When I started The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen’s National Book Award winning novel, I was determined that I shouldn’t and wouldn’t like it better than Freedom Reading Freedom was like reading my own complex and scattered thoughts but put into a nice and coherent writing. I stopped numerous times, writing down quotes and thinking about them. I had to throw the book (OK, my Kindle) in the other side of the room to escape the sensation that I relate way too well to Freedom‘s characters. That their ill-fated Freedom was in some sort my ill-fated Freedom.
The Corrections occupied an entire afternoon of I-have-to-do-so-many-things-for-school-but-I-can’t-put-this-book-down. On the surface, it is the usual story of an average dysfunctional American family. Enid and Alfred, after nearly fifty years of a content (I wouldn’t say happy marriage), are on the verge of a crisis that age inevitably brings. Alfred is slowly losing his mind to Parkinson’s and Enid is gathering her whole strength to care for a husband, who hasn’t spent a waking minute caring for her. She sets on a mission to bring her three children for a last Christmas at home, hoping against all odds that such a gathering of generations would prove that everything is still normal, that all are in firm possession not only of their lives, but of their minds.
Each of the Lambert’s children is fucked up in its own peculiar way. Gary, the oldest, seems to have it all figured out – a good job, a loving wife, a stable income, and three boys. And yet, he succumbs into a mid-life crisis, a depression, which doesn’t seem to have any evident roots:
…a “sense” that he survived from day to day by distracting himself from underground truths that day by day grew more compelling and decisive. The truth that he was going to die. That heaping your tomb with treasure wouldn’t save you.
Chip, the middle son and always the dad’s favourite, goes from an extreme to an extreme after an unfortunate scandal that leaves him jobless. He decides to pursue a business opportunity in Eastern Europe (which really testifies for his state of mind, as no sane individual would actually go to Eastern Europe for a business opportunity), only to find himself yet again broke, lost, and alone:
He’d lost track of what he wanted, and since who a person was was what a person wanted, you could say that he’d lost track of himself.
Finally, there is the only girl, Denise, who seems to have escaped the eminent failure by recovering from her divorce and becoming a successful chef. And yet, her confused sexuality brings along scandals, from which she finds home as the only shelter.
But before we reach the Christmas Enid has been waiting for for a year, Jonathan Franzen takes us through the life of the Lamberts. Jumping easily from past to present and demonstrating admirable knowledge of distant subjects such as financial markets, railroads and corruption in Eastern Europe, the author portrays a typical family in which we don’t want to recognize ourselves but we simply have to. Each of the children attempts to build its life as a correction of their parents’ lives, to distinguish and separate himself/herself from home, from the mother obsessed with social status and with her children, from the strict father, whose power is now reduced to pieces, and to prove that, no, there are some people who do not turn into their parents. And yet, Gary, Chip and Denise fall into a tragedy of their own, into a whirlpool of wrong decisions, that inevitably leads to a point in life where you either learn how to swim or you drown.
Before long I read an opinion that you cannot like a book if you don’t like the characters in it. The Corrections for me proved that statement wrong. I hated each and everyone of the main characters. I hated how they reacted, how they treated each other, how they behaved. I hated them because they were way too real and they represented something very familiar. At the end I pitied them. I really wished at least one of them would find some form of consolation, some form of contentment, even some form of happiness.
It seems quite natural that The Corrections comes just two weeks before Christmas. Enid’s dreamed of Christmas accomplishes just one thing – it indeed reunites all five Lamberts for one last time. The rest is a disaster. Five completely different people trapped in a house just because it’s Christmas. Each one of them carrying their own emotional baggage and desperately trying to find some light in the tunnel. Harsh things are said. Harsh truths are admitted. Harsh actions are witnessed. It’s a painfully real novel, in which the boundaries between a reader and a book are blurred and you can almost feel this is happening to you, this is your family, these are your mistakes, and these, unfortunately, are your own corrections.
More from Jonathan Franzen: Freedom
Other favourite quotes:
If you want a safe compass to guide you through life…you cannot do better than accustom yourself to regard this world as a penitentiary, a sort of penal colony. (Schopenhauer)
No little part of the torment of existence is that Time is continually pressing upon us, never letting us catch our breath but always coming after us, like a taskmaster with a whip. (Schopenhauer)
The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at an rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other. (Schopenhauer)
And when the event, the big change in your life, is simply an insight – isn’t that a strange thing? That absolutely nothing changes except that you see things differently and you’re less fearful and less anxious and generally stronger as a result: isn’t it amazing that a completely invisible thing in your head can feel realer than anything you’ve experienced before? You see things more clearly and you know that you’re seeing them more clearly. And it comes to you that this is what it means to love life, this is all anybody who talks seriously about God is ever talking about. Moments like this.
A capacity for love was the only true thing she’d ever had.
An idle brain is the Devil’s workshop
The human species was given dominion over the earth and took the opportunity to exterminate other specie and warm the atmosphere and generally ruin things in its own image, but it paid this price for its privileges: that the finite and specific animal body of this species contained a brain capable of conceiving the infinite and wishing to be infinite itself.
The odd truth about Alfred was that love, for him, was a matter not of approaching but of keeping away.