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Re-reading The Corrections

A Journal (6)

17 July 2003: "At Sea" - I (pp. 239-276)

The opening of the third section of The Corrections is doubly eponymous: "At Sea." The present action of this part of the novel,  postponed after the slightest of beginnings for about forty pages (slightly less than half the total), takes place aboard the cruise ship Gunnar Myrdal, but the title also refers to the disorientation that has taken hold of Alfred Lambert's mind. As the ship pitches through the night, Alfred gropes with the vertigo of the ocean's third dimension: down.

Dry land lacked this z-axis. Dry land was like being awake. Even in chartless desert you could drop to your knees and pound land with your fist and land didn't give. Of course the ocean, too, had a skin of wakefulness. But ever point on this skin was a point where you could sink and by sinking disappear.239

Like the sea, Alfred's deteriorating mind has developed a z-axis, and "At Sea" marks the point in his story where the danger of sinking passes from disturbing possibility to sporadic reality. But before experiencing his madness first hand, and with only this note of 'violently lonely' menace, the author takes us back thirty years to the Lambert's St Jude home, several months before the birth of Denise. The central event in this framed retrospection is the Dinner of Revenge, a meal at which Enid serves liver even though she knows that her husband and at least one of her boys detests it. This is not the querulous, wheedling Enid whom we have already gotten to know, but an American woman in her prime, discontented with her role as a mother and a homemaker, and unfulfilled by but longing for her austere husband - something of a modern Medea. 

What you discovered about yourself in raising children wasn't always agreeable or attractive.261

And what we discover about Enid is almost as disgusting as her poorly-prepared dinner of second-rate ingredients. 

We go back, actually, to Denise's conception, an occasion for describing the Lamberts' depressingly primitive (by which I mean, not distinctively human) sexual profile. 

On the morning of Chip's conception she'd merely looked like she was shamming sleep, but on the morning of Denise's, seven years later, she really was pretending. Alfred in middle aged had invited such venial deceptions. A decade-plus of marriage had turned him into one of the overly civilized predators you hear about in zoos, the Bengal tiger that forgets how to kill, the lion lazy with depression. To exert attraction, Enid had to be a still, unbloody carcass. If she actively reached out, actively threw a thigh over his, he braced himself against her and withheld his face; if she so much as stepped from the bathroom naked he averted his eyes, as the Golden Rule enjoined the man who hated to be seen himself. Only early in the morning, waking to the sight of her small white shoulder, did he venture from his lair. Her stillness and self-containment, the slow sips of air she took, her purely vulnerable objecthood, made him pounce.240

By lying still, Enid not only realizes her dream of having three children, but plants a happy self-deception. 

As soon as she was visibly pregnant again, she had a tacit answer. The changes in her body were incontrovertible, and she imagined so vividly the flattering inferences about her love life that Bea and Esther and Honey might draw from these changes that soon enough she drew the inferences herself.241

Such is the pathetic use to which Enid habitually puts her imagination: instead of a tool for learning about the world, it is a defense against really learning anything. Because Enid cannot really bring herself to pay attention to the real world, she overlooks, in her gravid happiness, one of Alfred's ground rules, and takes to pestering him about buying 'shares of a certain stock.' On this vague pivot, Mr Franzen swings the novel around to the central failure of the Lamberts' marriage, the spouses' complex, almost tragic refusal to come to terms about getting ahead in the world. 

The stock, of course, is not just any stock. Enid already knows that the Missouri Pacific, the railroad which Alfred serves as assistant chief engineer (a job, I hasten to note, having nothing to do with driving locomotives, but rather concerned with tracks and crossties, bridges and culverts, and all the other details that make it possible to run a train from A to B), is planning to purchase another railroad, the Erie Belt. She knows this because, four months into her pregnancy, Alfred is about to size up the Erie Belt on a ten-day business trip. Failing to take his 'no' for an answer to the stock issue, she continues to suggest ways in which the purchase could be afforded. Finally, on the morning of his departure, he snaps with irritation and leaves the house without so much as a good-bye - much less the kind of good-bye kiss that would justify Enid's 'inference' that Alfred loves her 'in that special way.' 

We leave her to stew, and follow Alfred on his inspection. 

Maybe some of the women drivers crossing the Maumee on the neighboring Cherry Street bridge saw him perched there, flat of belly and broad of shoulder, the wind winding his cuffs around his ankles, and maybe they felt, as Enid had felt the first time she'd laid eyes on him, that here was a man. Although he was oblivious to their glances, he felt like a man, and he showed this, you might even say flaunted it, by standing no-handedly on high narrow ledges, and working ten and twelve hours without a break, and cataloguing an eastern railroad's effeminacies.243

The tour is a stoic's agony. By day, Alfred has to listen to men 'for whom "easygoing" was a compliment'; by night, he is tormented by the sounds the penetrate the thin walls of his cheap motel rooms. The bonhomie of the Erie Belt railway men (damned, in Alfred's eyes, by the railroad's rotten roadbeds) and the klaxons of nocturnal promiscuity are two sides of the same coin: surrender. This is not to say that Alfred is above temptation, but his temptation is a torment, not a sign of vitality. This is because, as the reader will recall, he subscribes to the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer: "If you want a safe compass to guide you through life ... you cannot do better than accustom yourself to regard this world as a penitentiary, a sort of penal colony."254 Alfred is Odysseus tied to the mast, tortured by the sirens. He can only let go when the sirens stop singing - when Enid, for example, lies perfectly still in her bed, offering no active invitation. Although he does not seem to be aware of the less than manly aspects of his sour litany of blame (see page 244), at least he knows how to tough out the torture of the sirens' song when he hears it. It is noteworthy that he does not call Enid once from his trip. 

Walking home from the St Jude station, Alfred is confronted by a challenge that's trickier than suppressing his lust for nubile girls. His next-door neighbor, banker Chuck Meisner, pulls up next to him in his car - an interesting contrast in situations. Chuck knows, having heard it from Enid, that Alfred has been away for over a week, but he doesn't know the purpose of the trip, and Alfred probably oughtn't to enlighten him. But he does, in a gesture 

both spontaneous and the opposite of spontaneous... A spasm of goodwill and gratitude to Chuck, a calculated emission of the fury that had been building inside him for eleven days. A man travels two thousand miles but he can't take the last twenty steps without doing something - 

And it did seem unlikely that Chuck would actually use the information - 247 

Of course there is nothing at all unlikely about Chuck's using the information, and now begins a new torment. The stock that he would not buy at Enid's request - because of course it would be improper to profit from inside information, a scruple that Alfred underwrites without any prodding from the nation's securities laws - he has fairly tipped into Chuck Meisner's lap, and guilt over the impropriety of sharing his insider's information with Chuck blends with resentment at Chuck's all but obvious manipulation of it. (For the Meisners soon live in a much nicer part of town.) And awaiting him at home, mere steps away, is the Dinner of Revenge.  

The Dinner of Revenge illuminates in excruciating detail the dull misery of the Lambert household, made bearable only by its utter normality. If Denise were not all but completely absent, the evening of the Dinner of Revenge would be the heart of The Corrections. Its sustained account of several complex hours alerts us, if we haven't noticed it before, to the tremendous power that Mr Franzen draws from conspicuously concentrating his focus on a mere handful of days in the lives of the Lamberts. By the end of the evening of the Dinner, there will have been four such days. All of "The Failure," notwithstanding its many flashbacks, is framed by one day - by four or five hours of one day. There are two days, as I've noted, in Gary's section of the novel, separated by three weeks; thirty years divide the heart of "At Sea" from the Lamberts' cruise aboard the Gunnar Myrdal, which, as we shall see, takes in several days but with the erasure of ordinary time for which cruises are notorious. It would be silly to suggest that The Corrections is a vast novel built on the foundation of a series of short stories, because the short story is no more bound than the novel by the limitations of the Greek unities, but it would not be incorrect to liken the novel to a succession of acts. The master of this kind of dramatic novel - some of whose novels, indeed, seem almost to be transposed plays - is of course Henry James, and there can be no doubt that Jonathan Franzen has drawn a very Jamesian power from the observation of  very Jamesian limitations. For in addition to the articulate temporal framework, the novel has so far confined itself to the points of view of only five characters, all of them members of the same family. The Corrections may cover myriad aspects of contemporary American life, but it is in no way a sprawling novel. 

The most suitable entrée for an American dinner of revenge, unfortunately, will probably always be liver. Like Gary in this part of the novel, I've always liked liver, but then the liver that I've encountered has almost always been best-quality calf liver, certainly not what Enid serves to her family. Knowing how unnecessarily bad most American liver is, however, I fully sympathize with Alfred and Chip, who hate it. 'Hate it' is indeed a serious understatement as regards Chip; long before he has to confront the meat on his plate, the prospect of liver for dinner has propelled him into a mild fugue state, a hell without horizon that Mr Franzen renders with devastating care. Just as Alfred suffered in lascivious motels, so now Chip suffers a loathsome meal that will not end until he has done that which he cannot do (eat it). I was not, I'm unhappy to say, unfamiliar in childhood with miserable hours like these, but I will report with admiration that no novelist whose work I've come across has captured their flavor as fully as Jonathan Franzen. Indeed, I found rereading this part of The Corrections very nearly unbearable; the impulse to skip ahead would certainly have prevailed if I were not committed to writing this page. Writing is the key: Chip's anguish could not be measured in any other medium. 

Alfred and Enid meet, after their unusually long separation, with a squabble. 

"Do you remember," he said, "that I asked you to take care of the mess at the top of the stairs? That was the one thing - the one thing - I asked you to do while I was gone?"

Without waiting for an answer, he went into his metallurgy lab..248

And here he proceeds to take a hammer to the armful of jelly glasses that he gathered up, along with old magazines, at the top of the basement steps. This further emission of fury brings him no release, for 'nothing could eradicate his transgression with Chuck Meisner.' Enid, for her part, 

didn't care much for the reality of this moment. That her husband had left town eleven days ago without kissing her goodbye was a thing she'd halfway succeeded in forgetting. With the living Al absent, she'd alchemically transmuted her base resentments into the gold of longing and remorse. Her swelling womb, the pleasures of the fourth month, the time alone with her handsome boys, the envy of her neighbors all were colorful philtres over which she'd waved the wand of her imagination. Even as Al had come down the stairs she'd still imagined apologies, homecoming kisses, a bouquet of flowers maybe. Now she heard the ricochet of broken glass and glancing hammer blows on heavy-gauge galvanized iron, the frustrated shrieks of hard materials in conflict. The philtres may have been colorful but unfortunately (she saw now) they were chemically inert. Nothing had really changed.248

Amazingly, Enid is still waiting for Alfred to become the kind of man she'd like to live with. While she irons shirts after dinner, Mr Franzen takes us back to her youth, helping out in her mother's boarding house, where Alfred came to stay when he was starting out. 

He was a full-lipped thick-haired well-muscled boy in a man's shape and a man's suits. The suits were themselves luxuriantly pleated wool beauties. Once or twice every night, serving dinner at the big round table, Enid glanced over her shoulder and caught him looking, and made him blush.  ... Soon they were engaged and they chastely rode a night train to McCook, Nebraska, to visit his aged parents. His father kept a slave whom he was married to.266

That ought to have been a warning to her. So should the volume of Schopenhauer that Enid found while cleaning Alfred's room, with underlined passages such as this: "The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other." And it is at this point that Mr Franzen makes one of the most heartbreaking observations that I have ever encountered in fiction. 

What to believe about Al Lambert? There were the old-man things he said about himself and the young-man way he looked. Enid had chosen to believe the promise of his looks. Life then became a matter of waiting for his personality to change.266

It is wrong to say that people never change; they do, and sometimes startlingly. But change always come from within, in unexpected ways, and it is foolish to expect it. Compounding Enid's folly is her failure to grasp that for Alfred's personality to change, he would have to shed the masculinity that makes him so attractive to her. She wants something impossible: not a changed personality, but a warm and easygoing stoic. 

It should not be overlooked that while Enid looks back on Alfred's absence as a time of romantic imaginings, she has nonetheless bought liver, of all things, to celebrate his homecoming. This is characteristic of her skewed, duplicity-prone outlook. During the dinner, which she  consumes with barely suppressed gloating, Enid gaily pretends that liver is a dish that everyone likes, but at the same time she resents Chip's stubborn determination - as she sees it - not to let a single piece of liver cross his tongue.  

Lately, she had taken to feeding him grilled cheese sandwiches all day long, holding back for dinner the leafy green vegetables required for a balanced diet and letting Alfred fight her battles. 

There was something almost tasty and almost sexy in letting the annoying boy be punished by her husband. In standing blamelessly by while the boy suffered for having hurt her. What you discovered about yourself in raising children wasn't always agreeable or attractive.261

This is the sadism of the self-righteous. It is a characteristic that Gary appears to share. Alfred sees him as 'an unaccountably cheerful boy,' and throughout Chip's ordeal he chatters on about the jail cell and electric chair that he has built with Popsicle sticks, and begs to be tested on his command of multiplication. He also intensifies the Goofus and Gallant contrast by wolfing down his liver. Whether he really likes it may be left in some doubt, for we're told that he's not above slipping food out of sight while no one's looking, and tossing it in the bushes outside the kitchen door. Chip knows that Gary does this, but can't bring himself to do the same, even after the rest of the family has long left the dining table. Already the brothers have settled into their difference: Gary is the realist, Chip the idealist. But Gary's realism poses a heavy burden, because it lets him in on his mother's world of imaginative self-deception. Playing ping-pong with her after dinner, he lets her win. 

Every night after dinner he honed this skill of enduring a dull thing that brought a parent pleasure. It seemed to him a lifesaving skill. He believed that terrible harm would come to him when he could no longer preserve his mother's delusions.262 

Like the passage about Enid's waiting for Alfred's personality to change, this acute observation casts a glare of retrospective light on what we have already read. We have seen that Gary grows up with the burden of actualizing his mother's dream of home life. 

We're told a great deal, throughout The Corrections, about what Enid would like her home and family to be like, but Alfred's views on these subjects remain opaque, doubtless because they're opaque to him. Without quite finishing his dinner, Alfred escapes to his basement workshop, where he potters aimlessly, still very much distracted by his betrayal of the Erie Belt secret to Chuck Meisner. He half longs to be interrupted by his wife or one of his children, and half fears such an interruption -  groundlessly, in both cases, given his stern command that he is not to be disturbed in his workshop. Eventually, however, he is absorbed by his experiment with ferroacetate gels, and at ten o'clock he makes note of the evening's 'very interesting' finding. As he leaves his workshop, Mr Franzen pins down Alfred's binary character: 

The moment he stepped from the lab, exhaustion hammered him. ... He had boundless energy for work, but as soon as he quit he could barely stand up.

In the dining room, Alfred finds Chip, now asleep, his face creased with the impression of the straw placemat. 

The scene was so wrong, so sick with Revenge, that for a moment Alfred honestly thought the boy at the table was a ghost from his own childhood.271

Here's how Enid, on her way upstairs earlier, regarded Chip's plight: 

She reasoned that if the problem in the dining room was her responsibility then she was horrendously derelict in not resolving it, and a loving mother could never be so derelict, and she was a loving mother, so the responsibility must not have been hers.267

For it was Alfred, not Enid, who told Chip that he must eat at least one bit of everything on his plate before he could leave the table. This is how Enid gets Alfred to fight her battles. They squabble about it in bed. 

"You were the one who said he -"

"You came upstairs long before I did. It was not my intention that he sit there for five hours. You're using him against me, and I don't care for it one bit. He should have been put to bed at eight."

Enid simmered in her wrongness.274

But not for long. Having overheard Alfred's half of a dinnertime phone call from Chuck Meisner, Enid renews her lament that others will profit from knowledge that her husband refuses to exploit. Their argument about the propriety of doing so highlights their fundamental incompatibility, but as if this were not enough, the author climaxes it with Enid's unexpected lament:

"What is the reason you're so cold to me?" she said. 

"There are reasons," Alfred said, "but I will not tell you." 

"Why are you so unhappy? Why won't you tell me?"

"I will go to the grave before I tell you. To the grave."

"Oh, oh, oh!"

This was a bad husband she had landed, a bad, bad, bad husband who would never give her what she needed. Anything that might have satisfied her he found a reason to withhold.276

It's hard, at this moment, not to sympathize with the often-monstrous Enid, for her husband appears to be motivated by a perverse mortification. 

The Dinner of Revenge is for Chipper the occasion of virtuoso dawdling, as he runs through every maneuver he can think of. Youthful ignorance - something like an inability to forge firm connections between causes and effects - is the source of his hope, but none of his feints deceives his parents (or Gary, who officiously suggests that he hold his nose while eating, something that would certainly get him into deeper trouble), and his magic thinking proves equally ineffective. Meanwhile, the food on his plate is described in terms so exuberantly revolting that a sense of the full horror of disagreeable food - muted for most of us by both the broadening of taste and the culinary autonomy that come with adulthood - is vividly restored to the reader. 

Cauterized liver had the odor of fingers that had handled dirty coins.251

A dollop of mashed rutabaga at rest on a plate expressed a clear yellowish liquid similar to plasma or the matter in a blister. Boiled beet greens leaked something cupric, greenish. Capillary action and the thirsty crust of flour drew both liquids under the liver. When the liver was lifted, a faint suction could be heard. The sodden lower crust was unspeakable.253

The dogshit-yellow field of rutabaga; 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, finalty.261

As denial and despair give way to numbed resignation, Chip finds the proud little satisfaction that will be familiar to every mischievous former child:

The taste of self-inflicted suffering, of an evening trashed in spite, brought curious satisfactions. Other people stopped being real enough to carry blame for how you felt. Only you and your refusal remained. And like self-pity, or like the blood that filled your mouth when the tooth was pulled - the salty ferric juices that you swallowed and allowed yourself to savor - refusal had a flavor for which a taste could be acquired.263

But this is still hell, and the only escape is unconsciousness. Rarely has the slide into sleep been so deftly palpated:

Chipper heard things and saw things but they were all in his head. After three hours, the objects surrounding him were as drained of flavor as old bubble gum. His mental states were strong by comparison and overwhelmed them. It would have taken an effort of will, a reawakening, to summon the term "place mat" and apply it to the visual field that he had observed so intensely that its reality had dissolved in the observing, or to apply the word "furnace" to the rustle in the ducts which in its recurrence had assumed the character of an emotional state or an actor in his imagination, an embodiment of Evil Time. The faint fluctuations in the light as someone ironed and someone played and someone experimented and the refrigerator cycled on and off had been part of the dream. This changefulness, though barely noticeable, had been a torment. but it had stopped now.269

In the novel's most tender moment, Alfred will gather up the sleeping, half-roused Chip, carry him upstairs, change him into pajamas, and tuck him in. And then he will discover that Chip has indeed taken a bite (although a very small one) of everything on his plate, and the injustice and cruelty of Enid's failure as a mother will remind him of a trap that he came across in the snow, years before, with the leg of a coyote still clamped in its claws, the animal's having gnawed its way to crippled freedom. 

In Michael Cunningham's The Hours, the AIDS-ravaged poet, Richard, looks back on his one novel as a complete failure. 

"There was so much, oh, far too much for me. I mean, there's the weather, there's the water and the land, there are the animals, and the buildings, and the past and the future, there's space, there's history. There's this thread or something caught between my teeth, there's the old woman across the way, did you notice she switched the donkey and the squirrel on her windowsill? And, of course, there's time. And place. And there's you, Mrs. D. I wanted to tell part of the story of part of you. Oh, I'd love to have done that." "Richard. You wrote a whole book."

 "But everything's left out of it, almost everything."

Not three pages later, Mr Cunningham has Virginia Woolf musing,

One always has a better book in one's mind that one can manage to get onto paper.

But what is so extraordinary about The Corrections is one's intensifying sense that this book has not only left nothing out but has also dwarfed whatever book it was that Jonathan Franzen set out to write. He may well be as disappointed as Richard and Mrs Woolf, but the Dinner of Revenge, experienced from four points of view to the very rhythm of consciousness (and I do mean consciousness, not reflection), strikes me as exceeding any conceivable intention, and its degree of ordered complexity is without precedent.  

The night is not quite over; Alfred and Enid are still awake. But their burdened boys are asleep, and all the lights in the Lambert house have been turned out. What follows belongs more to Alfred's madness than to the patriarchy that it displaces, and we'll get to it on the next page.  

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