‘But Dad!’ The Joys of Family, Up Close and Scarily Lifelike

The Corrections , by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 568 pages, $26.

All happy families are a lie. All unhappy families are a lie, too, but that’s less of a stretcher. The happy homes are also unhappy or have been or will be–and vice versa. The truth is, most human joy is generated by the family unit; and the same unit also generates a mass of woe that beggars the imagination. Proclaiming that the good is separate from the bad, the pleasure separate from the pain, is like pretending that birth and death aren’t co-dependent.

Compared to the Lamberts, the disastrously unhappy family whose story Jonathan Franzen tells in The Corrections , your own family looks like … well, the Lamberts. They are us, we are them. The details may not match, but the larger pattern–what you could call the meaning of the Lamberts–is as familiar as those old photos in your parents’ hallway. The older generation ages, sickens, loses its authority, its power to harm and help, a sad diminution that does some serious harm, and helps, too. The younger generation fails to meet parental expectations, or meets them and discovers too late that achievement for others’ sake is a miserable trap. Or the younger generation willfully defies expectations (“his entire life was set up as a correction of his father’s life”) only to realize decades later that rebellion is a rut that looks a lot like the rut one sought to escape. The black sheep are suddenly favored, the favorites find themselves in the doghouse. Your nemesis turns out to be your double; your spiritual twin is revealed as a hostile or indifferent stranger. There are no new family stories, just the old ones told in new ways, told well or less well.

The Corrections is long and looks at first like a sprawling saga. But gradually all the seemingly random bits begin to fit together, the loose ends are secured–ultimately the impression one gets is of a compact, solidly constructed book. The author belongs to the everything-is-connected school of fiction. The economic woes of Lithuania, scatology, rampant consumerism, psychopharmacology (“‘Personality optimizer’ is the phrase I prefer,” says a sinister quack), culinary trends in upscale restaurants, an experimental neurobiological therapy (“morphologic correction”), screenwriting, the alarming ubiquity of a colossal software company, a Nordic Pleasurelines cruise off Nova Scotia, metallurgy, the triumphant hegemony of free-market ideology–Mr. Franzen works hard to make it all cohere.

In the way it loops back on itself, linking up what appeared to be wildly disparate strands, his novel resembles Don DeLillo’s Underworld ; in its exuberant, comical and technically brilliant digressions, it resembles David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest . (Mr. DeLillo and Mr. Wallace each supplied Mr. Franzen with a fulsome blurb.) But unlike those other two novels (both of them astonishing artistic achievements, both a bit forbidding in their literary splendor), The Corrections is mostly aimed at the heart, in a way that makes it an agreeably accessible novel, poised halfway between postmodern chic and plain, old-fashioned storytelling. It sucks you into the vortex of family life, the whirling blend of happy and unhappy; it lands you in the sticky goo of mingled love and hate. What Mr. Franzen does–brilliantly–is to risk sentimentality (the bane of postmodern chic) to get at emotional truth.

At the center of the story is Alfred Lambert, the patriarch, a retired executive with Midland Pacific Railroad who is afflicted with Parkinson’s and is slowly losing his mind. Alfred and the railroad have plenty in common: He’s powerful like a locomotive and straight and narrow like the track. His hurtling, unswerving convictions set the scene for ugly interpersonal train wrecks. Like the railroad, Alfred is chronically depressed. He, too, is outmoded, “obsolete.” He thinks of himself as “a man of virtue,” and yet acknowledges only his own moral values. Like all of Mr. Franzen’s principal characters, Alfred is a mess of contradictions: strong and weak (palsied, in fact, and pathetic), brutal and loving, bigoted and fundamentally decent, sympathetic and repellent. He’s a tyrant to his children, but in what he has every reason to expect will be his last living moments, he latches on to the memory of quiet evenings at home with the kids (the house is in a suburb of a Midwestern city Mr. Franzen calls St. Jude)–”Evenings of plain vanilla closeness.”

Enid Lambert, Alfred’s wife (that’s how she would identify herself), is another tangle of opposites. She’s doggedly conventional (“All her friends were nice and had nice friends, and since nice people tended to raise nice children, Enid’s world was like a lawn in which the bluegrass grew so thick that evil was simply choked out: a miracle of niceness”)–and subtly subversive. She brims with meddlesome, barely requited love for her husband and children, and suffers from keen disappointment and shame at her family’s failings–all the while denying even the suggestion of failure. Though she can be single-minded in pursuit of a cherished goal (“I want us all together for one last Christmas”), she has none of Alfred’s stature, nothing like his intelligence or rectitude. A generic Midwestern housewife, she’s burdened with the sad and sadly common task of nursing an elderly husband who has an incurable degenerative disease. That Mr. Franzen makes us care–really care–about Enid is a remarkable achievement.

There are three Lambert kids trailing at least one subplot apiece. Gary, the eldest, a Philadelphia banker with three sons of his own, is the most conventional child and the most awful, a conceited, self-indulgent Baby Boomer with an inherited though notably debased moralizing streak (“he got an erotic kick out of adhering to principle”). Chip, the “feckless” failure, a college professor who lost his job thanks to a sexual-harassment scandal (not exactly his fault), is vocally anti-establishment (he sees himself “losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity”) and pathetically eager to please. Denise, an acclaimed chef with a turbulent bisexual love life, is the least conventional, most appealing and most dutiful. She feels closest to Alfred–a link that proves particularly problematic.

To my mind, each Lambert is fascinating–and almost unbearably lifelike. But it’s Alfred who haunts me. With his archaic principles (redolent of mid-20th-century America), his depression, his bygone, epic battles with sexual desire, his neurological dysfunction and his slow, terrifying descent into dementia, he’s like a walking concordance of Mr. Franzen’s themes. Here he is, confronted by his disease: “His affliction offended his sense of ownership. These shaking hands belonged to nobody but him, and yet they refused to obey him. They were like bad children. Unreasoning two-year-olds in a tantrum of selfish misery. The more sternly he gave orders, the less they listened and the more miserable and out of control they got. He’d always been vulnerable to a child’s recalcitrance and refusal to behave like an adult. Irresponsibility and undiscipline were the bane of his existence, and it was another instance of that Devil’s logic that his own untimely affliction should consist of his body’s refusal to obey him.” He can’t correct the tremors caused by Parkinson’s (any more than he can correct his “untimely” dementia), and this drives him crazy. His craving for control makes his most noble gesture all the more poignant: When he’s told that a teenage Denise has blundered into a wholly wrong sexual liaison, Alfred declines to discipline her or embarrass her or even reveal his awareness of behavior he deeply disapproves of.

The heroic foolishness, obvious futility, comic inevitability and often tragic consequences of one’s attempts to correct oneself, or others, or the past, or the imagined future–that’s Jonathan Franzen’s persistent theme. He explores, too, the significance of those occasions when one decides not to attempt a correction; in other words, when one decides to respect or at least accept what is and to renounce visions of what might be. In happier families–happier than the Lamberts, happier than yours or mine–luck or wisdom (some combination of prudence, patience, courage and compassion) has shown mom and dad and the kids which corrections are all right and which should be avoided like a plague of unhappiness.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.

‘But Dad!’ The Joys of Family, Up Close and Scarily Lifelike