The novel follows a stereotypical Midwestern suburban family that is dysfunctional under the surface, which neatly mirrors the malaise of modern society. The parents, Alfred and Enid, represent two sides of the social ideal of the fifties. They have three children: Gary, the depressed banker; Chip, the pompous intellectual; and Denise, who is essentially a lesbian version of Dagny Taggart (a workaholic übermensch of Ayn Rand).
None of these characters are at all likable. The plot centers upon Enid’s desire to recreate one last time a family Christmas in the face of Alfred’s precipitous decline into Parkinson’s disease, and the various personal crises of their children.
At times, Franzen provides hilariously penetrating satire, such as in Chip’s various efforts to write a screenplay about his failed affair with a student. He also offers occasionally surprising depth and sincerity, for instance. However, he leaves readers with the final impression that he is trying to cram too much social commentary into the work. A science-fictional scene involving Enid and her acquisition of a drug known alternately as “Aslan” and “Mexican A” comes to mind, which gives the novel a somewhat inconsistent tone.
On the whole, this book will be an enjoyable read for fans of either Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities or Don DeLillo’s White Noise, though your reviewer insists on a final caveat: under no circumstances should you make her mistake of choosing to read this book while on a family vacation.