In a 1996 Harper’s article, then-obscure novelist Jonathan Franzen made what has since become a much-publicized boast. He claimed that his next novel—his third—would combine social commentary with memorable characters, thus merging two strains of the novel whose recent divergence has led to the disintegration of the form. But while The Corrections does indeed address a long list of Relevant Modern Topics, its brilliance lies not in the integration of those issues into the lives of well-crafted characters, but in the creation of those characters themselves.

At its most consumer-friendly (and successful) level, The Corrections is a large-scale family novel that spans voices, decades, and continents in fine old fashion. Alfred Lambert is a retired Midwestern engineer suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Enid is his bored and frustrated wife, who insists upon believing that Alfred’s problems would disappear if only he would get up from his favorite chair and do something with himself. Under pressure from her three grown children to sell the family house and move into a smaller one, Enid says that she will consider doing so if Gary, Chip, and Denise agree to come home for one last Christmas in suburban St. Jude.

The novel begins with the Lamberts falling apart, both individually and as a unit. Family stability is undermined not only by decades-old rivalries and resentments, but by five different opinions about what should be done about Enid and Alfred’s living situation. In addition to his physical ailments, Alfred is (and for years has been) depressed. Meanwhile, Enid’s refusal to admit that her husband’s deep problems approaches downright delusion. Gary, the yuppie-banker and eldest son, is entangled in his own web of depression, denial, and heavy drinking. Chip, the family intellectual, has been fired from his teaching position for having an affair with a student; he now spends his time indulging in self-pity and skin-tight leather, tinkering with a post-post-structural, mostly autobiographical, entirely dreadful screenplay. The youngest child, beautiful-stylish-successful Denise, has lost her job as executive chef at a beautiful-stylish-successful restaurant, after sleeping with both her boss and—more problematically—her boss’ wife.

One gets the sense that the professions and preoccupations of these characters were chosen by Franzen for optimal representation of various modern “lifestyles.” But if the reader finds the trappings of these lives clichéd, he will not be alone: each of the three Lambert children is aware of his or her type, and each is somewhat uncomfortable with the classification. The superficial details of these lives do not determine character: rather, they are presented as the results of believable choices made by believable people.

The narrative of The Corrections switches between the viewpoints of all five Lamberts, and Franzen’s most impressive feat is his translation of these five distinct personalities into a deeply realistic family dynamic. We see how parents are often most impatient with those parts of their children in which they see themselves, and vice versa: Gary’s “entire life was set up as a correction of his father’s life,” and yet the grim determination with which Gary avoids becoming Alfred is his most Alfred-like characteristic. Enid accuses Denise of being a snob; but what most bothers Enid about her daughter’s criticisms is that they make it difficult for her, Enid, to suppress her own critical tendencies. Enid sees that this is true, but it doesn’t stop her from reprimanding Denise; in this and other instances, Franzen shows how loved ones often hurt one another despite—because of; in full awareness of—the very force of their love.

But The Corrections is much more than a very good domestic novel, and it is in his attempts to push—or, more accurately, to explode—the boundaries of that genre that Franzen falters. The novel is marked in places by a post-modern self-awareness that approaches self-parody. It is true that the Lambert family is as real and compelling a character as any one Lambert, and that the Lambert home, in St. Jude, is central to the family’s self-identification as such; but when Franzen suggests flat-out that “Maybe the futile light in a house with three people separately absorbed in the basement and only one upstairs, a little boy staring at a plate of cold food, was like the mind of a depressed person,” one gets the sense that he has gone one step too far. A few pages later, Franzen bestows voice upon an unborn child (Denise), suggesting that the fetus “was soaking up every word” of a bedroom conversation between her parents. But the most dramatic narrative excess is a multiple-page dialogue between the demented Alfred and a hallucinatory piece of trash-talking excrement. The passage is amusing, but it reduces Alfred to something of a ventriloquist’s doll. None of the above-mentioned tricks is illuminating: we already know that the Lambert house is a metaphor for several Lambert psyches; we know that Denise’s relationships are influenced by her parents’ marriage; we know that Alfred is repressed. It’s nice to see that Franzen knows what he’s doing—but by filtering certain scenes through this layer of narrative self-consciousness, he dwarfs his characters and dulls the immediacy and realism that his sharp observations afford.

The people in Franzen’s novel are dwarfed as well by its sweeping social commentary. The Corrections addresses every major area of late-nineties societal concern, from technology to the state of global capitalism to capital punishment to the political, ethical, and economic implications of cure-all drugs. Franzen’s working of these elements into his plot is complex and impressive: through Alfred’s struggles with a muscly biotech company over a dusty patent, and the involvement of various Lamberts with prescription medications, financial speculation, convicted felons, and corrupt political parties, Franzen presents the issues as inextricable not only from one another, but from dreams, marriages, mental states—from daily life. Some unlikely coincidences are required, but the overall effect is virtuostic. Or at least it would be, if Franzen were content to let the issues speak for themselves through their effects on Lambertian lives; too often, he embarks on longish tangents of satirical exposition which, though deft, are also glib and self-satisfied. Franzen consistently refrains from taking sides; but in doing so he casts a wide shadow of condescension from which his characters and plot do not entirely escape. The “radical underground scene in Philly,” for example, is described as a “Red Crescent of bomb-makers and Xeroxers and zinesters and punks and Bakuninites and minor vegan prophets and orgone-blanket manufacturers and women named Afrika and amateur Engels biographers and Red Army Brigade émigrés.” Yes, Franzen has a way with words; yes, this is keen and funny observation. But The Corrections doesn’t need it.

But these are small criticisms, and The Corrections is a big book. For every analogy and connection to which Franzen draws unnecessary attention, he leaves a dozen more for the reader to discover and delight in on his own. Things happen in this book: violent crimes, sexual drama, medical emergencies, psychological crises, large-scale financial intrigue, the collapse of a small Eastern-European nation state. All of the Lamberts turn out to be fundamentally appealing characters, and almost all of them get a reasonably happy ending. Furthermore, it all feels like it matters; it all feels real . Franzen is a novelist of immense talent; he is at his best when he abandons clever tricks, and gets over the sound of his own voice, and allows the reader to forget for a moment that there is a man behind the magic.

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