We are all Lamberts

Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" was published and won the National Book Award in 2001, but it took almost 10 years for this blogger to hear about Franzen. Even then, when he first heard about him it was through a GQ interview in December of 2010, I thought Franzen was Johan Franzen, the Swedish hockey player of the Detroit Red Wings. This means at least two things: that I truly am not a fan of the Wings and that I was clueless as to who this author was.

I'm not anymore, and in a big way but let us go back to the book itself.

This blogger has never been keen on books that include favourable reviews in their pages -- of course, the quotes included will be laudatory. I don't like to be dictated what to like or dislike and feel like this custom accomplishes little else. That being said, "The Corrections" is worthy of all the praise it received and will undoubtedly continue to receive.

This book is equally depressive and impressive.

It is depressive, because it details the American Dream by telling the story of the Lambert family; of Alfred, retired railroad worker; of Enid, devoted mother and wife; of Gary, oldest son who's (un)happily married with a family of three sons; of middle-kid Chip, teacher but mostly dreamer; and of Denise, at times chef and others mistress. Quickly, the reader learns that the Lamberts are a family in the nuclear sense that the two parents have had children; that's as far as it goes.

"The Corrections" starts off unceremoniously. Enid gets it into her head that all of her family should meet one last time, in the family house of St. Jude, for Christmas of that year. Before you know it, you've read 600+ pages, the Christmas family reunion has unfolded, you've laughed and chocked up and have been teary-eyed from this great American novel.

The Lamberts always believed in the American Dream; they always hoped for the house in the residential suburbs. The green lawn. The ever-optimistic, but overqualified housewife. The dad who's never been ambitious, yet still works to provide for the family. The two (or in the Lambert case, three) children who are just wonderful. The Lamberts wanted and hoped for it all and, mostly, got it right. Yet in the real world, the American Dream is a hoax and the Lamberts very much so live in the real world. The American Dream is hollow, empty; once in a while, the green lawn needs cutting after all.

Franzen tells a simple story: the parents decide on the family's plans for Christmas, visit Chip and Denise in New York where Chip bails on the lunch because his girlfriend just dumped him. He then travels to Vilnius where he gets involved in the illegal businesses of a Lithuanian. Meanwhile, the parents embark on a cruise through the East coast. All the while, Gary struggles to convince his wife and three sons that traveling to St. Jude for Christmas is the right idea. Enid and Alfred, their cruise over, go back home where they will await the arrival of Christmas and, they hope, their family. The end.

Not much happens but a whole lot unfolds; this is how Franzen, the writer, shines. In between those scenes, each character reminisces of a time in his or her life and by the end of the book, the reader has a great understanding of each character, his or her motives, aspirations and past. Because that's where the Lamberts live, in the past. Franzen shows that the average man of today lives his life by clinging to the past, by planning their future according to that lost past which they so desperately wish could revisit them one day.

You live in the present by hoping for a future that can recapture a lost (and, perhaps because it is lost, better) past. Then one day, you realize that you haven't done much else in life. You're 70. You live with a disabled and quite possibly demented husband. You're poor, or very close to it. You have three children who can't seem to stand you. You passionately hope to find a way to ease yours and your husband's torments as you grow both grow older. You're Enid.

Or, maybe you're Alfred. You're broke and have sold for $5,000 a patent that was worth a few millions. Parkinson's disease is taking its toll and complicating even the simplest of tasks. Your wife is oblivious to your misery. Since you've retired, you have little interests but to sit in the big blue chair in the basement of your house. Partly, you can't deny it, because you know that doing so annoys your wife very much.

Or, maybe you're Gary. You live with a lovely wife who's convinced you're depressed. She hates your parents and doesn't hide it. You think that two of your three sons would choose to live with her if they had the choice; Jonah, the one on your side, is still young and maybe it is only a matter of time before your wife wins him over. Your parents have always tried to control your life; now that they are old, you want nothing else but to return the favour.

Or, maybe you're Chip. You were a teacher well on your way to tenure, but you blew it all when you asked an ex-student of yours to blow you. She abided, the affair became public and you were fired. Of course you were, you don't know how you could have expected anything else. Depressed, you've been working on a screenplay but by now, you're up to the eighth or ninth draft and you have little hope of it seeing the light of day. So you mix with a shady character from Lithuania who happens to be the husband of the girl you were seeing.

Or, maybe you're Denise. You had married too young a man too old, had managed to become a Chef at various venues until a man gave you carte blanche to start your own restaurant. Of course, he loved you, but you resisted his advances. Instead, you became enamoured with his wife and wrecked his marriage; he then wrecked your career. Call it tit for tat.

As depressing as this may sound, "The Corrections" is still quite the compelling read. Because despite your past and misery, you one day realize that it's okay to change. You realize that it's never too late to make changes in your life. These are the corrections.