The back of my paperback copy of this novel has a quote on it, from a review in Elle. Will Blyth describes the book as “the first great American novel of the twenty-first century.” I must confess that that one phrase (“great American novel”) very nearly put me off. Other novels that I have read that have been lumbered with that description have not been to my tastes. Quite often unbearably pretentious, excessively intellectual – basically, trying too hard. I usually find the characters (who are often dissolute, lecherous types) difficult to identify with. I won’t name names – in part because I have tried to excise the memory of reading such books from my mind.
Fortunately, Franzen’s “The Corrections” isn’t like that. It’s an engaging read, intelligent and warm. The characters are not universally appealing, it is true – but they do seem real, and each of the main characters is given time to develop into a person you can feel for.
“The Corrections” is a book about a the various dysfunctional members of a family. The children are al adults and have all left home. The parents remain in the family home.
The father, Alfred is, in many ways, the central character despite being the one who remains the most aloof. His distance is part of his character – he has always been very ‘correct’ in his opinions and his behaviour, and seems to find it hard to express emotions. One might say he is repressed. His family seem to think he is depressed. Now an old man, he has Parkinson’s.
Enid, his wife, is a disappointed woman. Her husband disappoints her by his distance and his inaction. She tries very hard not to let her children disappoint her, to the point of telling herself untruths about their lives. She yearns for happier days when the family were all together. As her husband’s condition deteriorates, she sends out the call for one last family Christmas.
But each child has their own reasons for wanting to avoid the parental home.
Gary, the eldest, is – on the face of it – the most successful. He has a good job in the banking sector, a wife and three children. But his wife – who seems a little unstable – does not get on with her in-laws, and refuses point blank to go to their house for Christmas. Gary himself is struggling with his own mental health – might he, as his wife suggests, be depressed?
Chip, the intellectual with an overt “alternative” lifestyle (basically, he doesn’t have a steady job), has financial concerns. And his girlfriend has just left him. Then he is made an unconventional but lucrative offer that involves overseas travel…
Denise, the youngest, is a successful and highly regarded chef (this is a source of pride to her mother, but Denise’s recent divorce and lack of children causes disappointment). But she is also undergoing a sort of identity crisis, which ultimately results in her losing her job.
Taking in the American midwest, Philadelphia, New York, a sea cruise and the perils of Lithuania, the story ricochets between the family members as we learn more about their pasts and their present situations. There’s a sub-plot involving a hyped fictional cure for Parkinson’s, and a few twists that I, for one, didn’t expect.
Alfred, the character with Parkinson’s, is, I think, a complex fellow with hidden depths. We don’t really get to explore these, but they are hinted at. His supposed depression predates the onset of his Parkinson’s (not, in itself, unheard of – not least because dopamine losses typically begin up to ten years before external symptoms appear). He may not be the most attractive character I’ve ever come across, but – to borrow a phrase from Burns – a man’s a man for a’ that, by which I mean to say that he is a human being, and that Franzen manages to portray him as such (Burns’ poem is proto-socialist recognition of the humanity of the poor, so it’s not quite appropriate here; nonetheless, the phrase insinuated itself into my review and I couldn’t resist it). He is, by turns, stiffly dignified, intensely focused, desperate and confused, among other states. And his family members revolve around him.
Franzen seems to be aware of many of the issues surrounding Parkinson’s – either he’s done his research or he has encountered the condition in his personal life. This isn’t a book about Parkinson’s – it’s a book about human relationships, and as such it is a book with wide appeal – but it is a book in which Parkinson’s features heavily.