Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections
Harper, 2001

They splotch the busy reader’s bookshelf: those oversized contemporary novels that you haven’t read yet. You expect Dickens and Trollope and Tolstoy to span the reading weeks, but you expect contemporary novels to be more portable, more succinct, more zip-through-able. It makes it harder to make time for them, when you could pick up a sleek Joshua Ferris or Jonathan Safron Foer instead.

So they taunt from the bookshelves for years: the Neal Stephensons and the George R.R. Martins, Michel Faber’s Crimson Petal and the White (2002), Ann-Marie Macdonald’s As the Crow Flies (2003), Elizabeth Arthur’s Antarctic Navigation (1994), Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde (2000), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), and Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram (2003).

And it doesn’t matter that you took the plunge with their cohorts and were tremendously satisfied: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004), Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995), Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana (1990), Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005), Connie Willis’ Passage (2001), and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1982).

There have been countless excuses to delay reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, for nearly ten years.

But three slimmer books sat relatively untouched while I raced through The Corrections once I finally picked it up to read. I even toted it on my commute for two days, although I swore I wasn’t going to bother (but that was before I got started).

And it wasn’t because it was an easy read. Um, no.

I’d heard it was the story of a dysfunctional family and the characters were hard to relate to, but some of my favourite books could be described that way (Charlotte Mendelson’s When We Were Bad, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, etc.), so that didn’t concern me.

But it’s not just that the characters are struggling: their struggle permeates the novel from the first sentences onward:
“The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.”

Uh oh: sun going down, madness, something terrible, gust-after-gust of disorder. No punches pulled here: you know it’s going to be brutal.

The word ‘correction’ comes from the Latin ‘corrigere’, meaning to make straight, to bring into order. In Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Alfred and Enid, and their children Chip and Denise and Gary, try to straighten their lives, labour to bring them into order.

This disorder is not the sort that follows a single cataclysmic event, like a car accident or a natural disaster, but the kurfuffles caused by more insidious challenges that comprise our daily lives: lovers who no longer love, abuses of trust and promises broken, physical and mental illnesses, and investments that don’t pay as expected (emotional and financial alike). Below is a hint of the disorder that requires corrections.

Here is a snippet about son, Chip:
“He felt as if he lacked the ability to lose all volition and connection with reality the way depressed people did in books and movies. It seemed to him, as he silenced the TV and hurried into his kitchen, that he was failing even at the miserable task of falling properly apart.”

And daughter, Denise:
“She actually hit her temples with her fists. She heard the breath in her teeth as she ran down the stairs and let herself out into the late afternoon. The temperature was ninety and she was shivering. Weirdness, weirdness.”

And son, Gary:
“Time and again Gary had the feeling that there was something disagreeable that his family wanted to forget, something only he insisted on remembering, something requiring only his nod, his go-ahead, to be forgotten. This feeling, too, was a Warning Sign.”

Their mother, Enid:
“It was the same problem Enid had with Chip and even Gary: her children didn’t match. They didn’t want the things that she and all her friends and all her friends’ children wanted. Her children wanted radically, shamefully different things.”

And their father, Alfred:
“Alfred believed that the real and the true were a minority that the world was bent on exterminating. It galled him that romantics like Enid could not distinguish the false from the authentic…”

Oh, it’s gruelling.

So what kept me reading?

The characters. Yes, those same characters who behaved so despicably, so cruelly, so thoughtlessly, so sorrowfully.

Jonathan Franzen blurs the perspectives so that, for instance, despite Enid’s criticism of her children (and she rarely stops criticizing them, even when adoring them), she is reflecting that “[w]hat you discovered about yourself in raising children wasn’t always agreeable or attractive”. Each of the characters has enough self-awareness to complicate the narrative, and blur culpability.

Every single one of these characters recognizes a gap between what they wanted to be and what they ultimately were.

Every single one of them wants to correct this. (Although some of that desire is false, some authentic.)

Every single one fails. (Although not entirely, not consistently, not despairingly.)

But I’m so glad I found the reading time for this one.

Have you read it? Or has the hype put you off completely?

PS Yes, it was Jonathan Franzen’s appearance at the IFOA this year that occasioned this read.