Books: The Emperor's New Prada?

Reading Jonathan Franzen's much ballyhooed new novel, "The Corrections," turns out to be a lot like those long holiday weekends where you go home with your college roommate and then sit around watching his family fight the whole time. You're embarrassed, offended, bored and claustrophobic--you can't go anywhere unless they take you, you can do only what they want to do. You're happy only when it's over.

In Franzen's defense, this is not an accident. He never says "Come meet the Lamberts, elderly Alfred and Enid and their grown kids, Gary, Chip and Denise, and we'll have fun." Fun is not part of the Franzen program. He is a Serious Novelist with Big Themes in his sights. This is a novel about Family, about Baby Boomers and Materialism, about Dying and Becoming Your Parents' Parents. Oh, and about looking for pharmacological solutions in all the wrong places.

The book's motor is chirpy, manipulative Enid's desire that all the Lamberts come back for one last Christmas at the family home in St. Jude, a fictional Midwestern city. Enid, as her daughter, Denise, puts it, is a woman who "has a s----y life with a semi-disabled man... and who 'survives' by looking forward to things, and who loves Christmas the way other people love sex." Enid also willfully ignores the fact that her husband is sliding into dementia, that her married son's family despises her, that her unmarried son is a disgraced academic now embarked on a feckless career as a screenwriter and that her daughter may be a lesbian trying to come out. But then, self-deception is a hallmark of this family. All the Lamberts lie a lot, mostly to themselves. The drugs everyone takes--from mood stabilizers to plain old alcohol--are just feeble insulation against the anomie of mishandled lives.

Franzen clearly intends his book as a black comedy. Trolling through each character's back story, he eviscerates Chip's academic pretensions, Gary's suburban complacency and Denise's careerism as a star chef. And with a pawnbroker's heart, he coldly rummages through the pathetic detritus of the elder Lamberts' lives, right down to Enid's Christmas tchotchkes ("Everywhere she'd traveled she'd spent the bulk of her pocket money on ornaments. In her mind... she traveled back to a Sweden populated by straw reindeer and little red horses... to a Venice where all the animals were made of glass... "). But if Franzen is funny, he doesn't share this attribute with any of his characters. "What a grim world Alfred lived in," he writes, but he could have written that about any of the Lamberts. They are, one and all, a dreary, contemptible lot, middle-class Midwesterners of the sort more often met in fiction than in life.

Franzen, though, is interested in the Lamberts only to the degree that he can manipulate them in the scheme of his novel. All of these typecast characters--the authoritarian dad, the passive-aggressive mom, the self-centered and henpecked son--sound as though they are reading from a tightly scripted story about the Failure of the Family in Modern American Life. Ironically, it's Franzen's ambition to write about American life on a grand scale that blinds him to the real strengths of his novel. Because inside this immense book there is indeed a slim and extraordinarily moving story struggling to get out. The last 100 pages of "The Corrections," in which all the Lamberts do finally come together for one last Christmas, is an unforgettably sad, indelibly beautiful piece of literature. It works because for the first time in the book, it feels as though Franzen himself is involved with these people he's been writing about. He's not just standing back sneering anymore. He describes Alfred Lambert's descent into dementia and its effect on his family with uncommon delicacy and a completely straight face.

To get to that moment, though, you must wade through hundreds of pages dissecting the various Lambert lives. Some of this detail is necessary to set up the cataclysm in the closing pages, but a lot more does nothing but showcase Franzen's virtuosity. And make no mistake, this is a writer with talent to burn. What he does not have, so far, is the ability to tell the difference between something great and something that's merely big.