For the Holidays You Can’t Beat Home Sweet Home.  Dad’s Demented.  Mom’s Nuts.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  Picador.  566pp.  $17.00

The Corrections is the ultimate dissection of a dysfunctional family.  It’s 566 pages and basically concerns only five people, who are locked in an epic family battle that seems never to end.  Chip is the brilliant brother who had a substantial and flourishing career as a professor until he made the fatal mistake of sleeping with one of his students.  We—as the outside observers—can see this train wreck coming from miles away, the woman has trouble tattooed to her forehead, but she’s also the kind of person who holds an irresistible attraction for her teacher, especially one as sex-obsessed as Chip.  He’s doomed as soon as he meets her.

Gary is the apparently successful brother, who has a solid life as a banker, is married to a gorgeous woman, and has three lovely children.  As we meet him, though, his wife seems weirdly to have sided with her children, acting more like one of their friends than like a parent.  She’s had an odd set of physical ailments that she finds debilitating but that Gary thinks are phony.  He’s mean to his wife in a way that I’ve seldom known a man to be, just stone cold.  But his sons have sided with his wife, and he’s slowly realizing—it takes him forever to admit this—that his wife is not the problem, that he’s deeply depressed, he’s been that way for a long time.  His ideal of a perfect family, inherited from his parents, doesn’t allow him to see that.

Denise is the kid sister of these men, and has been strikingly successful herself, as the renowned chef of a Philadelphia restaurant.  She’s no celebrity chef, very much a hands on person.  She’s had a thing all her life, however, about sleeping with the wrong person, in particular sleeping with an inappropriate older person, or with an authority figure.  She has a positive genius for that.  Even gender isn’t a barrier; if someone is absolutely the worst person she can possibly choose, she’ll fall in bed with him or her in a heartbeat.  She’ll be right there.

These children are the progeny of a Midwestern couple named Alfred and Enid Lambert, who in some way have produced both their talents and their weaknesses.  If I said that this whole 566 page novel is about getting Alfred and Enid off on a cruise, and Enid’s fervid and never ending wish that her children come home for Christmas, that would literally be true, though it doesn’t begin to describe the book’s depth.  In telling the story of these five people, seamlessly shifting to the point of view of each of them, so you hardly notice he’s doing it, Franzen gives us five takes on the same reality.

The opening long set piece, for instance, where Chip is meeting is parents in New York to have lunch with them and get them on the cruise ship, and is trying to hide the fact that he’s actually been fired from his job, that he has almost no money, that he’s borrowed $20,000 from his sister, that he’s staked his whole future on a screenplay he’s written and that he’s just shown to his agent and to her secretary, who is also his current girlfriend, that the girlfriend is so upset by his sexual fixations—which show up in the screenplay—that she’s fleeing the luncheon and is leaving him, that he thinks his whole life depends on his making a key revision to the screenplay before the agent sees it, so he’s got to get to her office, that he gets completely soaked in a rainstorm because he doesn’t even have cab fare, that he finally gets to his agent’s office and somehow gets hooked up with a job that will take him to Lithuana, with the husband of the secretary/girlfriend/woman-who-has-just-left-him-in-a-huff.  Anyway, it’s not a simple trip to have lunch with his parents and get them on a cruise ship.  It’s a trip through his whole life.

Enid, needless to say, is absolutely obsessed with having things be the same as they always were (she’s just got to get the family back for Christmas, and get her grandchildren to open that last day of the advent calendar) to the extent that she hasn’t noticed, or refuses to admit, that her husband is seriously demented.  As someone who has just gone through this with his own mother, complete with severe dementia, utter incontinence, and stone deafness, I would have to say nevertheless that this is the most terrifying portrayal of dementia I’ve ever read.  We see it from Alfred’s point of view, also from the standpoint of those around him, and it made me think (once again, though this is what everyone says): shoot me, have me put away, throw me off a cliff, but don’t try to take care of me yourselves, if I get this way.  It’s too heartbreaking.  It ruins your life.  That person you’re trying to take care of, your dear old dad, is gone, long gone.  You’re taking care of a shell.

Despite an incredible series of calamities and misfortunes, the family finally does figure that out, and a ragged, disordered, and battered form of them does make it home for the holidays.  Gary emerges as the controlling prick that his father always was, a chip off the old block (though he’s right in what he’s telling them).  Denise does what she can; she cares for her parents but only has so much to give, despite all her successes, because she’s damaged goods.  Chip turns out to be the hero, the one person who is able to face the situation, partly because he’s got nothing better to do (except keep revising that screenplay): Chip, the son who never seemed to do anything right, who wouldn’t even eat his dinner when he was a kid, so he had to sit there far into the evening facing tepid meat, congealed gravy and soggy vegetables.

This is a brilliant and completely satisfying portrait of a family, which is just as screwed-up, wounded, talented and maddening as your family, or mine.  Around incidents that you would think would make a modest story, Franzen has created a massive novel.  I wasn’t bored for a moment.  I’ll be reading more.