Re-reading The Corrections

A Journal (7)

23 October 2003: "At Sea" - II (pp. 276-336)

What I find so depressing about the marriage that Alfred and Enid Lambert sustain throughout The Corrections is its dreariness, its persistent air of stale disappointment. If the two of them would come out and have a good fight, it would be, I can't help thinking, more bearable. But to Enid's nagging and crying Alfred replies only with bullying demurrals, refusing, as lawyers would say, to join the issue and really argue Enid's points. What he is always telling her is that she doesn't know what she's talking about, and that what she thinks is irrelevant. This is how Alfred was brought up to regard relations between husbands and wives (as we read on page 266). It precludes any important verbal communication; it forces Enid to resort to the 'guerilla' tactics referred to at the novel's opening.

Getting into bed, Alfred is furious with Enid for having kept Chip at the table all evening while he was in his lab, but before he can say a word about this, Enid pesters him, like a doomed moth, about his telephone conversation, during dinner, with Chuck Meisner. Chuck had the temerity to call Alfred to make sure 'about this Midpac thing.' Realizing that he has made a terrible mistake mentioning the matter to his neighbor,

Alfred hung up hating Chuck as he would have hated a girl he'd been undisciplined enough to have relations with. ... There was excrement all over his hands.259

The excrement motif, which ties the Dinner of Revenge (especially Chip's horrified take on liver, but also the dysamorous sequel in the Lamberts' bedroom) with the nightmare of Alfred's hallucinations aboard the Gunnar Myrdal thirty years later. The conversation with Chuck is the very thing that Alfred would prefer to forget about. Because he feels so guilty about his indiscretion, he doesn't, for once, cut Enid off right away. Instead, they have a Macbethish exchange in which Alfred proves himself stronger than the Thane of Cawdor.

"I just think it's interesting," Enid said, "that Chuck is allowed to make an investment that we're not allowed to make."
"If Chuck chooses to take unfair advantage of other investors, that's his business."
"A lot of Erie Belt shareholders would be happy to get five and three-quarters tomorrow. What's unfair about that?"
Her words had the sound of an argument rehearsed for hours, a grievance nursed in darkness."274

When he has had enough, Alfred scolds Enid about Chip, and then tries to fall asleep. It is an interesting moment for one of the author's few flights beyond the straightest realism.

When it was very, very dark in the house, the unborn child could see as clearly as anyone. She had ears and eyes, fingers and a forebrain and a cerebellum, and she floated in a central place. She already knew the main hungers. Day after day the mother walked around in a stew of desire and guilt, and now the object of the mother's desire lay three feet away from her. Everything in the mother was poised to melt and shut down at a loving touch anywhere on her body. 274

I'm not quite sure about this almost Gothic, destiny-freighted passage; I suspect that it eluded deletion on the strength of  the image of Enid's 'stew of desire and guilt' as the medium in which Denise is gestating. It remains an exceptional moment - the first half of one. In contrast, the terrible surrealism of Alfred's defecatory obsessions, soon to follow, is rooted in natural madness.

There was a lot of breathing going on. A lot of breathing but no touching.275

So, unable to melt, Enid begins to cry, and now the couple begins to fight. It is only a beginning; it stops in the usual way.

"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."

This is pretty Macbethish, too, but it is frightfully believable. Speaking from the challenged fortress of the male ego - confronted with the question do you know what you're doing? - Alfred responds with a bluff of impregnability that is almost funny. What secrets has he got that he must take 'to the grave' with him? Only the secret of his own inadequacy, which he must never, never admit to his wife.

Enid's first response is to wail: 

"This was a bad husband she had landed, a bad, bad, bad husband who would never give her what she needed.278

Her second is to 'take a real risk,' and attempts, perhaps not for the first time, to fellate this bad husband of hers. Would that she had the sense to focus her mind on that alone. But her mind is focused, instead, on the lost profits that Alfred's fiscal nobility will deny her, and, even as she's arousing him, feeling 'desirable and capable of anything,' she can't keep from alluding, whenever she comes up for air, to the money that could be theirs.

Alfred had come to his senses and forced the succubus away from him.
(Schopenhauer: The people who make money are men, not women; and from this it follows that women are neither justified in having unconditional possession of lit, nor fit persons to be entrusted with its administration.277

Nor are they to be permitted to initiate sexual contact, not even pregnant wives who think that intercourse might be a bad idea. Densely, the author lays out Alfred's act of copulation against both his embryonic daughter's distress and the fantasies that he suppressed while on the road, overhearing couples in other motel rooms and leering at cheerleaders doing splits. When it is over, Alfred falls back in remorse and resolves to treat his next child 'more gently than he'd treated Gary or Chipper.'

But he'd squirted such filth on her when she was helpless. She'd witnessed such scenes of marriage, and so, of course, when she was older, she betrayed him.
What made correction possible also doomed it.278

But sleep is now possible.

Maybe it took all this - ten nights of wakefulness in bad motels followed by an evening on the emotional roller coaster and finally the run-outside-and-put-a-bullet-through-the-roof-of-your-mouth sucking and mewling noises of a wife trying to cry herself to sleep at two in the goddamned morning - to open his eyes to the fact that (a) sleep was a woman and (b) hers were comforts that he was under no obligation to refuse.

Here, and in the remarkable two paragraphs that follows, Alfred pledges his life to an infidelity that is only technically blameless, a life of naps, of self-indulgent escapes from Enid.

More than thirty years would pass before the discovery in the basement bore financial fruit; the discovery in the bedroom made existence chez Lambert more bearable immediately.279

More bearable, that is, for Alfred. Enid remains stuck with a 'bad husband.'

The flashback to the evening of the Dinner of Revenge now closes, and Alfred is awakened in the middle of the night aboard the cruise ship. Someone or something is whispering to him. "Psst! Asshole!" This jarring address, so completely unthinkable, regardless of their discontent, between Alfred and Enid, issues from a hellish visitation in the Lamberts' small, interior stateroom. Only Alfred hears it. Only Alfred sees, or thinks he sees, the scurrying of movement that at excruciating length resolves itself into 'the turd.' What follows is not without its Rabelasian humor, although this is seriously blunted by Alfred's horror and alarm that his feces are at large, staining sheets and blankets and streaking the cabin floor into the tiny bathroom. Following the hallucination's trail, Alfred falls into a deeper confusion, as the problem of cleaning up after the turd takes on the aspect of a drainage problem that, as an engineer, he might have had to solve at the Missouri-Pacific. For nearly ten pages, Jonathan Franzen takes us on an awful ride inside the mind of a Parkinson's victim. How he knows whereof he writes I hate to think. Tangled up in disposable adult diapers and askew in the bathroom, Alfred is not dreaming; this is worse than dreaming. The worst of it is that he cannot, to his surprise, raise Enid from her sleep to help him, as he has done on the previous nights aboard ship.

Exasperated and exhausted by her husband's nightly antics, Enid has sought the help of the ship's doctor. But before we follow her into his office, the author presents us with the vacation that Enid so desperately wants to enjoy. Her anxieties about the cruise are manifold and intense. Although she and Alfred have taken a relatively inexpensive cabin, Enid expects to conceal this fact to the maximum extent possible while gravitating toward the 'nicest' echelon of passengers. This means, among other things, avoiding senior citizens wearing humorous T-shirts, or members of the large groups constituting what might be called sub-cruises - 'the University of Rhode Island Alumni Association' and so on.

It rankled her that people richer than she were so often less worthy and attractive. More slobbish and louty. Comfort could be found in being poorer than people who were smart and beautiful. but to be less affluent than these T-shirted, joke-cracking fatsos - 291

She is relieved to be seated, in the Soren Kierkegaard Dining Room (the Myrdal's saloons bear jocular names), with three other unaffiliated couples. One couple is Norwegian, another Swedish, and the sarcastic and insulting banter exchanged by the Söderblads and the Nygrens will tickle fans of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Although punctuated by darkish episodes, the account through Enid's eyes of the cruise is fairly freewheeling satire, striking a note that hasn't been heard since "The Failure." Enid seeks assurance from Mr Söderblad that the Gunnar Myrdal is 'AUTHENTICALLY SCANDINAVIAN,' but her interlocutor compares it favorably with 'most ships in Scandinavia' - in other words, it's more American. "Enid abandoned her inquiry unconvinced that Mr Söderblad had grasped its import."292 Her attention eventually turns to the other American woman at the table, a Mrs Roth from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. When Alfred retires before dinner is even over, Sylvia Roth rescues Enid from the table by referring to an imaginary appointment that these two women, who have never talked before, profess to have made. After a bit of gambling, Enid and Sylvia settle down for some chamber music (in what Enid mistakenly calls 'the Greed Room,' not having caught the name of the composer of Peer Gynt), and finally hit the Ibsen Promenade for 'the scheduled ten-o'clock ice cream social.'

Enid accepted an ice cream soda from a food handler in a toque. Then she initiated an exchange of family data with Sylvia which quickly became an exchange more of questions than of answers. It was Enid's habit, when she sensed that family was not a person's favorite topic, to probe the sore relentlessly. She would sooner have died than admit that her own children disappointed her, but hearing of other people's disappointing children - their squalid divorces, their substance abuse, their foolish investments - made her feel better.297-8

But Sylvia doesn't want to play this game - she wants to confide, openly and generously, the terrible story of her daughter's torture and murder by a drug addict, and the reason for their being on the cruise now. They're on the cruise now so that they'll be away when the murderer is executed. Sylvia and her husband have responded to the crime in diametrical ways. Ted Roth has decided to put it entirely behind him.

"And so, on Labor Day, he said to me, 'It may seem strange to you, but I will never speak of her death again, and I want you to remember that I'm telling you this'."305

Whereas Sylvia, formerly a modestly successful printmaker, selling the kind of pictures that you would expect the wife of a Du Pont executive to make, has drawn nothing but guns for five years. Then she had an epiphany.

On a sheet of ivory Canson paper and using a mirror so that it appeared to be her right hand, she drew her left hand with its thumb raised and fingers curled, sixty degrees behind full profile, a nearly full rear view. This hand she then filled with a snub-nose .38 revolver, expertly foreshortened, whose barrel penetrated a pair of smirking lips above which she penciled accurately, from memory, the taunting eyes of Khellye Withers [her daughter's murderer], over the recent exhaustion of whose legal appeals few tears had been shed. And at that - a pair of lips, a pair of eyes - Sylvia had set down her pencil.302

She set down her pencil and realized that she wanted Khellye Withers dead. The litany of her reasons climaxes grandly:

She wanted him dead despite knowing that her desire would please conservatives for whom the phrase "personal responsibility" constituted permission to ignore social injustice.305

Moved by Sylvia's story, Enid reflects on her own disappointments, and comes to the verge of divulging Alfred's mental deterioration (and the toll that it is taking on her), but she's stopped by her own resentment.

But suddenly [Sylvia] reminded Enid of Katharine Hepburn. In Hepburn's eyes there had been a blank unconsciousness of privilege that made a once-poor woman like Enid want to kick her patrician shins with the hardest-toed pumps at her disposal. it would be a mistake, she felt to confess anything to this woman.306

Not without revealing the fact that her cabin is on a lower deck, Enid escapes from Sylvia Roth's enviability (murdered daughter notwithstanding) to the nightmare of Alfred's disorder, which turns him, effectively, into a large baby requiring all-night attention. 

She found Alfred naked with his back to the door on a layer of bedsheets spread on sections of morning paper from St. Jude. Pants and a sport coat and a tie were laid out on his bed, which he'd stripped to the mattress. The excess bedding he'd piled on the other bed. He continued to call her name even after she'd turned on a light and occupied his field of vision.310

In the morning, without having slept, she has to present herself for a debarkation and tour of Newport, the opulence of which, predictably, makes her "Sick of envying, sick of herself."312 After another sleepless night with Alfred, she makes her way to the ship's doctor in search of something to knock Alfred out. What she gets, instead, is Aslan for herself.

The interview with Dr Hibbard is reminiscent of Chip's desperate rencontre with Gitanas at Eden Procuro's office in "The Failure." It takes a while for Enid to pick up the young, glib doctor's wavelength; he seems always to be answering a question that she hasn't asked. At last, when she realizes that he's offering to prescribe something for her, she overcomes her doubts about the morality of the drug that he recommends and surrenders to its promise of complete release. She has made a deal with the devil and she knows it, but, happily for someone her age, the consequences of her flirtation with the drug that undid her son's career will not be so abrupt. For the time being, she's free.

With a pounding heart Enid made her way to the "B" Deck. After the nightmare of the previous day and nights she again had a concrete thing to look forward to; and how sweet the optimism of the person carrying a newly scored drug that she believed would change her head; how universal the craving to escape the givens of the self. ... She couldn't wait to take it.321

And when she wakes the next morning to find Alfred squat in the shower stall, she's unperturbed. At breakfast, though, when Sylvia sees how rested Enid looks, she quizzically hopes that it has nothing to do with the ship's doctor, whom she knows to be prescribing Aslan. Enid changes the subject, and the two women head off to a financial lecture, entitled "Surviving the Corrections" (in the Longstocking Ballroom). In the meantime, Alfred searches for bathrooms. Despite his daily dose of medications,

his nervous system could no longer be relied on for an accurate assessment of his need to go. At night his solution was to wear protection. By day his solution was to visit a bathroom hourly and to carry his old black raincoat in case he had an accident to hide. The raincoat had the added virtue of offending Enid's romantic sensibilities, and his hourly stops the added virtue of lending structure to his life.329

In the men's room after breakfast, Alfred has a new hallucination: he sees the man, a subordinate at the railroad, who deflowered Denise. When the man appears to expose himself, Alfred is almost deranged, and he escapes to the Sports Deck. Sitting on a bench in the sun, he is eventually disturbed by the need to urinate, and, leaving the deck proper for a forbidden wilderness of marine hardware behind which to relieve himself. His pants, alas are already soaked by the time he climbs beyond the railing and finds himself perched over a sunbathing deck, where the Swedish lady from his table is sunbathing in the nude. Is it to get a better view, the narrative asks, or perhaps the wind catching his raincoat, or some other factor, that catches him off balance and plunges him into the sea, his shadow traversing a window of the Longstocking Ballroom while the financial expert warns Enid and his other listeners that the boom market is about to end? Recollecting warm, 'bath-scented' evenings reading to his boys, Alfred falls along his z-axis, and "At Sea" comes to an end.

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