In the literary world, 2001 began with controversy over what exactly constitutes plagiarism with Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone and ended with controversy over biting the hand that feeds it with Jonathan Franzen’s public ambivalence about the choice of his third novel, The Corrections, for talk-show host Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. In a number of interviews immediately after The Corrections was chosen for Winfrey’s imprimatur, Franzen spoke of his discomfort at becoming one of a stable of authors whom he regarded as an artistic mixed bag—some highly literary, while others he viewed as “schmaltzy [and] one-dimensional.” More important, he said, “I see this book as my creation and I didn’t want that logo of corporate ownership on it.” Winfrey responded by withdrawing her invitation to appear on her television program and refraining from all discussion of the book, as well as cancelling a dinner in his honor. Although the book was well reviewed and achieved best-seller status on its own without Winfrey’s endorsement, the publishing community by and large sided with Winfrey and denounced Franzen as hubristic, snobbish, and ungrateful. The book did go on to win the National Book Award for fiction, however, and Franzen reinstated himself in the industry’s good graces through his self-deprecating acceptance speech.
That the controversy should have arisen in the first place should not, however, have been such a surprise. Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-seventh City (1988), was well received though hardly a best-seller, while his second, Strong Motion (1992), succumbed to the curse of sophomore novels and disappeared with little trace. Franzen’s reputation immediately prior to the publication of The Corrections largely depended on his 1996 Harper’s magazine article, “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels,” on the state of the American novel at the end of the twentieth century and Franzen’s own artistic dark night of the soul. Virtually every review of The Correctionsnoted that this novel offered concrete proof of Franzen’s determination, announced in the Harper’s essay, to return to writing the kind of novel in which he could “lose [himself] in the characters and locales [he] loved.” Earlier in the essay, however, Franzen related the story of his aborted attempt at a screenwriting career, which ended when he refused to allow another writer to take over a screenplay he had written. “I couldn’t imagine not owning what I had written,” he confessed. Such an author is bound to be disturbed by having a talk-show host’s logo on his book jacket, no matter how many sales it guarantees.
The Corrections is very much a novel of character and locale. The book is divided into five major sections, with a prologue and epilogue; each section focuses primarily on one member of the Lambert family. The actual plot is minimal: Alfred Lambert is succumbing to Parkinson’s disease, and his wife Enid is in denial about it. The elderly couple take a “fall colors” cruise up the Northeast coast, planning to have lunch with their younger two children, Chip and Denise, before the cruise and to visit their eldest, Gary, and his family afterward. Enid’s dearest desire is to have all of her children come home for Christmas. The plans are upset by two events: Chip, a struggling screenwriter, becomes swept up in his own personal and financial chaos and leaves the country for Lithuania without seeing his parents off; once on the cruise, Alfred falls overboard and must be hospitalized. Most of the novel consists of reflective flashbacks as members of the Lambert family muse over how they got to where they are today.
Chip had been an academic star, a tenure-track professor at a Connecticut college until he was seduced into an affair with Melissa Pacquette, one of his students. On Thanksgiving weekend, he and Melissa end up in a cheesy motel where, under the influence of a libido-enhancing drug called Mexican A, they spend five days having sex until Melissa leaves to see her parents. Although the relationship ends there, Chip becomes obsessed with Melissa to the degree that she files a sexual harassment suit against him, which gets him fired. He moves to New York City and begins writing a screenplay as a form of revenge—college professor seduced by student who turns out to be his ex-wife’s lesbian lover—and begins seeing Julia Vrais, his agent’s assistant. Julia breaks up with him for reasons that are not entirely clear: Is it because she is on antidepressants that both reduce her interest in sex and give her the courage to straighten out her life; because her boss, Eden...
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