Friday, November 16, 2007

43. The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen

The most endearing feature of the characters in this novel is how utterly pathetic they are. As an example, here is a description of failed academic, Chip Lambert, attempting to shoplift a package of hideously expensive salmon.

"Ha, ha!" he said, palming the seventy-eight-dollar fillet like a catcher's mitt. He dropped to one knee and touched his bootlaces and took the salmon right up inside his leather jacket and underneath his sweater and tucked the sweater into his pants and stood up again.
"Daddy, I want swordfish," a little voice behind him said.
Chip took two steps, and the salmon, which was quite heavy, escaped from his sweater and covered his groin, for one unstable moment, like a codpiece.
"Daddy! Swordfish!"
Chip put his hand to his crotch. The dangling fillet felt like a cool, loaded diaper. He repositioned it against his abs and tucked in the sweater more securely, zipped his jacket to the neck, and strode purposefully toward the whatever. Toward the dairy wall.[p94-95]

This same salmon is later unknowingly served to his parents, Enid and Alfred, by his chef sister, Denise. Alfred has Parkinson's disease, and (like the father in Lambs of London) this gives him an endearing eccentricity which makes him probably the most attractive character in the novel. Even so, his triumphs are overloaded with pathos.

The tone of relationships in the novel is either one of bewildered, half-submerged affection, or aggressive, as in this conversation between the oldest brother, Gary and his wife Caroline.

"Did you tell the boys that I'm depressed?" Gary asked her in the darkness from the far margin of their quarter-acre bed. "Caroline? Did you lie to them about my mental state? Is that why everybody's suddenly being so agreeable?"
"You know, you are getting seriously paranoid."
"Fuck, fuck, fuck!"
"Gary, this is frightening."
"You're fucking with my head! And there is no lower trick than that. There's no meaner trick in the book."
"Please, please, listen to yourself."
"Answer my question," he said. "Did you tell them I'm 'depressed'? "Having a hard time'?"
"Well - aren't you?"

It is questionable how much of the children's later dysfunctionality is a result of Alfred and Enid's parenting style. Although we gather from Alfred's later thoughts that he is most fond of Chip, the middle brother, that is not how Chip remembers it. And while Enid is obsessed with bringing the family together for one last Christmas, it is an ideal of 'family life' that she longs for, not the reality of her husband and children. One of the most telling episodes is a flashback in which 7 year old Chip refuses to eat his mother's cooking. (It is worth quoting at length to show how this novel seems to cast a distasteful flavour over everything it touches on.)

There was something almost tasty and almost sexy in letting the annoying boy be punished by her husband. In standing blamelessly aside while the boy suffered for having hurt her.
What you discovered about yourself in raising children wasn't always agreeable or attractive.
The dogshit-yellow field of rutubaga; the liver warped by frying and so unable to lie flush with the plate; the ball of woody beet leaves collapsed and contorted but still entire, like a wetly compressed bird in an eggshell, or an ancient corpse folded over in a bog: the spatial relations among these foods no longer seemed to Chipper haphazard but were approaching permanence, finality.[p 263]

It is Alfred, emerging from his basement laboratory five hours later after everyone else is asleep, who finally tucks Chip into bed and kisses him goodnight, finding the boy had fallen asleep at the table.

Returning to the dining room, he noticed the change in the food on Chipper's plate. The well-browned margins of the liver had been carefully pared off and eaten, as had every scrap of crust. There was evidence as well that rutubaga had been swallowed; the small speck that remained was scored with tiny tine marks. And several beet greens had been dissected, the softer leaves removed and eaten, the woody reddish stems laid aside. It appeared that Chipper had taken the contractual one bite of each food after all, presumably at great personal cost, and had been put to bed without being given the dessert he'd earned.
On a November morning thirty-five years earlier Alfred had found a coyote's bloody foreleg in the teeth of a steel trap, evidence of certain desperate hours in the previous night.
There came an upwelling of pain so intense that he had to clench his jaw and refer to his philosophy to prevent its turning into tears.[p 275-6]

In his old age, Alfred suffers night-time hallucinations induced by his medication. These become particularly bad when he and Enid go on a holiday cruise together.

The turd had an attitude, a tone of voice, that Alfred found eerily familiar but couldn't quite place. It began to roll and tumble on his pillow, spreading a shiny greenish-brown film with little lumps and fibers in it, leaving white creases and hollows where the fabric was bunched. Alfred, on the floor by the bed, covered his nose and mouth with his hands to mitigate the stench and horror.
Then the turd ran up the leg of his pyjamas. He felt its tickling mouselike feet. [p 286]

It would almost be funny - this image of a once proud old man struggling alone with the tabs of his adult diaper in a tiny cruise-ship bathroom, while being taunted by figments of his imagination - if it didn't make you want to cry.

The New York Times Book Review said, ""If you don't end up liking each one of Franzen's people, you probably just don't like people." I didn't like these people. I felt sad and sorry for them, and I was glad that when I closed the book, I could also close them out of my life. This was a big book - nearly 600 pages. It is not badly written, but I think the quote which comes closest to summing up my reaction is this one:

The Corrections is a lumpy, strange, singular work, very much of this moment even as it harks back to a kind of American novel long deemed extinct. Its portrayal of American family life sometimes seems cruel and unforgiving, yet the sheer amplitude of its vision implies a kind of sympathy, or at least understanding. (...) It's a vivid reading experience of tremendous texture and dimension, a masterwork of observed detail. It's not always likable, but it's real. - Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

I just can't help being glad that it's not MY reality!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a beautifully written book that I absolutely hated and had to finish. There is not one likeable character in the entire book. All the book clubs have been reading it, but I would have passed if I knew how upsetting it is to read