by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $25.00
Since The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen's amazing debut way back in 1988, American fiction has seen a host of smart-guy writers, some of whom have garnered that dubious laurel, literary celebrity. Franzen, who may be the most rewarding of the lot, last surfaced in 1992, with Strong Motion, another daring performance, but since then he has published only essays and excerpts, whetting readers' appetites for this, his long-awaited third novel.
The Corrections follows the tribulations of the Lambert family, from the stolid midwestern city of St. Jude. The children have long since grown and fled to the hipper East Coast, leaving Enid to tend Alfred, whose health, like their relationship, is declining precipitately. Enid's dream is to have one last perfect Christmas together as a family—after she and Alfred take their dream cruise. The action opens with a stop in Manhattan to see Chip, their middle child, an ex-professor dropped by his college after a humiliating affair with a student. Pushing forty, Chip has never lost the attitude of the too cool grad student whose view of the world comes from the French poststructuralists. He has pinned his hopes to a screenplay that is nothing more than a thinly veiled version of his own downfall. He's an unmitigated failure, dead broke, yet he retains—through a combination of denial and pride—a desperate, last-ditch optimism. As his parents arrive, his girlfriend is in the process of leaving him, delivering her long-suppressed opinion that his screenplay, just sent to his producer, is flat-out bad. Chip understands that she's right and heads off to rescue his screenplay before it's too late, frantically coming up with the corrections that will save it.