10 November 2004: "The Last Christmas" - II; "The Corrections" (pp. 549-566)
The Corrections concludes with a short, eponymous section that quite corresponds in length and summary elegance to "St. Jude" at the start. It is all about Enid's optimism, and perhaps should not be taken for a happy ending, satisfying as it is to read. It is difficult to remember now, but throughout the booming 90's the term 'correction' meant a drop in share prices that, by (theoretically) stabilizing the stock market, was basically a good thing. The section begins with a reference to the bursting of the 'new economy' bubble in early 2000 - not, in the event, a correction at all in the Street's sense, but rather correction in the sense of a chastisement. It's direct impact on the Lamberts is relatively slight. Her money tied up in annuities, Enid feels relatively richer than she did because she loses nothing, while Gary takes a few hits on his more aggressive investments. Denise and Chip, relatively penniless, aren't affected at all. It would require a severe strain of common sense to find a parable, in The Corrections, of recent economic history, but both the novel's story and that of the 'bubble' are concerned with authority and control, disobedience and abandon, and optimism and cynicism. They are both stories that could only be told about end-of-American-century America.
I suspect, however, that Jonathan Franzen was sorely tried by deciding where to put the harrowing scene of Alfred's madness that precedes Enid's upbeat send-off. Alongside it? In a section of its own? Perhaps to preserve the symmetry between opening and close, the author appended it to "The Last Christmas," but it does not really belong there, either. It certainly doesn't take place on that last Christmas with the Lamberts all together, but some time later, and it doesn't take place in the Lambert home, either. The only characters who appear in it, beside Alfred, are Chip, a black nurse who terrifies Alfred (it would be better to say that his bigotry renders her fearful), and a doctor. Although he is in a hospital, Alfred is convinced that he's in a prison, and that he must at all costs escape, even though this will require committing suicide. When Chip shows up, Alfred relaxes a bit, but real comfort and release are out of the question. Alfred really is in a prison.
He has been in decline since the beginning of the novel, but that only makes passages such as the following, in which Alfred tries to free himself from his restraints, more painful to read.
He struggled with its smooth nylon breadth in the same way over and over. There was a time when he'd encountered obstacles philosophically but that time was past. His fingers were as weak as grass when he tried to work them under the belt so he could pull on it. They bent like soft bananas. Trying to work them under the belt was so obviously and utterly hopeless - the belt has such overwhelming advantages of toughness and tightness - that his efforts soon became merely a pageant of spite and rage and incapacity. He caught his fingernails in the belt and then flung his arms apart, letting his hands bank into the arms of his captivating chair and painfully ricochet this way and that way, because he was so goddamned angry - 551
The extreme economy with which Alfred's agony is set forth is a payoff on all that we have learned about him so far; our experience of the agony needn't be prolonged for it to be intense.
In 2001, shortly before or after the appearance of The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen published an account in The New Yorker of his father's subsidence into Alzheimer's Disease, entitled "My Father's Brain." Because it is impossible to read both the essay and the novel without thinking of them together, I have just re-read "My Father's Brain," and discovered that, while it has a great deal more to say about Earl Franzen's decline that The Corrections has to say about Alfred Lambert's, and while there are many details that point intriguingly to autobiographical background of the novel, the eight pages that the author devotes to Alfred's hospitalization are vastly more focused on their subject than the essay is upon the author's father. The essay is about many things - memory, the brain, materialism, Alzheimer's Disease, the senior Franzens' unhappy marriage (which seems somehow different from that of the Lamberts'; Mrs Franzen doesn't sound like Enid) and the Franzen family generally. The eight pages of The Corrections are about just one thing: Alfred's nearly feral urge to escape from 'prison.' (To Earl Franzen, the hospital was a 'hotel.')
According to "My Father's Brain," the author was never asked by his father to help him do away with himself, but this is what Alfred somehow summons the lucidity to ask Chip.
Like a wife who had died or a house that had burned, the clarity to think and the power to act were still vivid in his memory. Through a window that gave onto the next world, he could still see the clarity and see the power, just out of reach, beyond the window's thermal panes. He could see the desired outcomes, the drowning at sea, the shotgun blast, the plunge from a height, so near to him still that he refused to believe he'd lost the opportunity to avail himself of their relief.
He wept at the injustice of his sentence. "For God's sake, Chip," he said loudly, because he sensed that this might be his last chance to liberate himself before he lost all contact with that clarity and power and it was therefore crucial that Chip understand exactly what he wanted. "I'm asking for your help! You've got to get me out of this! You have to put an end to it."
Even red-eyed, even tear-streaked, Chip's face was full of power and clarity. Here was a son whom he could trust to understand him as he understood himself; and so Chip's answer, when it came, ws absolute. Chip's answer told him that this was where the story ended. It ended with Chip shaking his head, it ended with him saying: "I can't, Dad. I can't."556-7
It is the end of Alfred's story, but it is not the end of the story of Alfred's body. Having been scolded by Enid every day for the mistakes into which his dementia leads him, Alfred dies, his body as persevering as his spirit is crushed, on the last page of "The Corrections," which of course is also the last page of The Corrections. I hate to suggest such a radical abridgment, but a quick way to reconnect with the spirit of this novel is to sit down to read its first and last sections, a matter, depending on your reading speed (mine is rather slow) of anywhere from seven to twenty minutes. There are two passages that have become favorites of mine, one of them the litany of daily corrections hurled by Enid at Alfred - it's her turn now565, and the other the remarkable account of Chip's marriage to the doctor who made her first appearance a few pages before, a ceremony about which Enid would have found much to complain, had Alfred been with her, but one that she enjoyed to the hilt without him. So much so that:
If she'd been sitting beside Alfred, the crowd bearing down on her would surely have seen the sour look on her face and turned away, would surely not have lifted her and her chair off the ground and carried her around the room while the klezmer music played, and she would surely not have loved it.564.
And it is nice to have all the story lines are nicely, if briskly, tied up. (Denise lands at a new restaurant in Brooklyn; Gary never gets repaid for the shower bar bolts, but he never stops asking for it.) But the epitaph of the Lamberts' marriage is written in the language of unrequited ghoulishness:
She was glad, if nothing else, to have his body back. She'd always loved his size, his shape, his smell, and he was much more available now that he was restrained in a geri chair and unable to formulate coherent objections to being touched. He let himself be kissed and didn't cringe if her lips lingered a little; he didn't flinch if she stroked his hair.
His body was what she'd always wanted. It was the rest of him that was the problem.565
Indeed. It's impossible to read this without thinking back to the passages of Schopenhauer, quoted in "At Sea," that Edith, before she married Alfred, thought she could trump with her own charms - and how wrong she was to think so. It gives one pause to note that the heart of The Corrections is a story, more often lived than told, of a woman who marries a man on the misunderstanding that she can change those parts of him that she doesn't like once she has the chance to live with him every day. Earl Franzen told his wife, early on, that he thought that sex was a "trap." Alfred never says that, but, worse, we can feel, the better we know him, how deeply he regrets having yielded to carnal temptation: doing so engaged him in an endless battle to protect his depressive privacy. It seems worth noting that Alfred appears never to have connected his children to this yielding; if he counts them as blessings, they do not offset the misery of his life with Enid.
After two years in the nursing home, Alfred (like Earl Franzen) refuses to eat. Enid doesn't have his body back, after all.
The one thing he never forgot was how to refuse.
But the only thing he can refuse her now is himself. He cannot forbid her to think about or plan on living her own life. I wrote of 'Enid's upbeat send-off.' What I meant, of course, was that Enid sends us off, back to whatever we were doing before we barged in on her life.
And yet when he was dead, when she'd pressed her lips to his forehead and walked out with Denise and Gary into the warm spring night, she felt that nothing could kill her hope now. She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.566
I began this attempt at a close reading of The Corrections over two years ago. Since then, there have been many little changes at home and abroad, and I have both fallen into a chronic, inconveniencing, but not very serious disease and benefited from what still feels like a miracle cure. Nothing has changed more, perhaps, than my my ideas about this Web site, Portico (someday, I suppose, that hyperlink won't work). I can't say that I've learned anything about how to read or write about a big, important novel from the pages that I've devoted to it, and in that sense this journal is a disappointment - although I have always thought that in several years' time I would come back to it, rereading it along with the book and condensing it, or concentrating on a few important strains. What has not been disappointing, ever, is the contact that I've had with a novel than which I've read none richer, none better-written, none more attuned to the mysteries of conscious life. In its foreground, The Corrections is a sharply-perceived (none moreso!) if a mildly depressing account of one Middle-American family's bumps in the modern world, but Mr Franzen has leavened it with stylistic elegance and literary amusement of a high but easygoing order - an American order in the best sense. It belongs in the gallery of national classics, alongside Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, The Leopard, and The Magic Mountain. It has certainly changed the way that I will reread the others.
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