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Life Issues
Elder Care

by Jonathan Franzen
Picador USA, 2001
Review by Dominic Myers on Jul 15th 2002

The Corrections

Family dramas at Christmas are as traditional in most households as the turkey itself. In Franzen’s The Corrections the “are we all going to Mum and Dad’s this year?” question becomes the fraught backdrop to the sudden breakdown of Alfred Lambert, the family patriarch, into the by turns raving and blank world of Alzheimer’s. The family undergo a series of personal epiphanies (“corrections”) as they come to realise that Alfred’s apparent eccentricity, which with diminishing control he attempts to disguise, is not just forgetfulness, but the slow and then sudden destruction of the mind of the man they thought they knew.

Enid, Alfred’s wife of almost 50 years, increasingly disoriented by and desperate about Alfred’s behaviour, creates a paradisiacal vision for herself of her problematic children uniting in one last happy family Christmas in small town St Jude’s. For her, this vision becomes all consuming in her world of coupon-clipping resentment at her lost years and the injustice of Alfred’s early retirement. The more she cajoles her children the more they withdraw into their childhood reactions to parenthood and the more undesirable a return to the actual home of their youth becomes. Alfred too, sensing still his own decline, desperately tries to analyse his anachronistic, previously unchallenged self-righteousness and authority, whilst surreptitiously urinating with less and less control into tin cans and hiding them in his basement den.

The asset stripping of Alfred’s former employer, the MidPac Railway, and near-theft of Alfred’s original amateur-scientist’s patent, by the corporate raiders who, in due course cynically float a new “miracle cure” for his illness derived from his patent to a greedy stock market, symbolise the ironic undermining of every Mid-Western value Alfred stands for and represented to his children. Only as Alfred degenerates do his children begin to realise how they too have deviated from the regime he enforced. Chip, the youngest son, forced to sit for hours at the dining table until he ate his greens, spectacularly self-combusts in his academic career as a left-wing feminist lecturer after an amphetamine fuelled motel romp with a student who immediately shops him and dumps him. He turns his subsequent lack of success as a scriptwriter into a short-lived career writing web releases about a wholly fictional blossoming of the Lithuanian economy in order to attract never-to-be-seen again US investment dollars from gullible Mid-Westerners like his father. Chip’s sister Denise sleeps with a succession of married men with the same gruff detachment (but not the morals) of her father. Eventually she presses the self-destruct button on a promising career as a chef and plunges into a nervous implosion about her very sexuality, before realising with final crushing guilt her own involvement in the beginning of her father’s decline. Gary, the eldest and ostensibly the least rebellious sibling, lives prosperously as the investment director of a moderately sized bank in an apparently idyllic reflection of his mother’s longed for family utopia. But as Gary greedily tries to acquire more than his fair share of the very stock floatation which might save his father’s health, the proposed Christmas reunion and his wife’s adamant refusal to participate, generates the breakdown of his own family, with Gary himself, in a hypochondriacal anticipation of his father’s mental illness, degenerating into accelerating vodka-fuelled paranoia.

Franzen’s own father died of Alzheimer’s. The sudden avalanche of his decline and Franzen’s own realisation of its extent, before Alzheimer’s was a commonly understood, is reflected in the guilty realisation of the Lambert children of the horror the has become Enid and Alfred’s life. But it is the episodes Franzen writes from Alfred’s perspective which are the most chilling. For the 5 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their families, Franzen presents a frightening prediction of hallucination, paranoia and associated physical loss of control. Alfred battles with nightmarish excremental demons, frantically tearing off his pyjamas and swaddling himself in nappies made of bath towels in an eerie mirroring of infancy. His moments of lucidity and apparent normality lead the long-suffering Enid into the self-delusion that Alfred’s condition may be episodic and curable, until he plunges her into renewed horrors of degeneration. Franzen, eventually came to long for the release of his own father from the husk of his life, believing that he had battled in vain to hold himself together against its ravages and that even at the end, when all memory and function were gone, there was still a spark in his father’s brain that was trying to simply die. In “The Corrections,” Franzen gives us a picture of how that spark feels in Alfred’s head and it is not a pleasant picture.

It would be wrong though just to view this as a book about Alzheimer’s, pertinent as that may be, and regardless of the unnecessarily frequent amateur textbook explanations. Its ambitions appear to be greater in its depiction of a world in need of correction, albeit a predominantly white, educated, middle class world. It has biting comments to make about thinly disguised global corporations (who in due course experience the partial retribution of their own market “correction”), the new economy, the emergence of new “democracies,” the consumption of media and our reaction to it, amongst other things. But Franzen’s depiction of Lithuania for example, with it’s apparent metaphorical significance, seems just that, entirely without realism. The cynical marketing of big drug companies, right down to the quasi-legal selling of banned anti-depressants to Enid by the unctuous ship’s doctor on a cruise ship in “international” waters off the cost of Rhode Island, is no doubt immoral. But one senses Franzen’s own disgust has undermined his fiction – the corporate liar is always more than the mere cipher he depicts. Individuals do protest violently against capitalism, but few petty thieves are tempted by newfound moral fury to suddenly batter a corporate spokesperson with a length of timber and no hope of escape at the ceremonial opening of a computers-for-schools project, as a character does here. Brian Callahan, a mechanism for instigating Denise’s own self-discovery, is a character with the depth of an ashtray, who effortlessly progresses from a privileged lacrosse playing schooling to overnight millionaire by effortlessly creating a new piece of music sampling and search software, before discovering an interest in the funding of Denise’s new restaurant venture before turning equally diletanttishly to funding an underground film maker. The bit-parts and players of the novel are often jarring and serve mostly to emphasise how good Franzen is when on home turf: he is at his best when writing more affectionately (and bitterly) about what one senses is his own experience – his eye is wry for the minutiae of family relationships, motivations and settings with their comic/ironic detail. However, this is a long novel which drags on the occasions when Franzen, who clearly loves writing, becomes intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity. He would have benefited from a more forceful editor who might have curbed his tendency to embellish with intrusive list of details (I got the message that Enid’s cellar was full of junk after Denise disposes of a sheaf of silver dollar plants whose dollars had fallen off and a jar of brandy-pumpkin spread that had turned a snottish grey-green; I didn’t need the jar of brandied kumquats turned brown gunk and a host of similarly defunct foodstuffs and bric-a-brac, no matter how cleverly described.)

Criticisms notwithstanding, Franzen has written a wry, thoughtful and ultimately moving novel about family life and the horror of mental illness. Given the picture Franzen creates, we can only hope we will be amongst the lucky ones.



·        Review of The Corrections by Christian Perring

·        The Corrections available at Amazon.co.uk



© 2002 Dominic Myers


Dominic Myers is managing director of Blackwell, UK.  He lives in Oxford.