Read Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections While It's Important

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Soon you'll be hearing a lot about The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 566 pages, $25). When it hits shelves in a few weeks there will be so many feature reviews that its Importance will be obvious. Then it'll win the National Book Award, so even if you skipped the reviews you'll know it's Good. It really is good. Enough so that it's worth purchasing in hardcover? I wouldn't put it that way. But part of what makes Franzen's self-conscious attempt at the Great American Novel excellent is reading it while it's Important.

The Corrections is about a family, the Lamberts: elderly parents on a downward spiral in the suburban Midwest, and their grown offspring. The novel spends about a third on each of the latter, interspersed with updates and flashbacks starring old hysterical Enid and tyrannical, decrepit Alfred. Gary, Chip and Denise Lambert have moved to the Northeast and become accomplished professionals in the respective fields of investment banking, critical-theory professing and gourmet cooking. Their situations are harrowing in a way not unfamiliar to the modern literature of upper middle-class desperation, except in their specifics.

Alpha-male Gary gets a lesson in marital warfare as his wife enlists their surveillance-minded sons for her side. Younger brother Chip's erudite critique of consumer capitalism turns out to be in such violent contrast with his tenure-striving reality that he finds himself talking book proposals in what sounds like Dean & Deluca with $80 worth of line-caught salmon secreted in his pants. Denise's story, combining elements of Kitchen Confidential and Penthouse Variations in Franzen's proudly highfalutin style, is probably most original of all.

The three disparate conflicts are minutely detailed, with vivid renderings of unique personalities under stress. Getting to know Gary, Chip and Denise, marveling at their multidimensional, pained realness, drives reader interest more than the overarching plot, which has to do with Mom's plan for "one last Christmas." Franzen pulls off a neat trick in arousing deep sympathy for his creations while simultaneously inciting joy at their suffering. For all its literary ambitions, The Corrections is definitely a page-turner. There's something in it of the perverse pleasure of watching a friend (or, perhaps more to the point, a family member) screw up his life because he can't admit that his problems are his own fault.

Mitigating the black comedy are Enid and Alfred. One could read into their deterioration (he has the shakes and severe depression; she is driven by shame to constantly lie) something about the grim fate of the generation that earned young America the room to mess around. The plight of the parents is harrowing but not funny. Franzen took it as his opportunity for promotion to genius status. Only when writing about Enid and Alfred does he break narrative momentum to spend pages zeroing in on, and employing multiple tangents to illustrate, what might amount to nothing much. Readers who hear rhythm in these passages will be enraptured. Don DeLillo, who pleased many by writing much the same way throughout his 800-plus-page Underworld, apparently was.

Reviewers have the advantage of enjoying The Corrections in the advance edition. Paperback yet ahead of the curve, it's the only medium that can communicate the novel's bifurcated appeal: to mandarins of literature and beach readers. On its cover is the fat blurb from DeLillo, who does not often blurb. He says Franzen "...bends the edgy modern temper to a generous breadth of vision." On the back cover are hefty David Foster Wallace ("...a testament to the range and depth of pleasures great fiction affords") and florid Michael Cunningham ("...stands in the company of Mann's Buddenbrooks and DeLillo's White Noise").

Halfway through the book is an atypically slow chapter about a cruise, where Enid tries a new drug and Alfred is menaced by hallucinations. Tedious as it is, the section probably saved The Corrections from being considered social satire and compared to Tom Wolfe's unblurbed A Man in Full.

Before too long it's back to the action, via rebellious Denise and her exploits as an entrepreneur-funded chef and sexual outlaw. From there through to the end, as in the first 300 pages, The Corrections feels deadly accurate yet free of any?even sardonic?ballast, and it's absorbing. The reader bears witness to Franzen's feats of research and reportage. He must have gone on one of those Scandinavian cruises with the AARP set just to see what that's like, and his descriptions of culinary trends, entertainment media, financial markets and their impacts rival that of Kurt Andersen in his "post-plot" Turn of the Century. The impressiveness of it all, interwoven with a quadruple narrative, makes for a crucial flipside to the jarring corrections that befell the markets, as well as Gary's, Chip's and Denise's lives, all at once. The author's rising stock balances the nosedives.

Some critics will claim that this adds up to a profound statement about our culture, but it's more likely just good timing. People never fail to rubberneck, and Franzen nailed a moving target. Pretensions aside, The Corrections is a well-told and graphic bunch of pop-industry horror stories. It'll work for as long as the post-Clinton-era stagnation of the culture business seems scary. As an antidote for the lull, it kicks ass.

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