"Forever fearful of a crash": family vis-a-vis materialism in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.
The Corrections underscores the pernicious effects of consumerism that perverts work ethics, familial values, individual psychology and even sexuality. The conservative Midwestern town, St. Jude, where the septuagenarian Lamberts Alfred and Enid reside, becomes the moral centre of the novel, as they rally to reunite their broken family for a final Christmas get-together. The Lamberts signify a legacy of cherished family values and Protestant work ethics that increasingly finds itself a misfit in the market- driven contemporary America.
The irony surfaces forcefully when Chip, the second son of the Lamberts, is dismissed from service in the college on his father's birthday. Intriguingly, Alfred returns his son's wishes by his exhortation that "A great worker is almost impossible to fire" (99). Alfred at seventy-nine still prides himself as the skillful metallurgist and engineer of Midland Pacific Railroad where his subordinates always used to address him as "sir" (78). His constant preoccupations with metallurgical innovations in his basement bespeak the masculine Yankee spirit of self-reliance. The indomitable Alfred remains the archetypal patriarch to the end. Even after suffering the fatal fall during the final luxury cruise he reflects, "All I hurt when I fell was my dignity" (500). His refusal to accept his physical and mental debility owing to Parkinson's attests to the poignant failure of his ideals under the imperatives of contemporary globalization.
Like Alfred, Enid too espouses strong family values. A busybody and a domineering housewife, Enid with her proverbial optimism forever works to regulate the lives of her family members often leaving them incensed. At home she plays the "guerrilla" (6) spying on her husband. Her dreams of a successful career for Chip do not rise above a fantasy; pathetically enough for her, Chip lies about his job at the prestigious "Wall Street Journal" (22) when for all practical purposes he is unemployed. Similarly, her hopes of a successful married life for Denise turn to dust when the marriage itself breaks up. For all her optimism, Enid remains strangely a victim of the modern market culture. Her deep faith in the curative properties of the Corecktall process for her husband's dementia is shattered learning that the Axon Corporation's sole aim is "to help the rich get richer" (225). The insecurity of the old in a frenzied materialistic world is starkly evidenced in Enid's nightly errands of managing "paid bills, balanced checkbooks, Medicare co-payment records ... " (6). Yearning to see her loved ones united as a happy family, she finds herself distraught confronted with the fact that familial values are constantly beleaguered by the competitive forces of the market.
The traditional concept of the family as a bulwark against all social and psychological traumas does not obtain in the world of The Corrections. Contrary to expectations, the conservative parenting of Alfred and Enid fails to create a happy home. Once they reach adulthood, the Lamberts' children flee to the eastcoast, Philadelphia, and invariably get trapped in a loveless and traumatized married life. The disintegration of the family stems from the bizarre social codes inherent to the market forces. Gary, the eldest Lambert son, an efficient banker with a beautiful wife and three children, is no ideal family man but a victim of clinical depression. His family comprising his heiress wife, Caroline, a domestic tyrant, and his three children Aaron, Caleb and Jonah, is irredeemably submerged in materiality. Ironically, his children with biblical names far from receiving any spiritual guidance are nurtured in the spirit of television programmes like "Hands-off Parenting" (197) and pampered with "mountain biking in Poconos" (232) or "expensive computer game[s]" like "God Project II" (561). While the children spend most of their time in the internet "chat rooms" (233), Gary, the parent, is likewise engaged in "extracting quick megabucks from Axon" (194), insistently making a case for his father's patent. This concern for his father, however, emanates more from Gary's greed for quick profits rather than from filial duties. He is so saturated in materialism that even his "conjugal act" (272) with Caroline is overshadowed by a mundane concern such as buying "4, 500 shares of Axon" (272).
Unlike Gary, Chip is a bohemian insouciantly moving in and out of professions and relationships. Academically brilliant, Chip begins his career as an assistant professor of textual artifacts in D_College in Connecticut. A quintessential "Bolshevik" (624), Chip harangues against the evils of capitalism in teaching "Marcuse and Baudrillard" (42) to the undergraduates. Ironically, the "W_Corporation" (49) that Chip condemns for exploiting the incidence of "breast cancer" to "sell[ing] [their] office equipment" (49) becomes the source of his sustenance when he is jobless and lives off Denise. Even Chip's students, who reject his lectures using the imprecation "bullshit" (51), accept their co-option, like Gary's children, into the capitalistic nexus as fait accompli.
Chip's vehement rejection of the entire market economy is paradoxically belied by his own dependence on it. Even his personal relationships are assessed in the light of parlance drawn from economics. The guilt and aftermath of his sexual escapades with the rebellious Melissa Paquette that costs him his professorship is aptly described as: "like a market inundated by a wave of panic selling, he was plunged into shame ... " (66). Chip's ambiguous but complictous involvement with the forces of materialism has a parallel in his relationships with the various women. His numerous broken affairs including that with his classmate Ruthie, the feminist Tori Timmelman, the disastrous one with Melissa and then with Julie bears out his simultaneous disregard as well as his dependence on women; in many ways, his attitude to women is analogous to his attitude toward money. If the absence of a woman challenged "the foundation of his manhood" (52), then more threatening was the prospect of a life without money for "[it rendered him] ... hardly a man" (121). For instance, on fleeing to Lithuania as PR personnel, he becomes dependent on Gitanas, Julia's ex-husband, for survival. This emasculates him and "[h]e felt much like Julia: perpetually feted, lavishly treated ... wholly dependant on Gitanas for ... basic necessities" (508). This troubling ambivalence toward money is ironically a symptom induced by the culture of materialism itself.
It is through Denise that the novel posits the power of empathy that individuals can impact even in a materialistic society. Her traumatic adolescence owes much to the hierarchies created in capitalistic work cultures. Her seduction and subsequent affair with Don Armour follow the latter's fantasy in that she is "an object he desired for its luxury ... the daughter of his boss's boss's boss" (423). It is significant that Denise despite several broken liaisons never ceases to take responsibility or to love others. Her glamorous life as a chef at Cafe Lauche as her husband Emile's partner ends abruptly when she divorces him unable to put up with his compulsive behavior. She quips, "I'm too young to be so old" (439). Fumbling through various affairs including lesbian ones with her colleague Becky Hemerling and her boss Brian Cunningham's wife Robin Passafaro, Denise succeeds in reaching a more mature perspective on relationships. Her dismissal from the lucrative career at The Generator is precisely owing to her promiscuous involvement with both Brian and Robin. All professional and sexual alliances in the world of The Corrections are finally subject to the compelling market demands and once this understanding dawns on her, Denise views herself as "I'm not anything ... I'm just me ... a private person, an independent individual" (441). No wonder, Denise alone seems to possess a sense of devoted responsibility towards her family. She supports Chip during his phase of unemployment and accepts all responsibility for her aging parents, while "Chip had fled to Eastern Europe and Gary had placed himself under Caroline's thumb" (578). Even when she becomes aware that her mother's solicitude for her is largely contingent on her role as provider, Denise ungrudgingly nurses her ailing father. Denise, then, falters and fumbles through life but seldom fails, thanks to her humane qualities.
The Corrections is appropriately an open-ended novel. With Alfred's death and the final Christmas reunion, the Lambert family goes through the motions of resurrecting the family bonds but in the absence of a true meeting of the minds this proves an ill-starred gesture. The estranged familial relationships are apparent in the dialogues between its members, which to quote Stewart O' Nan "contains a barely restrained violence, comfortable chat suddenly turning barbed" (The Corrections [Book Review] Atlantic Monthly. 288.3 : 136).
The erosion of interpersonal relationships in a culture steeped in materialism is what the novel patently explores and critiques. Franzen's is, however, far from an esoteric or a fashionable argument against materialism per se. Much like his complex stance concerning the Oprah Book Club, Franzen's attitude to the commercial world in The Corrections is not one of outright rejection. While acknowledging the indispensability of money in contemporary times as in any other era, the novel, nevertheless, makes a forceful plea to correct and revise human nature lest it get mindlessly perverted by the spawning consumerist cultures.
Srirupa Chatterjee and G. Neelakantan, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, India
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|Author:||Chatterjee, Srirupa; Neelakantan, G.|
|Publication:||Notes on Contemporary Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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