Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Family Fictions

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Family Fictions

Article excerpt

THE CORRECTIONS, A DOORSTOP OF A BOOK that Jonathan Franzen published last year, received a good deal of notoriety when he managed, maybe deliberately, to insult Oprah Winfrey, who had selected his new novel for her lucrative but (Franzen feared) middlebrow book club.1 Franzen managed to have it both ways: after he expressed his mixed feelings about her book club, Oprah disinvited him from a dinner meant to celebrate her selection, Franzen apologized (sort of), the newspapers all spelled his name right, he won the National Book Award and laughed, ever the lucky rat, all the way to the bank.

In the gumbo of mass culture where literature tries to keep its head above water, I think Oprah's been good for books, but never mind: the novel itself deserves attention not because of this brouhaha but because Franzen, despite occasionally copping a stance, has written a very good novel about family life in America. (For that reason alone, it's the quintessential Oprah novel.) Our families and their fates are ever on our minds, and if writers like Franzen can be believed, we are not so much what our families make of us as what we try to invent as we endlessly pull away from and return to the archetypal family romance.

Is it more heartbreaking to have a family or not to have one? There is certainly no answer to that question, but each unhappy family is interesting in its own way, and in The Corrections, the Lamberts are no exception. Alfred, suffering from Parkinson's disease, is losing his grip on language: ". . . he discovered hitherto unguessed eternities in the space between one word and the next, or rather he became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him . . ." Franzen recently wrote in The New Yorker about his father's struggle with dementia and Alzheimer's, and his portrait of Alfred is the most powerful thing in a very ambitious book.

Alfred is no saint, though, even before the onset of his illness, and his wife Enid, who has a nasty way of reminding her three children of their failures, has had to bear up under his churlishness for years. Her dream late in life is to get her fractured family together one last time for Christmas, and the attempt to realize that goal gives the book what little plot it has. Her son Chip, who lost ajob in academia after an affair with a student, is attempting absurdly to sell a screenplay that begins, in the words of his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, with "a six-page lecture about anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama." (It is probably worth noting here that Franzen's novel itself begins rather slowly.) Clearly at sea in the world, Chip fortuitously falls into the hands of a Lithuanian entrepreneur who hires him as a publicist and flies him to Vilnius, which is Franzen's staging ground for a critique of global capitalism. Enid's other son, Gary, is one of the book's flaws-for way too many pages, we hear about this stockbroker's clinical depression, the squabbles with his wife over whether or not to spend Christmas with the Lamberts, and his attempts to convince his father to be smarter with his money. Enid's daughter Denise, on the other hand, is almost a cliche: her mother, infected with lazy sitcom daydreams about perfect kids returning on holidays with grandkids to thank their parents profusely for rearing them, wants her daughter married, but Denise is always choosing the wrong man.

Things work out, more or less-that is, the kids make their bilious way home for the holidays. Along the way, Franzen writes some marvelous set pieces, most notably an account of Alfred and Enid on a cruise ship that brings Alfred's decline (culminating in a tumble into the sea) and Enid's longing for escape and rest (climaxing in an experiment with designer drugs) to a head. As a self-conscious practitioner of highbrow art, Franzen bites off more than he can chew at times, and a good editor might have tightened the book by at least a hundred pages, but this latest attempt at what used to be called The Great American Novel is the only must-read fiction of the year. …

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