Bookshot #166: The Corrections

I honestly don't know how to feel about this. Also, I'm not entirely sure where we got this book from-

but it's been sitting on one of our bookshelves for a while now and when I was in need of a fiction adventure, I decided to pick it up and give it a go and that's what I'm left with: I honestly don't know how to feel about this book.

It's got the character details of Empire Falls, but the post-modernist surrealism of Gravity's Rainbow with a touch of Philip Roth's commentary on the state of American life and society in the spirit of American Pastoral. It manages to feel like all of these things and very much its own thing all at the same time, which is a strangely impressive feat for a single novel to accomplish, but somehow Franzen does it.

The story of the Lambert Family opens with Enid and Alfred. They still live in the Midwestern town of St. Jude in their house that has seen better days. Enid wants to start having some fun in her retirement, as their children have long since flown from the nest, but she is held back by the stubbornness of her husband as well as his declining health. (Alfred has Parkinson's and, as it turns out, dementia.) In an attempt to have fun, before his health goes further downhill, they're going on a cruise, and when they stop in New York, they meet up with two of their children, Chip and Denise for lunch.

Chip is a mess. He's been fired from his tenure track academic position and is shacking up with a younger woman and trying to finish a screenplay that's a total mess. He eventually finds a lifeline in the form of his lover's ex-husband Gitanas and flies off to Lithuania to do a job that essentially amounts to spinning bullshit about the country on the internet in order to make money which he's actually pretty good at.

Enid and Alfred depart for their cruise and that introduces us to the next child of the Lamberts, Gary. The oldest, he did the thing and got married, got kids, and got himself a nice rich suburban lifestyle to back it all up. But, he's miserable. He engages in and on again, off again war with his wife, Caroline about taking the family to St. Jude's for one last Christmas. (His mother, Enid wants all the children together for one last holiday) Caroline refuses but accuses him of drinking too much (true) and being depressed (also true). Gary is also convinced that his father's tinkering led to a patent application that should have given his parents more money and would have, had Alfred not accepted what Gary believes to be an unreasonable price. Gary wants to sell the house and put his parents in a home. Gary recognizes what's going on here. Gary can't understand why people just can't do what he says.

Enid and Alfred settle into their cruise, but unfortunately, Alfred's dementia gets worse. His incontinence gets worse and eventually, he falls off the cruise ship and lands in the ocean which cuts their adventure short and ships them all back home in time for one last Christmas.

Which is when we sort of double back to meet Denise. Denise (unsurprisingly- are you sensing a theme, here?) is a mess. She's driven, doesn't want to be like her mother, and might understand her father the best but does everything her mother disapproves of in every way she can. She marries a guy. She divorces a guy. She has affairs. She starts a new restaurant with another guy and ends up sleeping with his wife before getting fired and having her life basically implode right before they all go back home in time for one last Christmas.

So, Enid gets her wish and the children gather for one last Christmas. Alfred, with the last shreds of realization about what's coming, contemplates suicide and asks Chip to end it for him when he ends up in the hospital but in the end, it's too late. He hangs on for a couple of more years. Chip settles down. Gary continues his life. Denise finds something else, but finally, he does die, and then, Enid is ready to make some changes in her life.

So, I said it at the top and I'll say it again: I don't know how to feel about this book. It's kind of a slog at first, but mid-way through it takes off like a rocket and becomes almost impossible to put down. I dislike the fact that everyone is at various levels of miserable throughout this book- even though Chip, who seems to be pegged as the screw-up of the family seems to wind up on his feet quite nicely by the end of the book. Alfred grappling with the indignities of failing health and declining dignity and the loss of self in the face of dementia is harrowing, heart-breaking stuff to read and probably more realistic than any reader would want to admit. 

Maybe this is me and maybe it's an unrealistic expectation that I have, but why do contemporary portraits of American families in fiction always seem so goddamn depressing? I know that might be somewhat naive: people don't all have charmed lives and not everyone is happy all the damn time. I get that. But the default narrative seems to produce fairly grim portraits of American life throughout a lot of fiction and it gets a little tiresome after a while. I know it's an unrealistic expectation because happy well-adjusted people don't make for good writing, but as a reader, it would be nice to see a different take on this for once.

Overall: This is an excellent book. Can't fault the writing. Can't fault the characters and even, despite my grousing about yet another grim portrait of contemporary American society, the quality of this book means I can overlook that part. It's just too good. My Grade: *** 1/2 out of ****


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