The Corrections: A character study

Please welcome Meghan Hayes to #FranzeninFebruary! Meghan lives in my spiritual home of Saint John New Brunswick, and is one half of Bibliotaphs, one of my new favourite book blogs – this post in particular caught my eye. Her review of The Corrections takes a close look at each of the characters and reveals the contradictions at the heart of a funny/sad book.

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The Bibliotaph Cat approves

The Corrections is easily Franzen’s funniest book. I think the comedy that comes out of this story works because Christmastime is often hell for all of us, and nothing makes it more unbearable than all the pressure to “be with family.” It’s something we all relate to. The Corrections is similar to Franzen’s other work (notably Freedom and Purity) in that each section deals with another character and it often spans a generation.

This was the second Franzen book I ever read. I started with his essay collection How to be Alone and bought The Corrections immediately afterwards in a Target. So I first read this book ~five years ago. I decided to pick it up again so I could take part in Laura’s #FranzenFebruary.

Something that struck me as interesting in the book is that the characters are often trying to convince the reader that they are not “clinically depressed.” They all seem to be experiencing “depressive episodes” but they are always fighting the “clinical” label (e.g. Chip saying he is unable to behave like a depressed person by ignoring a phone call, Gary openly refuses the diagnosis by his wife).

I remember loving this line from a Chuck Klosterman novel where he says “I wanted to write about people who were depressed, but not depressed for any kind of specific cataclysmic reason. I mean the high school kid is kind of abstractly depressed, which I think is what a lot of people feel like. It’s not like they have anything bad about their lives and if you were to ask them if they were depressed, they’d probably say no.”

And I think this is what Franzen is doing in The Corrections. Each character seems to be depressed but in a way that any married / newly graduated / everyday-human can often be. It’s not necessarily biological, but they feel it nonetheless.

I’m going to divide up this “review” by each of the main characters … because this is the only way I’ll be able to organize my thoughts in any coherent way. Let’s goooooo:

Denise
I always thought Maggie Gyllenhal would be perfectly cast as Denise Lambert. I also always think of Denise when I imagine cooking as a career … the long, insane hours and the scarred hands. My favourite part of Denise’s sections are when they introduce her lover Robin. Robin’s back story is really compelling.

Gary
Gary Lambert is difficult to like but he is wholly sympathetic. He mentions over and over throughout his section that he is not clinically depressed regardless of some of the “Symptoms” he is demonstrating. His symptoms consist of sleepless nights, anhedonia (the inability to derive pleasure from things that once made you feel happy), dependency on alcohol, and paranoia.

One of the funniest parts of this book is when Franzen explores Gary’s paranoid thoughts. Gary thinks his wife is faking an injury, that she has turned his children against him, and that she is continually plotting to look like the better parent:

 “He cruelly attacked her person, she heroically attacked his disease.”

This is an interesting section in the book because at first you do start to think that Caroline is a terrible wife and is purposely trying to isolate Gary from his children. But then you start to wonder if Gary really is clinically depressed and if this paranoia is actually just a symptom of his disease. Is Caroline really that bad or are we just seeing her through Gary’s paranoia? I mean we all learn in high school English that you can’t necessarily trust the narrator.

Chip
I find Chip to be the least interesting character in the book, but that is probably because he is the least sympathetic. He’s sort of an asshole right from the start and a fuckup in a really uncharming way. I honestly don’t have too much to say about him other than that I love the exchange between him and his warlord-employer on their flight to Lithuania … Gitanes is essentially telling Chip about his time in prison and the torture he had to endure:

“So, what, you got cigarette burns, too?” Gitanes said.
Chip showed his palm, “It’s nothing.”
“Self-inflicted. You pathetic American.”
“Different kind of prison” Chip said.” 

This is one of the passages that stuck with me after my first read of The Corrections … the delivery is so perfect and I always loved it as an ending. I don’t know if this comes across as funny to someone who hasn’t read the book, but I feel like it is straightforward and another example of the humour in The Corrections.

Enid
So Enid is the most unbearable character, but she is the one who brings the most humour to this book. She is hilarious in that she is so goddamn annoying and is easily recognizable in any parent. Her relationship with her youngest daughter Denise is so realistic that you cringe at the stuff she is willing to say to her daughter (especially “the story of Norma Green” conversation for anyone who has read the book).

Enid is obsessed with having the perfect “last Christmas in St. Jude,” and drives her children insane trying to get them there. She is obsessed with appearances and class. She is terrible the way anyone who was born around World War One probably can be. But her character also offers some really great insights about how difficult it is to parent, and how despite our judgments, she didn’t do any worse of a job than we would probably would have done ourselves:

“What you discovered about yourself in raising children wasn’t always agreeable or attractive.”

There is a scene where she leaves her youngest son at the table for six hours mostly just to spite her husband who didn’t kiss her goodbye before he left for a work trip. Enid is selfish and petty, but that just makes her a realistic character. I don’t want to have kids because I’d probably act as immature as Enid in way too many scenarios.

Alfred
God, Alfred is probably the saddest part of the book. It is especially painful to read because after reading the essay “My Father’s Brain” in How to be Alone you see that Franzen directly borrows from his own father’s bought with Alzheimer’s. But again, while this is incredibly heartbreaking to read, there are parts that are incredibly funny. As my dementia-ridden grandmother tells us seven times a visit, “it’s better to laugh than it is to cry.” Ha.

Anyways, the funnier scene that comes to mind is when Alfred is experiencing some hallucinations on the cruise ship… He essentially starts to see one of his own “turds” that taunts him and threatens him for what seems like hours (when really he has just crapped himself). I’m not an asshole. I realize that this is incredibly heartbreaking … a grown man has lost control of his body and that’s humiliating and horrifying for anyone to go through.  But the scene reads as total comedy.

To go back to Franzen’s real-life experience with this disease, I would recommend ANYONE “My Father’s Brain.” It is such a beautiful essay that doesn’t fall into the clichéd pitfalls of writing about dementia and memory loss. He talks about his own family taking his dad out of the nursing home for Thanksgiving … when the holiday is over and they bring him back to the nursing home he says, “Better to have never left than to have to come back.” And this line is used verbatim in The Corrections.

Revenge Scene:
I have to include this because it is my FAVOURITE part of this entire book even though it has nothing to do with any of the major characters. This is an exchange between Enid and a woman she meets on the cruise named Sylvia. Sylvia explains why she and her husband are on the cruise ship. Her daughter was tortured to death by one of her patients a few years ago. The patient was eventually found guilty and was sentenced to death. Slyvia says her husband will claim that they are celebrating their anniversary by taking the cruise, but that she really knows it’s so she can’t witness the killer’s execution.

Revenge is a topic I have always been really fascinated with. Franzen deals with it in a really interesting way through this story. The mother talks about how she became OBSESSED with drawing guns. She couldn’t draw anything else and when she looked at any other image she immediately saw a gun in it. She tells Enid how confusing this is as her daughter’s killer used a knife, not a gun, in the killing. This whole passage unpacks how difficult it is to feel satisfied when seeking revenge:

“Unlike ordinary lust, which could be appeased by pictures or by pure imagination, the lust for revenge could not be tricked.”

Another part of these revenge section that I found so interesting was when Sylvia described how badly she wants her daughter’s killer dead:

“She wanted him dead despite her recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer in which she avowed that killing someone else’s child wouldn’t bring back her own.”

She goes on to say that she wants the killer dead despite knowing her daughter’s death was a random tragedy, despite the fact that decent wage jobs aren’t available for young men like him, despite that society has yet to rid communities of debilitating drug addictions, etcetera, etcetera … I found this to be incredibly refreshing. She knows that her daughter’s killer is a victim of society but she doesn’t care. She wants revenge.

I am so so happy that I reread this book because I have found my favourite passage that I have been thinking about for days and days since seeing again … Sylvia says this to Enid while they are drinking in one of the lounges.

… Here it is before I say anything more:

“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.”

OH MAN I COULD DIE RIGHT NOW. This is exactly how I feel when I read a really great book. I have had this feeling a few times in my life and the one I remember most strongly was when I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tart.

Anyways, that’s my take on The Corrections! THANKS FOR READING THIS LONG-ASS POST 🙂

Another success! Hooray! I notice that the only guest reviewers who liked their books are the ones who were already Franzen fans… hmm. Well, onward! We might squeeze in one more before #FranzeninFebruary wraps up.

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