When we grin as children, perched upright on Santa's lap, the jolly fat man is always quick to remind us that payback is saved for the holidays. On Christmas, the good boys are rewarded. And the bad, well...
Eighty pages into Jonathan Franzen's
novel The Corrections
Chip Lambert has already been a very naughty boy. Never mind that he is nearly forty years old and a professor; Christmas has arrived and so has Santa's promised retribution. In the past year Chip has grudgingly forfeited his nearly tenured position at an elite private college in the Northeast for sleeping with a manipulative student; he has lied continuously to his aging parents about his unemployment; and he has accumulated enough debt to his sister as to make relief an impossibility. Abandoned by his colleagues and too ashamed to celebrate with his family, he spends Christmas at a Dunkin' Donuts, and then home alone surrounded by unopened presents.
Chip is miserable, and under the circumstance this is how we would expect him to feel. But in this novel, misery is less a feeling than a regimen. Franzen's characters seem to implement their sorrow, as they might an athletic training program. Consider, for instance, how Chip opens his gifts. "He decided," Franzen writes,
...that he would open the packages in bed and that the way he would get them up to his bedroom would be to kick them up the stairs. Which proved to be a challenge, because oblong objects had a tendency not to roll up a staircase but to catch on the steps and tumble back down. Also, if the contents of a padded mailer were too light to offer inertial resistance, it was difficult to get any lift when you kicked it
And it was clear to him that the rules permitted only genuine sharp kicks (prohibited, in particular, working his foot under the padded mailer and advancing it with any sort of pushing or lofting motion), and so he was obliged to kick his Christmas package from Denise with escalating savagery until it tore open and spilled its ground-newsprint stuffing and he succeeded in catching its ripped sheathing with the toe of his boot and launching the gift in a long clean arc that landed it one step shy of the second floor. From there, however, the mailer refused to be budged up over the lip of the final step. Chip trampled and kicked and shredded the mailer with his heels...
Franzen's narration continues for another half paragraph. The reader is spared few details of Chip's depression, or for that matter, the depressions of the rest of his family. Like Chip, their sadness is equally severe and just as systematically expressed. And this is what The Corrections is about for the next five hundred pages: the steady decline of the Lambert family, all the rituals and routines by which their worsening despair is given form and, thereby, preserved. So the story of Chip's long climb up the stairs is told to the reader with the closest attention paid to his method, rather than his psychology. By creating a game out of sadness, he has prolonged it in his life.
With all of this detailed description, a reader would rightfully be concerned that he might never reach the book's climax, a final family Christmas, looming somewhere near Franzen's accolades on the back cover. Not to worry. The decline of the Lambert family is, foremost, entertaining. Each character's failings-professional, social, moral-lend themselves to comic manipulation. Denise, Chip's sister, is a brilliant and ambitious chef who is in the habit of sleeping with married people, regardless of their gender or the foreseeable consequences of her promiscuity. Gary, the older brother, is married to a beautiful and wealthy woman. With the help of her young children she is always reminding Gary of how depressed he is, in the nagging way of an editor inquiring to her writer about a much overdo book. Enid, the Lambert mother, is desperately trying to convene the family for one final Christmas at their home in St. Jude, Ohio, popping happy-pills in order to deal with her husband Alfred's dementia and comic/tragic hallucinations.