Beyond Oprah

Michael Franzen's 'The Corrections' quite simply is an amazing novel about family trauma.

The flap surrounding this novel is almost as juicy as the novel itself. Not widely known, but respected in literary circles, young writer Jonathan Franzen writes a novel unbelievably successful in every way. The novel, picked as an Oprah Winfrey book, inspires Franzen to insult Oprah, darling of the publishing world (something about the commonness of the Oprah stamp) and the female reading public, by far the largest reading population (something about wanting men to read his book, too), and as well as the other fine writers chosen by Oprah.

Elitism, sexism and alienation of peers--kind of like Bill Clinton having it all and losing it all over some plump dumpling of an intern, isn't it? Bravo, Mr. Franzen!

Yet, what a great read this is. Prepare to relinquish your life to the Lamberts, as only the most self-disciplined readers will be able, once engrossed, to put this novel down. Lame-brained, lambasting Lamberts emerge as the Cleavers of their native St. Jude, only to conceal an unspoken web of torment that would cause Foucault to wince. Meanwhile Franzen creates characters so fully drawn in such complicated inter-weavings that the book deservedly wins the American Book Award, and is (so far) short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The parental (correctional) units of the Lambert family consist of Enid and Albert. In early married life, Albert divides his time between the railroad he works for and the metallurgy shop in the basement that he uses as a refuge from Enid. She consoles herself by autocratically running the household and raising the three children. Unfortunately Enid's despotic tendencies turn child rearing into nasty business indeed.

Consider this exquisitely complicated passage. As her children construct a model penitentiary complete with electric chair of Popsicle sticks, Enid whips up "liver 'n' bacon" with mashed rutabagas and beet greens, a family meal abhorred by all but Enid, who appreciates the nutrition and mostly the thrift of this concoction. The oldest child, Gary, has learned to not only placate his parents for household peace's sake, but to do so enthusiastically, gobbles up the food to get it out of sight. Enid's middle child, Chipper, also (much to his own disadvantage) Albert's favorite, looks on his plate and sees "the dogshit-yellow field of rutabaga; the liver warped by frying . . . the ball of woody beet leaves collapsed and contorted." Chip realizes "how his entire dinner might be scarfable in no time." He tries, but feels "his guts convulsed in a spine-bending gag."

Thus the family dinner table evolves into a battle ground where "two sides of the square table were happy and two sides were not." The brunt of disciplinary action naturally falls to the family's father, whether he likes it or not. Though Chip eventually concedes to his father's desperate compromise to "take one bite of everything," he's left at the table until the middle of the night to do so. Then Albert stumbles upon a scene so wrong, so sick that for a moment Alfred "thought the boy at the table was a ghost from his own childhood."

And what is Enid's goal? She desires domination for domination's sake. But when Chip sits down and says, "This smells like vomit!" he is forever outdone. She finds "you could slap his wrist for saying it, but then he said it with his face, and you could spank him for making faces, but then he said it with his eyes, and there were limits to correction--no way, in the end to penetrate behind the blue irises and eradicate a boy's disgust." The problem remains, though, because she can't figure out how to stop trying.

Enid's battle continues even when the children are grown and her focus turns to a Christmas reunion at the house the children grew up in, with all the complications and hard feelings that accompany it.

Throughout its 568 pages, the novel never flags. Whether Enid watches Albert fall off a cruise ship, Gary deciphers the effects of his own anhedonia, Chip debases himself running after his latest ex-girlfriend, or daughter Denise solemnly eats her way across Europe, each scene is as finely and completely written as the next. Although more episodic than plot driven, the action never slows and the multiple themes never overly tax the reader.

And Franzen never fails to amaze. Whether sprinkling his prose with quotes from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer or alluding to novelists as diverse as Flannery O'Connor and C. S. Lewis, he is a writer fully in command of his medium. Now if he could have only worked out that Oprah thing.

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