- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

THE CORRECTIONS
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 568 Pages
REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS

That Jonathan Franzen knows how to write fiction few readers of "The Twenty-Seventh City" (1988), or of "Strong Motion" (1991), could doubt. In his debut novel, Mr. Franzen unveiled a talent that belied his age and experience by blending traditional realism with psychological suspense and surrealistic riffs. The result was an ambitious novel that presented an uneven vision of a country in an obviously severe decline.
This downward spiral was brought into focus when the power brokers in a seedy and corrupt St. Louis, the city of the novel's title, hired as their new police chief S. Jammu, an Indian woman from Bombay who was a secret terrorist. Well, folks, this was a literary novel that required a well developed strangeness and a troupe of wild and crazy characters, leads and walk-ons. Most readers, however, can suspend only so much disbelief; they need some sort of emotional context with which to identify. Because of Mr. Franzen's problem with shaping what were called well-rounded characters, his first novel was weakened. With that in mind, it must be said that "The Twenty-Seventh City" was an auspicious beginning for a young novelist, and should be read.
If Mr. Franzen's first book heralded the arrival of an important new voice, one poised to take his place with writers such as David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers, to name just two "children" of Thomas Pynchon, his second, "Strong Motion" — the title refers to the way the ground shakes near the epicenter of an earthquake — fell short of the accomplishment of his first, but showed him sharpening his skills as an analyst of contemporary life. Readers met more of the usual suspects, including industrial toxic waste dumpers, the culprits behind the earthquakes roiling Boston and environs. Louis Holland and Rene Seichek, the two central figures, were overshadowed by the events around them, and often seemed like puppets allowing their master the chance to demolish the absurdities of life. While very readable, the novel suffered from major defects even as it showed Mr. Franzen correcting some of the weaknesses found in "The Twenty-Seventh City."
Now, after 10 years, comes "The Corrections," a novel that goes beyond Mr. Franzen's first two books, but is flawed in ways too similar to be the "big" book many of his readers expected. This does not mean that it is not a major novel. It is a stunning page-turner, a sprawling look at everything from a dysfunctional family to post-Cold War Lithuania, from the unholy trinity of HMOs, doctors, pharmaceutical companies (and their gofers, the lawyers) to celebrity chefs and political correctness. Mr. Franzen again shows us why he is one of the best prose stylists around.
The clothesline on which Mr. Franzen hangs much of America's dirty laundry is the Lambert family, the most dysfunctional bunch you are ever likely to meet. First, there is Alfred, an emotionally distant husband and father whose coldness alienated his wife and three children as he paid more attention to his work for a small railroad (later gobbled up by an octopus worthy of Frank Norris) than to his strange family. Alfred is further distanced from them as he daily sinks deeper into a Parkinson's-related dementia. He is victimized not only by his failing body and mind, but also by the law firm, Bragg Knuter and Speigh (get it?) that gains the rights to a patent he held, and by a pharmaceutical company that promises to reverse his dementia. If Alfred hadn't been the unfeeling man we learn about from his wife and children, his plight might move us more.
Enid, Alfred's long-suffering wife, is an airhead. In order to survive life in a "gerontocratic suburb of St. Jude," a town that is a postmodern version of Gopher Prairie and Zenith, she fabricates a romanticized family history in which she is the ideal mother and wife, and her children are perfect. Enid must ignore reality, but is more sympathetic than any character in the novel. She fights, in her own peculiar way, the drabness of her life and the mediocrity of her family.
Gary Lambert is a banker of modest achievement, at least until he uses insider information about Axon, the company that fleeced his father out of a patent that is an essential part of a new drug, Corecktall. Like his siblings, Gary whines. He is a member of what the art critic Robert Hughes called "the culture of complaint. He whines about everything, including his wife (Caroline) and his children (Caleb, Jonah, and Aaron): "Oh, misanthropy and sourness. Gary wanted to enjoy being a man of wealth and leisure, but the country was making it none too easy … millions of newly minted American millionaires were engaged in the identical pursuit of feeling extraordinary — of buying the perfect Victorian, of skiing the virgin slopes, of knowing the chef personally, of locating the beach that had no footprints."
Gary's sister, Denise is a young chef on her way to a food channel show. Not as discontented as her brother, she nevertheless is unable to translate her growing public reputation, and that of her hot eatery, the Generator, in Philadelphia, into satisfactory private life. She loses her kitchen when she has an affair not only with her financial backer, but also with his wife. No reader can ever believe that the Lambert kids use their brains.
Finally, there is Chip ("off the old block," though Gary is more like his father), who loses an assistant professorship in a Textual Artifacts department when he is seduced by Melissa Parquette, a rapacious student who feeds him drugs and herself, and who, as soon as it is to her benefit, reports him. Chip tries to succeed in New Your City by doing pick-up literary jobs, but leaves to make his fortune in Lithuania, a country that, after the Soviet Union imploded, reminds of the American "Wild West": "The main difference, as far as Chip could see, was in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence."
What happens to the Lambert family includes many surprises. Corrections, internal as well as imposed, occur so rapidly they dazzle the mind, and will leave readers to marvel at the artistry of Jonathan Franzen. "The Corrections" might well be one of the best literary novels to appear in some years, and even though it might not be the author's "big" book, it is as good as some of the best around. Mr. Franzen is to be congratulated, and readers will do so immediately upon finishing his wonderful new novel.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic living in Pottsville, Penna.



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