2 October 2002: 'St. Jude' (pp 2-12)
Jonathan Franzen begins The Corrections with an intensely lyrical group portrait. Only two of the novel's five central characters appear, or are even named: Alfred and Enid Lambert. (They are never referred to as 'the Lamberts.') The third figure is the Lambert home. The author does everything possible to show that the relation between these figures defies the stereotype of a married couple inhabiting a house. Whether Alfred and Enid ever truly formed a couple, they certainly form one no longer. And their home is beyond them:
the fiction of this house was that no one lived here.(5)
Although Enid's ostensible foe was Alfred, what made her a guerilla was the home that occupied them both.(6)
Unfortunately, Enid lacked the temperament to manage such a house, and Alfred lacked the neurological wherewithal.(6)
'St. Jude' explodes, not with a bang but with a series of carefully planted detonations, as if the Lambert house were a large building undergoing demolition, the complacent picture of American suburban life as advertised by a million front lawns nationwide. There is one thing terribly wrong in the Lambert home: Alfred is losing his mind to senility. But there are lots of little things wrong, too, most of them brought about by Enid's domestic incompetence. Like who knows how many American housewives, Enid is interested in a good-looking home ("Fanned copies of Architectural Digest on a glass-topped coffee table"(6)), but the actual operation of a household - largely a clerical job requiring the proper handling of many trivial and a few grave documents - is something that she can undertake only as a "guerilla." This is because she and Alfred (referred to as 'the governing power,' no longer capable of governing) have incompatible ideas about running a home. In fact, most of the ideas that they have about anything are incompatible; they are incompatible. They're as unsuited to living together as any couple that has ever filed for divorce, but divorce has never occurred to either of them as an option. So they go on living together in their neglected house, Alfred stammering his way with unwonted fecklessness through pointless chores, Enid stashing bills, letters, magazines, and recipe clippings higgledy-piggledy in Nordstrom shopping bags, this one stashed behind a dust ruffle, that one posing a hazard on the basement stairs. Because she does not really care, at all, about the clerical side of housework, Enid is almost as unable to find things - almost as deranged - as Alfred.
The season is autumn, which Mr Franzen paints against the wild and forlorn flatness of the Midwest. The mood is anxious, as if a tornado or a hurricane were on the way. Alfred and Enid are anxious all the time, because although they have money enough and three grown and able-bodied children, they have at the same time exhausted their personal resources and taken to denying this fact. Enid, who has always felt poorer than her friends, and resented her husband's lackluster performance as a moneymaker, has misplaced a registered letter that she believes will prove a road to riches, but in the teeth of Alfred's express determination that it won't. All she can put her hands on is a stack of discount coupons that expired 'historically' long ago. Alfred shuffles between his blue leather chair, banished to the basement when Enid redecorated the family room (and, saying 'the most terrible thing she could have said to Alfred,' observed that she 'never liked' that chair), and his bedroom, unable to remember why or even if he opened all the dresser drawers that he sees before him. When Enid asks him what he's doing - as she not unreasonably, given his deterioration, always asks him, whenever he is out of his chair - he gropes wildly and manages to answer that he's packing, packing for the trip that he and Enid are about to take. His groping is represented in a single sentence that fills nearly the entire expanse of a page, a sentence that may signal to some readers that they are holding a difficult book in their hands. Read carefully and quietly, the sentence ought to present no hurdles to ordinary understanding, but perhaps some readers will resist its representation what Alfred calls 'the betrayals,' the failure of consecutive thought that so often abandons him in a forest of unrelated and even unreal impressions.
As this sentence is also the climax of 'St Jude,' it plants Alfred Lambert at the center of everything that is to come. Like a Hindu deity, Alfred appears throughout 'The Corrections' in several manifestations, but this one, the lost, demented Alfred, is the ultimate. This, notably, is what his children, Gary, Chip and Denise, are left with for a father, and Enid, of course, for a husband. I am always unwilling to reduce any fully-drawn character to mere metaphor, but it is obvious that insofar as Alfred represents anything beyond himself he represents the collapse of traditional American masculinity. This collapse is not just a matter of Alzheimer's or 'little strokes'; The Corrections will show how a strong young engineer painted himself in the corner of an unsatisfactory life, and how, by choosing virtue over expedience, he retained the integrity but lost the power of an American man. If The Corrections has any message at all, it's that American men and women must find new ways to reconcile power and integrity; the old ones don't work, and this novel writes their epitaph. So it's no wonder that 'St Jude' sticks in the mind almost as if that 'fiction' quoted above were true, and nobody lived in the Lambert home. For nobody does. At the beginning of 'The Corrections,' Alfred and Enid Lambert are very nearly ghosts.
When you have finished reading this novel, let a day or so pass and then pick up and re-read 'St. Jude.' Like the Aria from which Bach spun his 'Goldberg Variations,' traditionally played at the end as well as at the beginning, 'St Jude' will show you how far you have gone without moving.
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