Re-reading The Corrections

A Journal (4)

2 December 2002: 'The Failure'  - III (pp. 118-127)

As I reread the second half of 'The Failure,' I felt that the ongoing scene in Chip's apartment, where Alfred, Enid, and Denise have lunch, looked more and more like an intrusion into what 'ought to be' Chip's section of the novel. There is nothing like it in the book's other sections. Each of them, like this one, may be said to focus either on one of the Lambert children or on Alfred and Enid together, but that focus is never elsewhere, as it is here, interrupted. I can't, of course, claim to know why Jonathan Franzen treated Chip's part of the novel differently, but I suspect that the author decided, once the book's architecture was settled - and also the decision to begin with Chip - that certain information about the Lamberts as a family could not be postponed to the 'proper' place. Perhaps, too, the Mr Franzen felt that Chip's story, unlike the others', benefited from occasional interruption, but he might just as well have reached a complementary conclusion: that the reader would need, at the outset at least, regular reminders that The Corrections is the story of a family, not a series of portraits to be considered separately. (It is certainly not the book about Chip that many readers whom I talked to found that they were expecting when they reached page 139 and were asked to take an interest in Gary instead.) In any case, I took a deeper look at the intruding material. I have already touched, in the second page of this journal, on the richness of the interplay among the three Lamberts at Chip's, and on the existential hiatus that separates father and son. But in the attempt to characterize Chip's life in New York - and his flight from it - I decided not to interrupt my summary (which is not meant to be a synopsis) with an account of the longer of the two further installments, as it were, of the luncheon scene, but to treat it separately, here.  

With very little work, it could be turned into the impressionistic kind of story that used to appear in The New Yorker; it tells us more than we would ever expect to learn in so short a space. It begins with Enid's brooding about what marriage has come to mean to her as a parent, reflections that are shot through with a longing, on Enid's part, for in-laws, for some other family to belong to. Her own, we know, is a great disappointment to her, but now we are shown a great deal more of the how and why. 

All her friends were nice and had nice friends, and since nice people tended to raise nice children, Enid's world was like a lawn in which the bluegrass grew so thick that evil was simply choked out: a miracle of niceness.(118)

Of course it's not Enid's world at all, but rather the world, beginning at the edge of her property, that she feels she is condemned to enjoy vicariously, as a wedding guest. This 'miracle of niceness' is a world of ordinary people; spikes of affluence aside, it is populated by parents and children whose most appealing feature, to Enid, is their attractively packaged lack of distinction. Their virtue, as Midwesterners, consists in their taking their rightful, and indistinguishable, places among generations of Midwesterners. The difficulty of Enid's own family - the breakdown of her theory about nice parents raising nice children - has transformed everyone else in her neighborhood into figures out of  Norman Rockwell. 

Now, in her secret heart, where she was less different from her daughter than she liked to admit, Enid knew that tuxes came in better colors than powder blue and that bridesmaids' dresses could be cut from more interesting fabrics than mauve crepe de chine; and yet, although honesty compelled her to withhold the adjective "elegant" from weddings in this style, there was a louder and happier part of her heart that loved this kind of wedding best of all, because a lack of sophistication assured the assembled guests that for the two families being joined together there were values that mattered more than style. Enid believe in matching...(119)

Why, you might ask, would Enid not want to admit that she was like her daughter? And you might recall a very similar passage from the beginning of 'The Failure,' which I noted a few pages ago, about Chip's being more like his father than he liked to admit.  We might also remember that Denise has outgrown this thing about being different, which is really a thing about not accepting differences as both inevitable and inevitably partial; look back to Denise's belief that she 'got' her culinary skills from her mother.(99) Enid doesn't want to admit that she's like Denise at all because to do so would dissolve the cordon sanitaire that she has strung around the idea of Denise's total differentness. Enid believes in matching, but with Denise

It was the same problem Enid had with Chip and even with Gary: her children didn't match. They didn't want the things that she and all her friends and all her friends' children wanted. Her children wanted radically, shamefully other things.(122)

By the time we read this, we have heard a thing or two about Denise's former marriage to Emile, a man to whom (by Enid's lights) she "should never have been attracted ... in the first place!" Learning about Emile from Enid's point of view naturally tells us more about Enid than it does about Denise's boss, the chef at the restaurant where she started out. 

Outside the restaurant, before [Denise] returned to her fourteen-hour shift, Enid made sure to say to her: "He certainly is a short little man! So Jewish-looking." (121)

At the time of this encounter, Denise is still only an employee, but six months later, she calls home with the news that she and Emile have been married in an Atlantic City courthouse. 

Enid, who had a very strong stomach (never got sick, never), had to hand the phone to Alfred and go to kneel in the bathroom and take deep breaths.(120)

In  the long run, it is Alfred who takes the news badly. The effect of Denise's announcement on her father's well-being is all but buried in one of the long sentences that Mr Franzen uses to show how Enid distances herself from unpleasantness, in this case by means of the protracted subordinate clause that I've underlined:  

And during the week that followed, while Enid made the best of the mortifying situation in which Denise had placed her by (1) calling her best friends and sounding thrilled to announce that Denise was getting married soon! to a very nice Canadian man, yes, but she wanted immediate family only  at the ceremony, so, and she was introducing her husband at a simple, informal open house at Christmastime (none of Enid's friends believed that she was thrilled, but they gave her full credit for trying to hide her suffering; some were even sensitive enough not to ask where Denise had registered for gifts and (2) ordering, without Denise's permission, two hundred engraved announcements, not only to make the wedding appear more conventional but also to shake the gift tree a little in hopes of receiving compensation for the dozens of teakwood salad sets that she and Alfred had given in the last twenty years: during this long week, Enid was so continually aware of Alfred's strange new tremor that when, by the by, he agreed see his doctor and was referred to Dr. Hedgpeth and diagnosed with Parkinson's, an underground branch of her intelligence persisted in connecting his disease with Denise's announcement and so in blaming her daughter for the subsequent plummeting of her own quality of life, even though Dr. Hedgpeth had stressed that Parkinson's was somatic in origin and gradual in onset.(122-3)

Notwithstanding Dr. Hedgpeth's cautions, I'm inclined to agree with Enid about the onset of Alfred's symptoms. The disease may already have taken root in him, but its expression would always be associated with the final shucking of Denise's innocence. That Enid blames Denise "for the plummeting of her own quality of life" is the inevitable vindication (however invalid) of Enid's belief that everything about Denise's life is wrong. 

The effort she made to be a good sport and cheerleader, to obey Alfred and receive her middle-aged son-in-law cordially and not say one single word about his religion, only added to the shame and anger she felt five years later when Denise and Emile were divorced and Enid had to give this news, too, to all her friends. Having attached so much meaning to the marriage, having struggled so hard to accept it, she felt that the least Denise could have done was stay married.(123)

Bad as divorce is, there is something worse. Enid has got wind of the possibility that Denise might be "involved with a married man," and now that lunch is over, Alfred is napping, and Denise is cleaning up, Enid starts sniffing. Because she can never approach a tricky subject directly, Enid begins by retelling the story of an old friend who wound up an old maid because the man she waited for never got a divorce. This is not an altogether unwise move, because, as Denise points out, "You tell me about Norma Greene literally every time I see you." Once again, Enid's inconsequence is almost delicious. "Well, you know the story then," she says - and proceeds to tell it again.(124) Umpteenth time or no, however, Enid presently betrays the fact that she has a new reason for telling Norma Greene's story, and in no time at all she's lying to her daughter, denying that Gary has betrayed a confidence. Because she needs Denise "as an ally on the Christmas front," she can't pick a fight with her over her daughter's "immoral life style."(128)

The slant of almost every aspect of what I've called the 'intrusive' passages in 'The Failure' falls on Denise. Because she takes great care to protect her privacy from her mother's prying, Denise never says anything that would imply irregularity in her life, but hints to the contrary abound, perhaps none of them so eloquent as her willingness to discuss anyone but herself, or the defensively brusque tone that she takes with her mother. Nevertheless, the first-time reader is unlikely to expect, on the basis of this lunch at Chip's, that Denise's story will turn out to be the most interesting of the three. There is simply too much positive information to absorb about other characters. And there is also the author's determination to present Enid in an unflattering light. 

I've already mentioned Dylan Baker's reading, on six CDs (Simon & Schuster Audio), of an abridgment of The Corrections. What has stayed with me most indelibly from Mr Baker's performance is his impersonation of Enid, which he inflects with an affected whine that no actress in any conceivable film adaptation is likely to reproduce. It is the sound not of a querulous woman but of the masculine contempt for women who want everything to be 'nice, ' and I do not think that Mr Baker has read anything into the text of The Corrections that isn't there. Enid Lambert represents the moral vacuity of American niceness to the same high degree that George F. Babbitt represents the moral vacuity of American boosterism. Who ever said literature was fair? 

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