Like life, the best of a story does not always come with bells and whistles, or with bright colors or oversized arrows of flashing neon. What makes a story stand out or a character walk across the page like a real, breathing human are the details, the small wisps and whispers, a gesture, a word, a string of dialogue so lovely and effortless that we forget there is a difference between fiction and reality.
In life, mind you—and in fiction, like Jonathan Franzen’s addictive novel, The Corrections—these details are not always the happy ones. They can be the moments when we glimpse our ugliest selves in the mirror, recognizing a slow, zigzagging crack in the façade of who we fancy we are, or notice the slow deterioration of our dreams, ideals, and standards, heaped over with pathetic excuses and justifications.
The family that stars in Franzen’s novel is like a room full of furniture. Each piece, once new and fashionable, was brought into the home with the hope of a lifetime of use and enjoyment. As the years pass, the sun fades the brightly colored fabrics; dry, winter air dehydrates the wood; and human hands, hips, and ever-widening backsides cause cushions to sag, springs to compress, angles and lines to warp. What to do? Sew a stopgap coverlet, hide a tear with a stretch of duct tape, prop up a broken table leg with an old bit of wood. It’s fine. Good as new. No one will notice.
In the Lambert home, set in a Midwestern any-suburb, certain standards must be maintained—or so believes Enid Lambert. All around her, things are breaking or tearing or revealing their mediocrity, though she refuses to have any of it. She relegates her husband’s La-Z-Boy-type chair to the basement where it will not compromise the aesthetics of the living room.
Lord knows, it would simply not do to have her wealthy friends catch a glimpse of Alfred’s “slightly gubernatorial” chair, off which one can detect the “smell of death.” You see, Alfred is losing his sanity to Parkinson’s disease. He hides papers behind the washing machine and urinates in old coffee cans. Like a push-you-pull-me in their own home, Alfred just wants to be left alone, unnagged, to poke around in his basement workshop while Enid, after almost 50 years of being a wife and mother, is ready to live a little—go on cruises, have her hair done, keep up with the proverbial Joneses. Like their parents, the three adult Lambert children find that with the passage of time their world is less and less happy, shiny, forward-stepping.
Meet Evelyn: Once the flavor-of-the-month New York City chef who could call a boiled egg the specialité du jour and be lauded left and right, she now finds herself fired from the restaurant that was created for her. What did she expect after sleeping with the wife of the restaurant owner and then, once that affair was over—though neither of the women really wanted it to end—being discovered in bed with the very same restaurant owner by his very same wife with whom she claimed to have had the best sex ever?
Her older brother, Gary, once the stable portfolio manager and family man, finds himself bickering with his wife like an ornery 10-year-old, being mocked and ganged up on by his wife and kids. And, as he pours himself one too many drinks on a nightly basis, being spied upon by a pricey surveillance system—the equipment for a new “hobby” his wife has allowed his son to purchase despite his forbidding the boy to do so.
Almost simultaneously, their younger brother Chip has lost his job as a professor over a poorly chosen affair with an outspoken young co-ed. Out of work and out of money, he is pinning all his hopes on a screenplay. A screenplay that, he discovers, is not being read seriously as promised but is instead being colored upon with a deluxe set of Crayolas by his literary agent’s precocious little daughter. And that’s just the start for this muddled yet opportunistic young man…
As onlookers to the lives of these five people, we find ourselves laughing out loud at Franzen’s descriptions of the mistakes they make, the messes they create for themselves one small step at a time, and the justifications they apply like Band Aids imprinted with the smiling faces of Donald, Daffy, or Goofy. Then, somehow, our laughter turns to cringing; we see in their downward swirl a little of ourselves and our own less-than-perfect choices. Just like the Lamberts, we are sticking duct tape to furniture, sewing loose careless stitches on torn fabric, and turning away from our self-deterioration as if our lives depended on it.
Hopping between the pasts and presents of these characters to weave a frightfully funny and heartbreaking story of people trying to trudge through the maze of modern times, Franzen punctuates the text with quotes from the German philosopher Schopenhauer, many of which leave us as amused as depressed. “The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain,” Schopenhauer writes. ”Or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.”
Reading this particular quote, one can’t help but wonder what small, private moment Franzen shared with himself after he told Oprah that his novel was too good for her now-defunct book club. Did he feel like the King of the World, or did he momentarily flinch inside himself, justifying his actions and pulling his confidence back up like an overly washed sock, the elastic loose and slack, the integrity of its form held together only by bargain thread?