Re-reading The Corrections

A Journal (2)

11 October 2002: 'The Failure'  - I (pp. 13 - 87)

Although it begins and ends in St. Jude, most of The Corrections takes place on, or just off, the East Coast. After the overture of 'St. Jude,' the first major section of the book, 'The Failure,' takes us to New York and introduces us to two of the Lambert children, Chip and Denise. Chip is the protagonist here, and indeed he has much cause for agony. One might argue that Chip himself is this section's eponym, for the lack of success in Chip's life becomes ringingly clear within a very few pages, but in my view the title refers to Chip's failure to find his place in a world that his parents would understand. That might sound like two ways of saying the same thing, but I hope to make the difference clear. 

The very first paragraph of 'The Failure' closes its description of Alfred and Enid, obviously intimidated out-of-towners tentatively deboarding a plane at LaGuardia Airport, with a sharp cut against the grain: "But to Chip ... they were killers." While he escorts his parents into New York, we learn that he "was thirty-nine years old, and he blamed his parents for the person he had become."' (17-) Dressed in leather that he's "a little too old for," his ears pierced by rivets, Chip is a middle-aged man whose very transgressions are no longer quite voluntary. 

Chip's problem was a loss of confidence. Gone were the days when he could afford to épater les bourgeois. Except for his Manhattan apartment and his handsome girlfriend, Julia Vrais, he now had almost nothing to persuade himself that he was a functioning male adult, no accomplishments to compare with those of his brother, Gary, who was a banker and a father of three, or of his sister, Denise, who at the age of thirty-two was the executive chef at a successful new high-end restaurant in Philadelphia. Chip had hoped he might have sold his screenplay by now, but he hadn't finished a draft until after midnight on Tuesday, and then he'd had to work three fourteen-hour shifts at Bragg Knuter & Speigh to raise cash to pay his August rent and reassure the owner of the his apartment (Chip had a sublease) about his September and October rent, and then there was a lunch to be shopped for and an apartment to be cleaned, and finally, sometime before dawn this morning, a long-hoarded Xanax to be swallowed. Meanwhile, nearly a week had gone by without his seeing Julia or speaking to her directly.(19-)

Chip is definitely unprepared for a visit from his parents. His mother, who starts right in, is a nuisance, a Chinese water-torture of niggling inquiries and pious hopes. 

'She'd always been a pretty woman, but to Chip she was so much of a personality and so little anything else that even staring straight at her he had no idea what she really looked like.'(18)

His father, abstracted by his own senescence, might, for the moment, be easier to get along with, but Chip can't put his weight on this comfort. 

For a moment it seemed to Chip that his father had become a likeable old stranger, but he knew Alfred, underneath, to be a shouter and a punisher.(22)

 The company of his parents makes Chip want to scream, literally, but we expect him to bear up, because that's what thirty-nine year-old men do. But Chip does not, perhaps can not, bear up, and he is out the door on page 24, barely ten pages into the section. It is now mid-September - his parents are about to embark on a cruise up the St. Lawrence River to 'enjoy the changing leaves.' They won't see him again until Christmas. 

The Corrections is a novel about a family. But it is bound together by something other than mere kinship, namely, a drug - variously called 'Mexican A' and 'Aslan.' As with 'Strong Motion,' Jonathan Franzen has infused his largely realistic novel with a tincture of science fiction. In the earlier novel, toxic waste, pumped into deep-drilled wells, induced earthquakes north of Boston. (Something suspiciously similar was recently reported in, I believe, Spokane, Washington.) Here, Mr Franzen has imagined a drug that eliminates guilt and shame. That this bolder invention wreaks no real havoc whatsoever is proof that the author means what he says when he calls The Corrections a comedy. Its role in the plotting is almost subterranean. Of the five Lamberts, only Denise is untouched by it (and she, as we shall see, is the least troubled by guilt.)

When Mr Franzen was born in 1959, the word 'uninhibited' had only positive connotations. During the following two decades, countless young Americans tested the widely-circulated theory that upon escaping from your inhibitions you become not only 'more alive' but also, and almost more importantly, more thoroughly individuated, more 'unique.' Most of us discovered that the second part of the theory was definitely false; wherever uniqueness might lie, it was not outside the prison door of inhibition. In any case, Aslan does not permanently block feelings of guilt and shame. These return, tsunami-like, when the drug wears off. Although it lacks what Chip calls a 'hedonic' (feel-good) effect, Aslan is no less addictive than the strongest opiate. The absence of guilt, short term, opens the way to acts that, in withdrawal, swamp one in remorse.

Aslan's effects bear a curious resemblance to those of a 'reverse-tomographic' process of neural realignment that we will learn more about in the novel's next section. This process depends in part upon a process for which Alfred Lambert, in his prime a basement tinkerer, holds the patent. In 'St. Jude,' the registered letter that Enid misplaced was a second request from the process's developer, seeking to purchase the right to use Alfred's process for the sum of five thousand dollars. It was a letter that need never have been written, because Alfred had responded to the first request by signing a notarized acceptance of the offer. But Enid, to whom the mailing of this letter had been  entrusted, hid it instead. She, and her older son, Gary, believed that Alfred ought to hold out for more. 

The great irony of Alfred's patented process is that, like Aslan, it enables the undermining of the very foundation of his character, which is his stoicism. Stoicism is usually thought of as a technique for bearing up under distressing circumstances, but it can also serve the self-regarding determination not to be shamed by outpourings of humiliation or despair. For nearly four hundred years, stoicism was the heart American masculinity, but as the Twentieth Century drew to a close, the stoic suppression, or denial, of feeling - it is easier to suppress the symptoms of misery if you deny that you are miserable - began to look like a kind of madness. Consumers now, American men expected to enjoy life, an outlook that a pessimist student of Schopenhauer like Alfred would find foreign as well as repugnant. A new American model remains to be developed, and every man must settle the issue of his masculinity - insofar as it is an issue - for himself. (This is not the place for a full discussion of the issue, but I believe that the heart and soul went out of American stoicism after World War I, and that children born about that time never believed in it enough to pass it on to the next generation.) For Chip, whom a former girlfriend found to be 'more like his father than he seemed to realize',(23) masculinity is founded on 'the sense of agency and difference'(45) that requires the companionship of a woman. This deep construction is compatible with Alfred's character, but the problem for Chip is that he can't make it work. He can't hold onto a woman. His clothes tell the story: he hasn't grown up. Chip has the sophistication of a forty year-old man but the heart and imagination of a thirteen year-old. 

Chip's immaturity is betrayed in two ways. First, as I've pointed out, he crumples under his mother's oblique evaluation. In the taxi, he fences with her about the job that she thinks he has at The Wall Street Journal (in truth, he makes unpaid contributions to something called The Warren Street Journal), and then, in the elevator, she confronts him with odious comparisons between him and a 'classmate, not a friend' back home, at whose recent housewarming Enid feasted on 'pyramids' of shrimp before counting 'at least six bedrooms, and you know, it looks like they're going to fill them. Dean's tremendously successful.' Alfred has learned to ignore this kind of talk (except to put Enid down for it), but it crucifies Chip. 

Then there is his screenplay. Mr Franzen has a lot of fun with this; in fact, the screenplay never comes up without taking satirizing pot-shot. In one very droll passage, Chip mortifyingly reviews its excessive use of the word breast. As if this weren't bad enough, the author tells us that Chip 'would never have had the heart to write the script at all without the lure of imagining the breasts of his young female lead.'(26) Entitled, preposterously, 'The Academy Purple,' Chip's screenplay is payback for the wrongs that he suffered at an unnamed liberal arts college in Connecticut, where, instead of attaining the tenure that seemed within his grasp, he was fired for violating the school's code (which he had helped to draft) banning relations between students and teachers. Trying for an arty effect, Chip intends his film to present the audience with a 'hump' that it will have to 'get over' in order to reap the rewards of 'a lot of rich suspense toward the end.'(25) Please! The script begins with a six-minute lecture on the 'anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama' and ends with the lecturer's widow taking his place in the classroom, and her lesbian lover/husband's temptress front and center. It is safe to say that Chip's movie will never, ever be made. 

It is to make some last-minute changes in this screenplay, which he has submitted to his girlfriend's boss, a producer named Eden Procuro, that Chip runs out on his parents. On the way, he meets his sister, Denise, in the street. She has just arrived from Philadelphia. I would mark Chip's lowest point as the moment where Denise tells her brother that she cannot (as a matter of principle, of course) lend him any more money. Chip stomps off in the rain, "smiling with rage," and Mr Franzen takes up the ill-fated romance of Chip and Melissa.  

This background narrative, shifting the novel's rhythm as would the reader's looking up from the page to take in a distant view, fills out our picture of the feckless, hapless Chip. We learn about his weary years as the domestic adjunct of a radical feminist. We learn that he cheated on his high-school science projects. And then we learn that when a colleague with whom he was having an affair dumped him, he was lost, a virtual foundling waiting for another woman to pick him up. The woman who did so is a brilliant student, Melissa Paquette. Like all of the secondary characters in The Corrections, Melissa is so fully realized that the reader can easily imagine another, equally interesting, novel, through the looking-glass as it were, about her, one in which Chip would be the secondary character. While Melissa is a student in his class, Chip manages to fend off her flirtation, but the timing of her second onslaught, the following semester, is fateful, coinciding as it does with the collapse of Chip's hopes for tenure. Learning that his mentor and chief advocate in the college administration has had a debilitating stroke, Chip so loses heart that he seduces his seductress, on the upholstery of his chaise longue (called, by the way, a méridienne in the French translation). 

Everything in this block of narrative is contrived to illustrate the bankruptcy of a man who has shaped his disaffection from the prevailing culture, as exemplified by his father, into a public persona; a character composed of negatives is no character at all. When Chip resists Melissa the first time, the award of tenure seems so secure that the prudent response to her overtures doesn't cost much. But when the balance swings the other way, he does not have the strength of his father's stoicism, and yields to Melissa as a kind of baleful, damning consolation prize. 

Interestingly, Mr Franzen does not spell out Chip's undoing. There is a lacuna, albeit one dotted with fragmentary hints,  in the background narrative, between the lovers' very unidyllic tryst during the Thanksgiving break and Chip's descent into stalkerdom by wintertime. We are left to piece it together that, having seduced Chip, Melissa then abandons him. As we reflect back on the steamy days and nights that Chip and Melissa spend in a dumpy motel in the middle of nowhere, days and nights accounted for in terms too graphic for immediate reflection (I was amused to find that most of it was elided from Dylan Baker's abridged reading, available on CD), Chip begins to look like one of Odysseus' ill-fated companions. That Melissa was a witch seems, in retrospect, obvious enough: not only did she secure a supply of mind-altering drugs for the erotic holiday, but she gave almost all of it to Chip, taking it herself only at the outset. When the drug ran out, and Chip discovered, like the appendages of the beast into which the drug metamorphosed him, his own terrible shame, she called a taxi and went home to spend Thanksgiving with her parents, taking with her - a parting stroke of malediction - the term paper that she had coaxed him into writing for her, for a class taught by his rival for the tenure he no longer expected. 

It is the subjective appeal of Aslan that interests the author, not the obvious possibilities for societal breakdown that would bloom if such a drug were widely available. Guilt and shame are byproducts of our understanding that other people cherish their integrity as much as we cherish ours. This understanding may have a rational foundation, but its power is largely imaginative, and Aslan dims the imagination, abandoning the taker here and now to his own immediate concerns. The picture of Chip's Mexican A-induced abandon is one of the gamiest descriptions of sex that I have ever read. It is dirtier than most pornography, but it isn't timed like pornography. It happens too fast. Before you know it, the fun's over, and Chip is falling to sleep without having taken his daily caplet of Mexican A - and then he is waking up, and life couldn't be worse. 

He awoke on Thanksgiving in the gray light of his undrugged self. For a while, as he lay listening to the sparse holiday traffic on Route 2, he couldn't place what was different. Something about the body beside him was making him uneasy. He considered turning and burying his face in Melissa's back, but it seemed to him that she must be sick of him. He could hardly believe she hadn't minded his attacks on her, all his pushing and pawing and poking. That she didn't feel like a piece of meat that he'd been using. 
In a matter of seconds, like a market inundated by a wave of panic selling, he was plunged into shame and self-consciousness. He couldn't bear to stay in bed a moment longer. He pulled on his shorts and snagged Melissa's toiletries kit and locked himself in the bathroom. 
His problem consisted of a burning wish not to have done the things he'd done. And his body, its chemistry, had a clear instinctive understanding of what he had to do to make this burning wish go away. He had to swallow another Mexican A. (57)

The lacuna that I mentioned, between this horrible aftermath and the end of Chip's career at D - College, is covered over by a block of upstage narrative. Back at Chip's apartment, Denise proves herself a nimble parrier of Enid's thrusts. "Denise's tone of voice was forever informing Enid that she was stupid. Denise was not, Enid felt, a very warm or giving person." (62)  Aside from pointing up the echoing relation of  the women's names, this observation invites us to imagine Enid's idea of what a warm and caring daughter would be like. Such a daughter would certainly be married (not divorced), and would prefer to live in St. Jude near her mother. Such a daughter would not be a vastly superior cook. But it would be a mistake to regard Enid as a disappointed woman. She might have her complaints, but there's no question that she sees her life as satisfactory overall. That this requires her to overlook a great deal is not the point; Enid is comfortable in her own skin. For all her nattering, she may, indeed, be the only person in The Corrections at ease. But she drives her family crazy.

While Enid gets in Denise's way in the kitchen, Alfred tries to figure out how to sit in Chip's méridienne

"I don't understand this furniture," he said, struggling to sit up and sound powerful. "Is this meant to be a sofa?
Denise came out and put a vase of three sunflowers on the spindly table by the chaise. "It's like a sofa," she said. "You can put your legs up and be a French philosophe. You can talk about Schopenhauer."
Alfred shook his head.
Enid enunciated from the kitchen doorway. "Dr Hedgpeth says you should only sit in high, straight-backed chairs."
Since Alfred showed no interest in these instructions, Enid repeated them to Denise when she returned to the kitchen. "High, straight-backed chairs only," she said. "But Dad won't listen. He insists on sitting in his leather chair. Then he shouts for me to come and help him get up. But if I hurt my back, then where are we? I put one of those nice old ladder-back chairs by the TV downstairs and told him sit here. But he'd rather sit in his leather chair, and then to get out of it he slides down the cushion until he's on the floor. Then he crawls on the floor to the Ping Pong table and uses the Ping Pong table to hoist himself up."
"That's actually pretty resourceful," Denise said as she took an armload of food from the refrigerator.(64)

This passage is an example of Mr Franzen's writing at its most pregnant. First there is Alfred's dismissal of his son's choice of furniture, which signals a dismissal of Chip's entire way of life. Then there is the reference to Schopenhauer, which turns out not to be a name that Denise has just pulled out of the air, but Alfred's favorite philosopher, an attachment that looms as a kind of curse behind the Lambert family. It is a vaguely mocking reference, moreover, for if there was ever a philosopher with nothing of the Enlightenment about him, it was Schopenhauer. We will hear more of Schopenhauer later in the novel; indeed, the saddest sentence in the entire book touches on him. There, Enid's blinkered optimism seems almost tragic, but here, here in the doorway, Enid is a figure of fun. The cause-and-effect that Mr Franzen sets up between Alfred's disregard of Enid's reminder about straight-backed chairs one the one hand and Enid's direct repetition of the doctor's advice to Denise on the other demonstrates Enid's tremendous inconsequence. From some angles a silly woman, Enid can sustain a conversation without much input from the other party, and she tends to hear what she wants to hear.  It's to puncture this complacence that Denise sticks up for her father's way of getting out of his deep leather chair, something she might not approve if she were in Enid's place.

Mr Franzen also uses this interval between the stages of Chip's agony to introduce us more fully to Alfred Lambert, whose presence in 'St. Jude' was occluded by Enid, and he weaves two themes together brilliantly in a one-sentence paragraph:

The betrayal had begun in Signals.(68)

'Signals' here refers most immediately to the deterioration of Alfred's nervous system. The Library of Congress, it appears from the copyright page, has decided that Alfred has Parkinson's Disease, but The Corrections never actually puts a name on what's wrong with him, and his symptoms are consistent with several degenerative illnesses - Alzheimer's Disease, the syndrome of 'little strokes' that also reduces its victims to senility, as well as Parkinson's. But it is not just Alfred's hands that waver unsteadily. His mind shifts in and out of brief, hallucination-like states. How Mr Franzen, who presumably has not suffered any neurological affliction, can explain Alfred's consciousness may be a miracle of medical intuition, but it is certainly a marvel of narrative verisimilitude.

But Denise left the kitchen and took the plate to Alfred, for whom the problem of existence was this: that, in the manner of a wheat seedling thrusting itself up out of the earth, the world moved forward in time by adding cell after cell to its leading edge, piling moment on moment, and that to grasp the world even in its freshest, youngest moment provided no guarantee that you'd be able to grasp it again a moment later. By the time he'd established that his daughter, Denise, was handing him a plate of snacks in his son Chip's living room, the next moment in time was already budding itself into a pristinely ungrasped existence in which he couldn't absolutely rule out the possibility, for example, that his wife, Enid, was handing him a plate of feces in the parlor of a brothel; and no sooner had he reconfirmed Denise and the snacks and Chip's living room than the leading edge of time added yet another layer of new cells, so that he again faced a new and ungrasped world; which was shy, rather than exhaust himself playing catch-up, he preferred more and more to spend his days down among the unchanging historical roots of things.(66)

'Signals' also refers, however, to the Signals Department of the Midland Pacific Railroad, "where for the last decade of his career he'd run the Engineering Department." Like Alfred, the Midpac is, or was, a dinosaur, doomed by tectonic social shifts. Later in the novel, Mr Franzen will weave a dense fabric from the old-fashioned values of the Midpac and the havoc wrought by the teenaged Denise in the course of a summer job - in the Signals Department - but for the moment it is enough to hear the story of how a moderately profitable utility dedicated to public service was leveraged and gutted by a pair of buyout artists, to Alfred's undying disgust. To mine, as well. I'm enough of an opponent of unbridled free trade to believe that what happened to Mr Franzen's fictional railroad ought to be illegal in actual America. But perhaps that is no more realistic than mandating that sons like Chip ought to be coerced into following the example set by fathers like Alfred.

When we return to Chip, we are once again in the past, not quite two years earlier. It is late on the night of Alfred's seventy-fifth birthday, and Chip has run out of procrastinations for calling his father. He has run out of everything - there's an eviction notice from the College in his mail.  When he finally gets around to calling home, his father has gone to bed, but not to sleep, and the two men have an exchange of remarks that is absolutely non-conversational. Unwilling to bare his disgrace to his father, Chip prevaricates and says that he has decided to give up teaching so that he can write his book. This, of course, all but requires Alfred to point out the folly of such a move when, as Alfred has no reason to doubt, D - College is about to confer tenure upon his son. Chip's failure to contest this observation unleashes a string of bromidic platitudes from Alfred, my favorite of which is "A great worker is almost impossible to fire." (86) That Chip's problem has nothing to do with being a good or a bad worker rather neatly measures the terrible slippage between the father's world and his son's. Could it be - and this, I think, is a question that The Corrections explores with the blind tenacity of a burrowing animal - could it be that Alfred has nothing, really, to offer Chip?

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