The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001) opens with a storyline that is hard and edgy. However, as the characters come to life, detailed descriptions guide readers into a believable world. Incarcerated readers might find a welcome break from the drudgery of prison life in the complexities that Franzen creates on the written page.
Franzen uses clear, witty descriptions that can potentially distract an inattentive reader from the story’s plot. For example, when a rain-slick street is being described, “The only colors on the road this morning were the smeared reds of brake lights,” the protagonist is struggling with life issues. Later, rain and wetness are used to describe a different idea: It was raining so hard in Manhattan that water was streaming down facades and frothing at the mouths of sewers.” Meanwhile, the surrounding scene-building narrative sets the reader up for the emotional rollercoaster that is coming.
Rain reappears several pages later:
“Big raindrops beating on the sidewalk raised a fresh, cold mist of pure humidity. Through the bead-curtain of water coming off the marquee, Chip saw Julia’s cab brake for a yellow light.”
From cover to cover, readers are immersed in a world that’s not real, yet believed.
The writer skillfully sets scenes while pushing the story forward. Look at the following dialogue involving Chip and Enid:
“In the tone of a person being friendly to large animals, she said ‘Hi’ to Alfred and ‘Hi,’ separately, to Enid. Alfred and Enid bayed their names at her and extended hands to shake, driving her back into the apartment, where Enid began to pepper her with questions in which Chip, as he followed with the luggage, could hear subtexts and agendas.”
Franzen’s ability to character build is tight. Here’s an example of how he describes Gary, Chip’s brother’s wife:
“Caroline’s only sibling, a brother named Phillip, was a patronizing, pocket-protected bachelor and solid-state physicist on whom her mother doted somewhat creepily.” He does it again, the tight building for a minor character:” The visionary was Earl ‘Curly’ Eberle, a small-mouthed fifty-year-old in dime-store glasses, whom the creators of the Axon Corporation’s promotional video had done their best to make glamorous.”
Incarcerated readers will be amused by how Franzen describes the wonder drug, “Corecktall.”
“On the other hand, when it comes to social disease, the brain of the criminal, there’s no other option on the horizon. It’s Corecktall or prison. So, it’s a forward-looking name.”
And incarcerated readers will appreciate the insight Franzen has into U.S. criminal justice policy when he describes the zero corrective benefit of solitary confinement.
There are some puzzling contradictions in The Corrections, and I felt that Franzen tried a little too hard sometimes with witty descriptive sentences that linger in the moment longer than needed.
Nevertheless, every word of this novel is
so well placed to support the storyline. It’s worth the read. Parts of this novel will stay with me forever – the strength of motherhood, the complexity of its characters, and especially Franzen’s ability to build a world so believable that at times I felt out of story and into the mindset of the author. Now, I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but I know that this novel is a page-turner. I recommend it, even if based only on Franzen’s ability to dig deep into each character’s interior thoughts.