PORTICO

Re-reading The Corrections

A Journal (3)

27 November 2002: 'The Failure'  - II (pp. 87- 135)

I goofed. In the last installment of this journal, I wrote of Alfred that "The Corrections never actually puts a name on what's wrong with him," but that's exactly what Alfred's physician, Dr Hedgpeth, does on page 123, and the name is 'Parkinson's.' If this were not a journal, I'd quietly correct the error and move along, but as this is meant to be an account of actually rereading a novel, I'll take the opportunity to point out that I miss details like all the time. Although I read rather slowly, I don't always read carefully; sometimes, I'm so excited - worried, usually - by what I'm reading that I have to look away. And my eye has a way of not quite picking up where it left off. Two weeks ago, I did absolutely nothing for two days but read Donna Tartt's The Little Friend ; nevertheless, I was mortified to read in one of the reviews - I try to read novels before reading their reviews - that there actually was a 'little friend,' identified near the end of the novel. It didn't take long to go back and find the reference, but still. (PS: Like The Corrections, The Little Friend is such a big book that no individual detail is of crucial importance.) 

I paused where I did in the middle of 'The Failure' because I wanted to resume with the two paragraphs that follow Chip's birthday call to his father. They represent a kind of writing that Mr Franzen not only does very well but also knows just where to place. Having traversed in detail the stages of Chip's collapse, post-Melissa, the author smoothly switches gear and cuts through a broad swatch of time with the dispatch of a speedboat on placid water. In little more than a single page, he transports Chip to a well-lighted orbit in the galaxy that surrounds Eden Procuro, the fabulously-named movie producer, and her lawyer husband, Doug O'Brien. (Get it? 'Eden' is 'Enid' in reverse, sort of; and as for 'Procuro,' we will see how richly that name suits its owner.) Money, almost all of it borrowed from Denise, flies by in an exhilarating spray, and we feel every bit as exalted as Chip does when he finds himself 

a frequent guest at the O'Brien-Procuros' dinner parties in Tribeca and their weekend home in Quoque. Drinking their liquor and eating their catered food, he had a foretaste of a success a hundred times sweeter than tenure. He felt that he was really living.(88)

As the narrative sews up the gap between Chip's recent past and the present established at the beginning of 'The Failure,' we know that this feeling of 'really living' can't last, but the combination of the montage-like advance and its generally sunny news warms us anyway, providing both relief from the gritty desolation of Chip's failure and a contrast that deepens the hopelessness of the life that he makes in New York. This life has two pulses; the first, very slow, in which Chip thrashes out the screenplay of 'The Academy Purple,' losing faith in the project with every word that he writes, and the second, very fast, in which he distracts himself with a married woman. For it turns out - in the third paragraph after the birthday call - that Julia Vrais is married. And then, about two months before his parents' visit, Chip runs out of money and starts selling off his library, realizing such painfully pitiful proceeds that I shouldn't be surprised to learn that it has taken the success of The Corrections to put books back on Mr Franzen's shelves. By the time he has to buy the food for his parents' lunch, Chip is broke again, and we learn that his leather pants acquired the fishy odor that Enid detected after leaving the airport (19) in the most natural of ways, by means of a shoplifted salmon. It is while the fish works its way down from his waist that Chip has to endure an excruciatingly ill-timed chat with Doug O'Brien, who is shopping in the same Soho emporium with his spoiled little girl. Chip has to endure it because Doug is not only the only person who genuinely admires him at the moment but also, obliquely, his employer. 

Chip was trying to keep his eyes focused on Doug in an interested manner, but his eyes were like children, they wanted to skip up and down the aisles. He was ready, basically, to jump out of his skin.(97) 

But Doug wants to talk about a 'bizarre' business plan that has crossed his desk. 

"The idea," Doug said, "is your basic gut cerebral rehab. Leave the shell and roof, replace the walls and plumbing. Design away that useless dining nook. Put a modern circuit breaker in." 
"Uh huh." 
"You get to keep your handsome fašade," Doug said. "You still look serious and intellectual, a little Nordic, on the outside. Sober, bookish. But inside you're more livable. A big family room with an entertainment console. A kitchen that's roomier and handier. You've got your In-Sink-Erator, your convection oven. An ice-cub dispenser on the refrigerator door."
"Do I still recognize myself?"
"Do you want to? Everybody else still will - at least, the outside of you."(97)

Like so much of this novel's brilliance, the extraordinary power of Doug's imagery owes a great deal to real-life coincidence, in this case its resemblance to The Sims. Like the virtual creatures peopling the computer game, Doug's human beings have no real core; their inner life is even more disposable than their appearance. Just as the character of a house is determined by the style of its exterior - Tudor, Mission, Queen Anne - so the respective identities of Chip and Doug and you and me are determined by the fact that other people can match a given face with the proper name. Doug doesn't have to work out the parallels; there is no need to explain that by 'useless dining nook' he means 'obsessional neurosis,' or that a psychic In-Sink-Erator would relieve its owner of the baggage of personal history. Although Chip has already had, thanks to Melissa's 'Mexican A,' some experience with neuronal rewiring, Doug's proposal is very appealing, because in its natural state Chip's cerebral configuration doesn't function very well, and its owner has every reason to believe that nothing short of medical intervention will improve it. "'The implications are disturbing, but there's no stopping this powerful new technology.' " Doug wraps up at last. "That could be the motto for our age, don't you think?"(98)  

But with a salmon dripping down his pants leg, Chip isn't thinking. 

And now the salmon is on the table, and Denise and her parents are lunching on it; the narrative seam closes. The conversation at the table doesn't last for many pages but a little of it goes a long way. Enid now clearly emerges as the odd man out in her family, always asking fake questions in search of an agreement that is never forthcoming. The depth of her strangeness appears in a startling little passage, when in reply to Denise's insistence that her mother is a good cook, Enid scoffs, 

"I don't know where my children get their talents. But not from me. I'm a nothing as a cook. A big nothing." (How strangely good it felt to say this! It was like putting scalding water on a poison-ivy rash.)(99)

For her husband and, in their different ways, her children are all ambitious people, and also sincerely determined to do whatever they set out to do as well as they possibly can. Enid's ambitions are vicarious: it's for these other people in her life to do the shining. She is not so much a 'nothing' as a big something that doesn't have to prove itself. 

Having arrived at the present, from which he departed as he walked away from Denise outside his apartment, Chip is on his way to Eden Procuro's office,  and the script of 'The Academy Purple,' the tweaking of which has come to seem immensely more important than joining his parents for lunch. Notwithstanding a cab ride paid for with dollar bills stolen from the counter of a bar, Chip arrives soaking wet. But before he can start making the few crucial corrections that will transform his unreadable screenplay into an infallibly pitchable script, Eden sidelines him into her inner sanctum, where a man who looks curiously like himself is sitting. And who is this man but Gitanas Misevicius, Julia's husband. 

Gitanas is a Lithuanian politician who met Julia during a stint as his country's ambassador to the United Nations. Now, out of office, he is an entrepreneur, and, from Eden Procuro's point of a view, a nuisance. It's the essence of her genius to use Chip, another nuisance, to get rid of him. There is no truth that can't be stretched far enough to further this objective. Her introduction is incomparable. 

"Chip Lambert," she told Gitanas, "is a brilliant writer, with a script in development with me right now, and he's got a Ph.D. in English, and, for the last two years, he's been working with my husband doing mergers and acquisitions, and he's brilliant with all the Internet stuff, we were just now talking about Java and HTML, and, as you see, he cuts a very impressive, uh - " Here Eden for the first time actually gave her attention to Chip's appearance. Her eyes widened. "It must be raining cats and dogs out there. Chip's not, well, ordinarily quite so wet. (My dear, you are very wet.) In all honesty, Gitanas, you won't find a better man. And Chip, I'm just - delighted - that you came by. (Although you are very wet.")
A man by himself could weather Eden's enthusiasm, but two men together had to gaze at the floor to preserve their dignity in the face of it. 
"I, unfortunately," Eden said, "am slightly pressed for time. Gitanas having dropped in somewhat unexpectedly. What I would love is if the two of you could go and use my conference room and work things out, and take as long as you like."(108-109)

The two men hold their ground, but Eden continues to interject 'sensible' but no less demented contractual suggestions that finally kindle Chip's disgust; her utter meretriciousness moves him to resolve "never to look at Eden or say a word to her again for as long as he lived."(114)  After retailing the plundering of the Lithuanian economy, Gitanas launches into his scheme to avenge it, and Chip finds himself actually entertained, actually drawn to his ex-girlfriend's soon-to-be ex-husband. Reading along, engrossed, so was I. As Gitanas poured out his plan to make millions from gullible American investors by means of a highly misleading, not to say fraudulent, Web site, I realized that Mr Franzen was getting something right that had never been gotten right before. American writers of the macho persuasion have been trying for fifty years to reproduce the picaresque frisson that has kept readers going back to Defoe and Fielding for two centuries. From Barth to Wolfe, these novelists have been turning out whoppers of improbability, littering their pages with con men, psychopaths, and scalawags. But the sweat and strain of their generally overworked efforts have wilted genuine excitement, and Gitanas Misevicius is the first in a long gallery of plausible rogues to convince me that his scam just might work. Looking over Chip's shoulder, watching Gitanas count out the hundred-dollar bills that will constitute Chip's 'signing bonus' if he agrees to accompany Gitanas back to Vilnius and work on that Web site, I whisper, go for it.  

Chip considered the mess of green on Eden's desk. Something was giving him a hard-on, possibly the cash, possibly the vision of corrupt and sumptuous nineteen-year-olds, or maybe just the prospect of getting on a plane and putting five thousand miles between himself and the nightmare of his life in New York City. What made drugs perpetually so sexy was the opportunity to be other. Years after he'd figured out that pot only made him paranoid and sleepless, he still got hard-ons at the thought of smoking it. Still lusted for that jailbreak.(117)

The jailbreak motif reappears at the very end of 'The Failure,' when Gitanas mentions the cigarette burns that he carries as a souvenir of the torture he suffered as a political prisoner, and comments ruefully that his ex-wife, Julia, has come to find these scars repulsive. Chip clenches his fist; for in the pit of his self-pity, on the night of his father's seventy-fifth birthday, he pressed a lighted cigarette into the palm of his hand, just to distract himself from the heap of his loss.(85)  Lights go on in Gitanas's eyes as something else that Chip says makes it fairly clear that the two men have been in love with the same woman. 

"So, what, you got cigarette burns, too?" Gitanas said. 
Chip showed his palm. "It's nothing." 
"Self-inflicted. You pathetic American." 
"Different kind of prison," Chip said.(135)

And with that, Chip flies off to Vilnius and out of The Corrections for a few hundred pages, for a different kind of prison. 

But I haven't quite done with 'The Failure.' 

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