The Lambert matriarch (Enid) wants the family together for one last Christmas. The old man, Alfred, is becoming increasingly infirm and the kids are scattered. Making up this tragically comic family is Chip, the reckless teacher; Gary, the yuppy with a family; and Denise, the bisexual chef. Now, if they can only assemble in their midwestern home without driving each other over the brink, into insanity, mom will get her wish. Along the way, Chip gets fired from his teaching job for a dalliance with a student and then moves to Lithuania to bilk foreign investors. Gary sinks farther and farther into depression while his wife pits his children against him in a most harrowing contemporary portrait of marriage. Denise becomes the head chef at a new chi-chi restaurant but sleeps first with the owner and then with the owner's wife. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, mom and dad Lambert's goings-on force the reader to ask why these two got married in the first place. Enid can do no right by her husband, who spends increasing amounts of time in the basement (where he used to have a metallurgy lab) slipping into dementia. Neither of them has the faintest understanding of the other.
Franzen's writing about these situations is a wonder of a thing. His sentences are finely crafted, with well-woven analogies that pass by your eyes like multi-colored fish in a chaotic narrative reef. Sometimes they run for paragraphs, where he plays with the language and dazzles in insight. It's a pleasure to read a writer with such striking command of his art who never loses you in mixed metaphors or laborious analogies. Handled equally as well is his intricate Pynchon-esque plot, involving mind-altering biochemicals (for which Alfred holds one of the patents), eastern bloc national fiscal strife, and railroad company business acumen. Rather than devoting single chapters or sections to each of these (or each of the children and two parents, for that matter), the sections may center around one but are interlaced with all aspects of the novel, until the melange is a swirling mixture of scents, tastes, and sights of the whole. It's like watching a comet with its primary mass, but trailing behind it is all that is picked up along the route, swirling like a cloud or past and present. Compare this to easier methods of storytelling (such as Margaret Atwood's simplistically crafted The Robber Bride), where each main character gets a chapter until all have had their say. Franzen's structure exemplifies mastery of holding together this delicately fabricated world without losing the complexity of it all.
I don't want to be reductionist, but Franzen did title the book The Corrections and thus there is something to looking there for answers to the questions this troubled family poses. The most obvious place to look is the drug aspect, the need to correct a person's psyche or self (such as with the comfortable phrase "correctional facility" instead of the tougher "jail"). Enid naively dabbles in such correcting of herself, and Alfred had something to do with the latest pharmachological invention to alter the mind of troubled souls.
But there is also the stock market's use of the word "correction," which happens when the market gets too big, as it did in the '90's (the time in which this book takes place), and then plummets back down to, perhaps, more realistic levels. But this is just a nice way of putting the bad news. So many people get laid off, individuals overextend themselves, companies go belly up-and we're supposed to think this is something nice, a correction, as if we were wrong all along and this is what we deserve. It is another oddly insulting euphemism for a difficult time.
And since this is a story about a family, there is the accompanying generation gap, and the corrections that children attempt to make to offset the perceived deficit in their parents. But in doing so, Franzen shows that these types of corrections can violate both good sense and respect for others. We can't tell each other to be someone different and expect those changes to happen. Who we are is determined by so many complex factors, and those who try to make us change simply make us hate them and feel bad about ourselves without our being able to do much about our situations.
What Franzen does best in this parable of the modern age is show this complicated family's issues with each other, with technology, with social mores, each pushing like separate but strong winds, and none too far removed from reality. By the end of the book, the troubles and their respective consequences seem so hugely insurmountable, the reader can be expected to be exhausted. The bickering, not without some justification, is at times unrelenting. And the motives are at times dubious, but, importantly, they are honest and true, making them that much harder to look at directly. But Franzen knows that there are fingers to be pointed and blame to be accepted; some characters are exonerated, some are condemned, and some are, as they say, "going to be okay." In this book, however, disfunctionality is both personal and cosmic. What will become of a society made up of such families? The possibilities are terrifying.