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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1934

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...

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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 Procuro, has decided that Chip is no good for Julia; or is it because he has written a screenplay whose first six pages constitute a lecture on the anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama? Deciding that the latter must be the true reason—or at least the only one he can do anything about—Chip attempts to recover the script and rewrite it before Eden sees it, but instead winds up fleeing to Lithuania with Gitanas Misevičius, Julia’s ex-husband, to construct an Internet site for an investment scam. Chip soon finds himself living a surreal life in post-Communist Vilnius and bonding with Gitanas, but all falls apart as hardliners take over and Lithuania’s brief fling with capitalism and democracy comes to an end. Chip barely escapes the country with his life.

Gary is a banker living in the Philadelphia suburbs, married to Caroline; they have three children. In contrast to Chip, who knew “in his bones . . . that if he ever did sell The Academy Purple’ [his screenplay], the markets would all have peaked the week before and any money he invested he would lose,” Gary is devoted to the stock market. However, despite the booming economy, he is obsessed with the belief that he is clinically depressed, a belief fostered by his wife’s addiction to reading and living by the tenets of self-help books and his children’s adolescent disdain for him. His crisis point is reached when he is caught between his mother’s insistence that he and his family come to St. Jude for Christmas and his wife’s insistence that no force on earth will induce her to step foot in her mother-in-law’s house again, the aftermath of a previous disastrous visit when all of Caroline’s health-conscious, enlightened, and psychologically correct prejudices were overthrown by Enid’s old-fashioned habits of cooking and child rearing. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Caroline has hurt her back playing soccer with the children and blames Gary for all of her misery. Meanwhile, Gary is assisting his mother by investigating Axon Corporation, a company that wants to buy out a patent held by Alfred to use in an experimental treatment for neurological disorders called Correcktall. Gary sees the potential to get a much larger price for the patent than they are offering; Denise, in contrast, sees the process as a possible cure for Alfred’s Parkinson’s disease and wants to negotiate a place for him in the process’s testing phase.

Alfred and Enid’s cruise is thwarted from the beginning by Alfred’s increasing inability to function. Overwhelmed by everything that she does not wish to deal with, Enid seeks help from the ship’s doctor, who prescribes for her a non-FDA-approved antidepressant called Aslan that serves to block “deep or morbid shame,” the same drug that sent Chip on his doomed orgy with Melissa. As Enid listens to an investment lecture sponsored by the cruise line, Alfred falls overboard from the upper deck, an act mistaken for a suicide attempt.

Denise had dropped out of Swarthmore College and found her calling as a chef. She married her much older boss, Emile, until she found herself in an affair with their lesbian prep cook. After her marriage and her affair both break up, she is approached by Brian Callahan, an Internet millionaire with money to burn who wants to invest in a first-class restaurant in Philadelphia. He recruits Denise as his chef and sends her on a tour of Europe to absorb culinary influences; they almost sleep together, but she cannot go through with it. Instead, on her return to Philadelphia, she finds herself falling in love with Brian’s wife, Robin, and the two begin a torrid affair. The restaurant is a success, but Denise begins to let things slip in the confusion of her emotional life—she is jealous of Brian and Robin’s marriage, the marriage is falling apart, Denise sleeps with Brian as well as with Robin, everyone breaks up with everyone else, and Denise is out of a job.

Ultimately, Enid more or less gets her wish: All three of her children are home for Christmas, although they are only all present at the same time for about an hour. Alfred’s condition deteriorates, and, after several unsuccessful but real suicide attempts and a rejected plea to Chip to euthanize him, Alfred dies. Chip falls in love with his father’s doctor; they marry and have children. Gary remains trapped in his repulsive and dysfunctional family. Denise leaves Philadelphia for Brooklyn and a job at a new restaurant, and, without any specific discussion of the matter, Enid comes to terms with the fact that her daughter is a lesbian. The novel ends with Enid facing her life without Alfred: “She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.”

The overall theme of the novel is stated in its title: corrections of all kinds—stock market corrections, manuscript corrections, corrections of life path, political correctness, self-punishment as self-correction, but, most important, the medical correction of the human brain, whether of psychological depression or of neurological disease. Gary’s wife and Chip’s succession of girlfriends are women convinced that their own self-involvement is a sign of their moral superiority, of their “correctness,” whereas men envy their women’s self-possession and feel ashamed of their own “incorrectness.” The development and prescription of drugs to “correct” both depression and shame, however, is presented as a morally dubious course. These drugs make their takers feel better but will effectively destroy the rest of their lives. Shame, after all, is primarily an emotion of social control, and losing the ability to feel shame means losing the ability to relate to others in a socially acceptable manner. Finally, correction has its limits. For all the promise of Correcktall, not only is the drug generally a failure (causing Gary to lose a substantial investment) but, even if it had worked, it could not help Alfred. The fairy-tale ending in which Alfred’s own small, overlooked patent would provide the cure for his neurological deterioration is not to be.

The Corrections is an absorbing character study of American life at the turn of the millennium. None of the Lamberts is presented in black and white; each has nuance and ambivalence, each has strengths and weaknesses. Serious matters are given their due weight, but the humor in the novel is also given free rein; Franzen is to be commended for maintaining his authorial balance between tragedy and absurdity.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (July, 2001): 1947.

The Christian Science Monitor, September 13, 2001, p. 19.

Library Journal 126 (August, 2001): 160.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 4, 2001, p. 4.

The New York Review of Books 48 (September 20, 2001): 33.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (September 9, 2001): 10.

The Village Voice 46 (September 25, 2001): 72.

The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2001, p. W13.

The Washington Post Book World, September 2, 2001, p. 3.

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