The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)
Dysfunction in the modern family
1951 In J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is lonely and alienated yet consumed by thoughts of his family.
1960 The first novel of John Updike’s “Rabbit” series is published, dramatizing family turmoil in contemporary USA.
1993 In The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides tracks the unexplained suicides of five teenage sisters.
2003 In We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver tackles the subject of parenting a child who becomes a mass murderer.
2013 Theo Decker, the narrator of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, describes a family shattered by alcoholism and loss.
The title of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections echoes that of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955), which features a restless son searching for authenticity and contemplating his relationship with his father, who is losing his mind. As in The Corrections, the scope of The Recognitions extends to a wider cast of characters and tells the story of a single family by weaving narrative threads to garner multiple viewpoints. Since the late 20th century, the theme of the dysfunctional family has often been at the heart of work by great US male novelists, such as John Updike, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo. As well as Gaddis, many of them would likely feature in Franzen’s literary ancestry.
The Corrections tells the stories of the Lamberts: Alfred, Enid and their adult children Gary, Chip, and Denise. This is a family tested by individual needs set against differing notions of the familial unit, values, and rights – all played out against a backdrop of a US economy dominated by capitalist-driven high-tech and financial sectors. As the saga unfolds, the text achieves acute political and social insights, touching on wide-ranging themes, from financial misdoings and gun death to food and children’s literature.
Suspense and narrative drive come from the family’s attempt to have “one last” Christmas together and the unfolding brutality of degenerative disease. The personal lives of the main characters are all marked by instability, whether it be professional, romantic, or mental.
"He became agitated whenever they were going to see their children."
Through his depiction of two generations, Franzen is able to reflect societal change over the period of a lifetime. Alfred, the repressed patriarch, identifies with a past order. His sections are punctuated with quotes from Schopenhauer and illuminated by recalled scenes from Midwest America in the mid-20th century, when he worked as a rail engineer. Gary, Chip, and Denise inhabit a much less tractable world; their experiences distil the pressures and vicissitudes of the increasingly troubled late 20th century.
Genetics aside, there is a common link between all of them: despite neuroses and flaws, they all have hope of improvement. Even Alfred, unwavering in his self-belief and certainty that family ties and emotion have to be sacrificed to fully contribute to civilization, reflects, while Enid is pregnant with their youngest child, Denise: “A last child was a last opportunity to learn from one’s mistakes and make corrections, and he resolved to seize this opportunity.”
Franzen later published a memoir called The Discomfort Zone, which included an intimate exploration of the impact of his mother’s death. This eclectic collection reveals that the notion of family still dominates his work.
Jonathan Earl Franzen’s father was a civil engineer and his mother, Irene, was a “homemaker” (not unlike the Lamberts in The Corrections). Franzen grew up in Chicago and graduated in German from Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, USA, in 1981.
He married Valerie Cornell at the age of 23; they divorced 14 years later. He is now in a relationship with the writer Kathryn Chetkovich, and lives in New York and California.
In 2001 Franzen sparked a feud with US talk-show host Oprah Winfrey when he voiced unease at the choice of The Corrections for her book club, fearing that men would be put off reading it. He continues to write on a range of topics, including the pitiful state of Europe and the impermanence of e-books.
Franzen won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2001 with The Corrections, which was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Other key works
1992 Strong Motion
2006 The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (essays)
See also: The Catcher in the Rye • White Teeth