The Corrections garnered a lot of publicity when it came out. Some of it was critical acclaim, probably by people who saw in it bits of every previous author Franzen has cribbed from; the other part was likely the furor from Oprah fans who bought it at her behest (it was a Book Club pick, somewhat infamously, which you may read about if you wish). Personally, I bought it because it only cost me a quarter.
To be honest, by the time I slogged through all of The Corrections, I was a bit tired of Franzen. He likes self-pointing characterization, a bit like Stephen King. Most of the book is character building, which slowly fleshes out the characters’ pasts and gives the reader a glimpse at the dissolution and warping of what may be considered a typical Midwestern family. Alfred the patriarch, who was never loving or expressive, is melting down with Parkinson’s and early dementia; Enid, the underappreciated wife, has turned into a ditzy old Midwestern grandmother; the three offspring have diverged into iconic paths: the depressed businessman, the estranged academic, the chic lesbian urbanite. Franzen goes into an extraordinary amount of detail into order to draw a detailed—and let’s face it, damning—portrait of life for this generation. I would argue that sometimes his excesses get the better of him, and a good hundred pages or so of material could have been cut without doing harm either to the plot or to the shades of meaning to be teased from its development.
I wondered, as I read, what this would be like to someone who didn’t grow up in or aware of the peculiar character of the prototypical Midwestern family—its silences and inherent social conservatism, its characters which have passed into legend as archetypes and caricatures. It resounded particularly to me, aware of its tropes, but it perhaps may not have the same power to someone not intimately acquainted with the machinations of such a family. Granted, I’m not a member of the generation that Franzen describes. I didn’t grow up in the 60s or even the 70s, and so Enid—the mother—would more aptly describe my grandmother, but even there lie recognizable parallels.
Despite the ringing verisimilitude, The Corrections disappointed me, artistically. Franzen was clearly attempting some sort of rhetorical modernism, jumping around chronologically and passing the ball from character to character while maintaining the perspective of a third-person limited narrator. The title, which is made clear in the last three or so pages, is tied to the preceding story in a weak and unsatisfying way. Oh, I get what Franzen’s doing: the Midwestern family, despite the soap opera of its internal affairs, resolves in a way which is thoroughly Midwestern—that is to say, unextraordinary. But it’s not a particular strong end of things. Maybe he never intended it to be.
Loathe though I am to recommend an Oprah Book Club pick to anybody, I think that The Corrections is an interesting enough book to merit a read. Since you can find it on most bargain racks now, even buying the damn thing won’t cost you more than $5 or $6.