping the memory of his doomed tenure-track position at a Connecticut school by writing a screenplay about Monica Lewinsky. (It begins with a “long academic monologue on Tudor drama,” because Chip thinks the audience should work a little, climb a hurdle before getting a story - more fun!)
His sister Denise is a celebrity chef in Philadelphia and the most likeable of the Lamberts, but not without her own problems. And there's Gary, bitter, rich, and also living in Philly with his bitter, rich wife and two spoiled children.
Franzen is generous with some of these characters, vicious with others, honest about all. When Gary tries to convince Alfred to milk his former firm for more money and Alfred wants just to retire, without a fortune, a century of generational strain is illustrated. But seeing The Corrections as a book only about family at the turn of the century is a mistake. Franzen uses the Lamberts as vessels for the kind of cultural reporting that Tom Wolfe does so well, one of those huge, state-of-the-world stories exploding with brand names, e-mail, and italics.
So before it's over we get guerrillas, Lithuania, cruise ships, tech stocks, gourmet recipes for ribs and sauerkraut, DreamWorks, Mira Sorvino, and nursing homes. Like Chip's screenplay, you slog through parts of The Corrections, wading past much literary hipsterism. But it pays off. Believe it or not, he wraps all these disparate elements together with a single, charming question: Can Enid get the family together “for one last Christmas”? His answer is as painful as it is entertaining.