The American nuclear family has not fared well in American literature. Whether it has been William Dean Howells or Sinclair Lewis or John Steinbeck or William Faulkner or Jane Smiley or Joyce Carol Oates or John Cheever or John Updike or any number of other myriad writers, the family is often portrayed as a source of anguish, wounds, suffering torment, and existential angst. Usually, however, there is some small redemptive glimmer. Not so in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections (2001). This novel is well written. Franzen is a fine prose stylist. Scenes are artfully conceived and executed. Characters are fully and credibly drawn. But artfulness is not its own justification. The deeper I got into this novel, the more abysmally depressive and dark it became. The Lambert family is clearly supposed to be representative, the quintessential American family of the new century. Yet its members are mired in self-interest, vanity, egotism, self-indulgence, cruelty, fatuousness, pride. They corrupt each other. They corrupt themselves. They mistreat their children and their aging parents.
Franzen’s novel is ripe with misanthropy and pessimism. Nary a glimmer of light is there anywhere. Franzen tempts his readers to laugh at the comic miscreants who make up his family, but after a while the various pains and indignities they suffer and inflict become all too deafening and one-dimensional.
The Lamberts are an all-too-easy target. Franzen invites us to laugh at and revile them. But he lacks pity, mercy, compassion, generosity, sympathy, understanding. In their place he exhibits smug scorn, self-righteous superciliousness, arrogance, heartlessness—I’m sure he’d insist otherwise.