Lost in America

Reviewed by Chris Lehmann
Sunday, September 2, 2001


By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar Straus Giroux. 568 pp. $26

The threat of a storm bristles through the opening pages of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections: "Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end." Shuttered against this quasi-biblical climate is the modest home of Alfred and Enid Lambert, a couple living out their golden years in the fictional Midwestern city of St. Jude.

As Franzen zeroes in on the travails of the Lamberts and their three grown children, we see a whole series of storms overtake them: Psychic traumas, career readjustments and impersonal market forces shudder through the family's frail commitments and loyalties. Plugged into the irrational grid of America's forever new-and-next economy, the Lamberts find it harder and harder to make sense of their lives or figure out how they fit together.

This may sound like a humorless, didactic premise for a novel -- a New Economy content upgrade of Don DeLillo's White Noise, to which The Corrections is already earning comparisons. But Franzen shores up his Zeitgeist-heavy narrative with the indispensable masonry of a carefully crafted plot, exuberant yet plausible satire and, most of all, closely observed character. Where other writers in this broad stretch of postmodern storytelling are tempted into gestural flashiness and high-ironic gimmickry, Franzen narrates The Corrections with a subdued, assured and compassionate touch. The result is an energetic, brooding, open-hearted and funny novel that addresses refreshingly big questions of love and loyalty in America's rapidly fragmenting, meaning-challenged domestic sphere.

The troubles begin in the battered home of Alfred and Enid, who, as their names suggest, are citizens of an older, producerist America, hewn of stern Midwestern virtues. Now well into their retirement years, the elder Lamberts find themselves athwart a host of unfriendly market forces. Chief among them is the background to Alfred's retirement: The company that formerly employed him as an engineer, the Midland Pacific Railroad, has been taken over by a band of Southwestern investors operating under the blandly evil name Orfic Midland. In seeming disgust over the shakeup, Alfred, a stubborn, hardworking creature of Depression-era rectitude, abruptly leaves the company just four weeks short of his full retirement.

This proves to be just the first of many rude shocks that America's new millennial culture of the main chance has in store for Alfred and Enid. Their children are recruited into unfamiliar, edgy livelihoods and (in some cases) lifestyle formations. Their local HMO gets taken over by a lawn-care company. And Alfred, a former rainy-day inventor, has been approached by a giant pharmaceutical company looking to buy out one of his patents with a ludicrously lowball offer.

There's an especially bitter irony to this last development: The pharmaceutical concern (the no-less-ominously named Axon Corporation) intends to use Alfred's patent to market a revolutionary treatment for Parkinson's disease, the very condition that is sending Alfred's always imperious, disagreeable personality into deeper eddies of isolation and dementia -- "a darkness that didn't just exist but actively consumed the bearings that he'd sensibly established for himself." Faced with the myriad challenges of his deteriorating health -- which include not only incontinence and medication-fueled hallucinations but hallucinations about his incontinence -- Alfred's wife, a still-compulsive homemaker, has to mount a series of evasive actions. Enid pointedly ignores some evidence of his declining powers even as she exploits them to conceal key features of their disheveled finances. In between these maneuvers, she's also trying to lure the couple's three adult children, now living on the East Coast, back for what she pronounces will be their last Christmas in St. Jude.

As you come to know these younger Lamberts, you appreciate how Enid's planned Christmas reunion is a truly epic undertaking. All well into adulthood, the Lambert kids are still struggling to work out their individual fates -- and, much like their parents, they're finding that their choices can be quite randomly shaped by the madly shifting pulse of consumer desire, the homogenizing American landscape and -- not least by any means -- the erratic course of economic affairs from which The Corrections cribs its slyly punning title. By virtue both of his obsolete character and his mounting disorientation, Alfred is pretty much the limit-case of his family's distemper. But as the narrative fans out to fill in the life histories of the depressive trio of adult Lambert children, Chip, Gary and Denise, we see them, too, imperfectly aligned with the birth throes of the new American century.

In the first such study (bluntly titled "The Failure"), younger son Chip, a 39-year-old Manhattanite hipster, is waiting for his parents to arrive at LaGuardia; he's having them over for lunch before they embark on a budget cruise during which hardy passengers are instructed to admire Canadian foliage in the fall. He puts up a brave front, clad in leather pants and sporting large wrought-iron rivets on his earlobes, but he's a desperate case: He's been dismissed from an assistant English professorship at a never-named Northeastern college after a spectacularly ill-advised affair with an undergraduate; now he's mired in debt, trying to market a self-serving account of his ordeal as a Hollywood screenplay. As his parents arrive, his girlfriend announces she's breaking up with him, and he has a panic attack about the frequent recurrence of the word "breast" in his draft screenplay, which he has just submitted to his agent. He fobs off his parents on his younger sister and frantically tracks down his agent in Tribeca; further misunderstandings ensue, and before he knows it, he's agreed to go to Lithuania to run a promotional Web site for his now ex-girlfriend's estranged husband, a former leader of the anti-Soviet reform movement who's stumbled on a brazen plan to defraud Western investors.

Chip's largely farcical plight finds numerous echoes in the middle-aged travails of his siblings, Gary and Denise: They suffer from much the same convergence of addled ambitions, creaking intimacies and a frenetic global business culture. Gary, the oldest of the Lambert children, manages a division of a Philadelphia investment bank; his stay-at-home heiress wife protects and indulges their three sons with an unstable compound of crude self-help homilies (in which Gary is invariably cast as bad cop), abundant family fun time and expensive computer equipment. (One of their sons has set up a state-of-the-art surveillance system in the family kitchen.) All this leaves Gary feeling excluded and depressed, but the dynamic of his marriage is such that he dare not confess it. He ponders his precarious condition, tellingly, in the language of his day job: "He was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never again win an argument. . . . His mental markets -- glycemic, endocrine, over-the-synapse -- were crashing." Just as tellingly, he only snaps provisionally out of his funk when he's able to induce his wife, Caroline, to approve a stock buy that promises deviously -- and not coincidentally -- to cash in the insider information he gains via the bid on his dad's patent.

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