PORTICO

Re-reading The Corrections

A Journal (5)

1 July 2003: "The More He Thought About It, The Angrier He Got" (pp. 135-235)

In the months right after The Corrections was published, it seemed that whomever I spoke to about the book had just that instant finished reading The Failure, and couldn't wait to get on with Chip's story, and I'd wonder with a pang how pleasantly or otherwise surprised my friend would be to discover that the continuation of Chip's adventures with Gitanas in Lithuania would be postponed, and until nearly the end of the novel at that. The biggest effort that Jonathan Franzen demands of this novel's readers is the patience to forget about Chip's cool escape from New York for a while and to take up an interest in Chip's older brother, Gary. If Chip has a lot in common with the heroes of much important fiction since World War II, Gary is the sort of character who is almost always confined to a supporting role. Not since John P. Marquand has a major writer taken someone like Gary seriously;  John Updike, who has created many Gary-like characters, would not know what to make of Gary's conjugal fidelity. A banker with a big house (but a big house on the tracks), a blond, independently wealthy wife, and three sons, Gary's only problem would appear to be reconciling his mother's obsession with a last big family Christmas in St Jude with his wife's determination to boycott any such event. That, and anhedonia.

Anhedonia is the inability to take pleasure in the things that usually give one pleasure, and it can be a sign of depression. Gary's wife, Caroline, has convinced herself that Gary is clinically depressed. For his part, Gary has convinced himself that Caroline is out to get him; once he admits to being depressed, she'll be able to paste a little label on his forehead, marking him out officially as a sick person. This he might be able to bear were it not for his three boys, Aaron, Caleb, and Jonah - especially Jonah, a sweet second-grader. Gary's paranoia would be easy to dismiss as the kind of posturing masculine anxiety that is said to keep men from going to the doctor when something's wrong, if Mr Franzen did not so expertly take us inside it. The pages of this part of the novel pulse with the distress that wells up in Gary because he doesn't enjoy doing anything anymore. On the contrary, he is living on anger. His efforts to present himself as perfectly sane only succeed in alienating his immediate family (while setting him up for some hilarious pratfalls). Gary is too big a mess to be depressed. 

A true firstborn, Gary is driven to prove to his parents that he can succeed. But the reader already knows enough about Alfred and Enid to realize that trying to impress both of these people would be very difficult, because they have almost diametrically opposed ideas of what success looks like. For Enid, obviously, success is measured in piles of shrimp at parties and extra bathrooms, but only if they're found in a nice house in St. Jude, not in fancy Chestnut Hill, which rather excites her resentment. Alfred's idea of success is deliberately inscrutable, because people like Alfred don't think about success; they think, rather, of a job well done, preferably an engineering job, marrying trained intelligence with practical benefits. Investment banking, from such a perspective, is almost disreputable. In addition to the difficulty of targeting success, Gary has internalized most of his mother's ideas about a nicely-run home. Caroline, who is something of a jock, and so unlike a housewife that she openly regards her three boys as her best friends, calls Gary on this. 

"It's like you're suddenly trying to make us act like it's 1964 and we're all living in Peoria. 'Clean your plate' 'Wear a necktie!' 'No TV tonight!' And you wonder why we're fighting?"183

Such criticism only produces a 'pillow of blue blackness' in Gary's mind. Determined to outperform his father (and so show him up for not having provided Enid with everything that she desired), Gary is so distracted by trying to be unlike his father that he has unwittingly become a male version of his mother. No wonder he doesn't enjoy anything! Consider the problem of dinner. Dissatisfied with Caroline's casual attitude toward meals, Gary does a lot of outdoor grilling. This grilling, usually of miscellaneous meats, has grown as perfunctory as Caroline's takeout, and inevitably - it is one of the first appearances of Gary's anhedonia  - he realizes that he is 

very, very very sick of mixed grill, and the next morning he told Caroline: "I'm doing too much cooking."
"So do less," she said. "We'll eat out."
"I want to eat at home and I want to do less cooking."
"So order in," she said.
"It's not the same."
"You're the one who's bent on having these sit-down dinners. The boys couldn't care less."
"I care about it. It's important to me."
"Fine, but, Gary: it's not important to me, it's not important to the boys, and we're supposed to cook for you?"
He couldn't entirely blame Caroline. In the years when she'd worked full-time, he'd never complained about frozen or takeout or preprepared dinners. To Caroline it probably seemed that he was changing the rules on her. But to Gary it seemed that the nature of family life itself was changing - that togetherness and filiality and fraternity weren't valued the way they were when he was young.163-4

In the retrospective light of the childhood dinner that will occupy nearly twenty unforgettable pages in the next section of The Corrections, Gary's longing for bygone 'filiality and fraternity' are abrasively ironic. They also show how, all unawares, he has come to nurture the same kind of fixed ideas about family life that have made a passive-aggressive monster out of his mother. 

The crisis in Gary's life that The More He Thought About It covers is set up very quickly. Within five pages, Gary is summoned from an unsuccessful session in his darkroom (an elaborate birthday present from Caroline that he doesn't enjoy using) to the telephone by his howling wife, who claims to have injured her back running to answer what she claims is his mother's umpteenth phone call that day alone. But Gary doesn't believe Caroline, for, looking out the darkroom window, he saw her limping minutes before, clearly having injured herself while playing soccer with the two older boys. Gary doesn't believe Caroline generally, because he sees everything she says and does as a trap designed to make him look - depressed. The crisis comes to a head when he lets himself obsess about Caroline's stonewalling. This big deal is inextricably bound up with the other big deal, his mother's ardent desire for 'one last' big family reunion in St Jude. Caroline will not even discuss this. When they got back from the last Christmas in St Jude, years ago, Gary solemnly promised that they would never go again. Now, rather like Wotan, he finds that he's bound a promise that admits of no exceptions, but because he already thinks his wife is dishonest he has no trouble charging her with the additional failing of being unreasonably legalistic. By dawn the next day, Gary and Caroline are barely speaking, and presently the action jumps to a Monday afternoon three weeks later. But richly woven into both parts of The More He Thought About It is a wealth of background association that pins us to Gary's point of view, demonstrating one of Mr Franzen's superb strengths as a novelist, an uncanny ability to organize, with art-concealing art, the scattershot vitality of consciousness. It is indeed this vitality that redeems Gary's overall unpleasantness - or, at any rate, the unpleasantness of his situation. 

I haven't looked at the reviews lately, but my recollection is that nobody liked Gary very much. A close reading of The More He Thought About It reveals Gary as a truly comic figure, impaled, like all comic figures, on ignorance of himself, and while this may not make him any more likeable, it does force the careful reader to wonder why Gary is not likeable. Certainly he is an opportunist, one eye if not both cocked for the main chance, and none too scrupulous about trampling the niceties to make the most of his opportunities. He is prone to be caustic and patronizing, a common failing in dutiful oldest-sons. And as part of his inheritance from Enid, Gary is also a sentimentalist, saddled with fetish-like images of what life ought to look like. This sentimentality corrupts, to some extent, Gary's best quality, his true love for his boys. Because it encourages self-pity, it plays into Caroline's openly competitive bid for the boys' affection, particularly on the issue of spending Christmas in St Jude. Gary is hopeful about enlisting Jonah, but neither Aaron (whose voice is 'crack-prone') nor Caleb (most likely to grow up like his father) can be counted on to desert their mother.  As for his mother, Gary has very nearly compacted with her that if he will bring his family for that one last Christmas, then she will agree to persuade Alfred to sell the house he can no longer take care of and move into 'some cramped, modern condominium.' That neither party to this agreement seems likely to meet with any success is characteristic of the fuzziness that clouds both mother and son. 

Father and son are unlikely to agree to anything. Sharing his mother's scorn for Alfred's stoic aloofness, Gary disputes his father's right to settle for Axon's offer. The more Gary thinks about the measly five thousand dollars, the more he contrasts it with the millions that Axon will rack up in sales of its drug, and the angrier he gets.  He has nasty arguments with Alfred on the telephone, of which the following excerpt - Alfred speaks first - is representative: 

"I don't give a damn what you and your mother think."
"It's not fair to me! Who's going to pay your bills if you get in trouble? Who's your fallback?"
"I will endure what I have to endure," Alfred said. "Yes, and I'll eat peanut butter if I have to. I like peanut butter. It's a good food."
"And if that's what Mom has to eat, she'll eat it too, Right? She can eat dog food if she has to? Who cares what she wants?"150-1

Note the nasty, over-the-top insult, so emblematic of Gary's anger, of accusing his father of reducing Enid to dog food. Alfred does not rise to it, but with his imperturbable gravitas closes the conversation. Realizing that he'll never change his father's mind, Gary resolves to tackle the problem from the other direction, by going after Axon directly, and flush with righteous indignation, he storms into a luncheon that Axon sponsors in Philadelphia, a 'roadshow' to tout its impending Initial Public Offering. Only, in the event, he does not actually storm in. By one of those half-comic mishaps that dog Gary's schemes, Denise (who, we remember, also lives in Philadelphia) invites herself along. 

The author interrupts the Axon spokesman's chillingly glib pitch for the company's revolutionary new drug, Correktall, five times to fill us in on the salient points of Gary's history since the Sunday of Caroline's injured back. Drolly intertwined with the virtual collapse of relations with his wife is the agony of being unable to subscribe to a sizeable number of shares in Axon's IPO. Gary himself is not the big investor in the family; Caroline is. Where Gary trades in small blocks and uses a discount broker wherever possible, Caroline buys shares by the thousands. She would have no trouble getting a nice allotment of Axon shares from her broker, but: "Unfortunately, since the Sunday afternoon when she'd hurt her back, Gary and Caroline had been as close to not speaking as a couple could be and still function as parents."188 Caroline is as unruffled by this development as Gary is undone by it. When she encourages the boys to go mountain-biking with Gary, he divines a plot. "He saw why his children had turned agreeable and solicitous: because Caroline had told them that their father was struggling with clinical depression."199 Seriously sleep-deprived, Gary is no shape for mountain biking, and his performance on the outing merely confirms the impression (if it is indeed their impression) that he is one seriously impaired parent. But these narrative interruptions are more than a literary convenience; they signal Gary's distraction as the Axon spokesman outlines 'the Correktall process.' 

"You won't hear a thing - not unless your dental filings pick up ball games on the AM dial," the pitchman joked as the smiling girl lowered onto her camera-friendly head a metal dome reminiscent of a hair dryer, "but radio waves are penetrating the innermost recesses of your skull. Imagine a kind of global positioning system for the brain: RF radiation pinpointing and selectively stimulating the neural pathways associated with particular skills. Like signing your name. Climbing stairs. Remembering your anniversary. Thinking positively! Clinically tested at scores of hospitals across America, Dr. Eberle's reverse-tomographic methods have now been further refined to make this stage of the Correktall process as simple and painless as a visit to your hairstylist."190

Because he does not have his wits about him, Gary is thoroughly unprepared when Denise concludes that the Correktall process is just the thing for Alfred's mental deterioration. When the opportunity to confront Axon's CEO presents itself, he makes a tactical error. 

Nothing about the idea of Alfred's participation in a Phase II study appealed to Gary, but it occurred to him that by letting Denise broach the topic of Alfred's affliction, by letting her create sympathy for the Lamberts and establish their moral claim on Axon's favors, he could increase his chances of getting his five thousand shares.207

But Gary is too angry to follow this plan, and when the CEO replies somewhat huffily to Denise's mention of Alfred's letter, he cuts in with his demand for more money. Not only does the CEO's brisk reply slice and dice this request, but Denise further undercuts it by remarking that Alfred is 'fine with the offer.' Moments later, all but assaulting the CEO, Gary begs for five thousand shares - and is again rebuffed. His confrontation with Axon is a fiasco.  

In a courtyard to which they now repair, Gary and Denise have an edgy conversation, first about Christmas (Denise thinks that Gary ought to take his family to St. Jude) and then about Enid's suspicion that Denise is seeing a married man - which Denise is pretty sure could only have been planted by Gary. Gary denies having dropped any hints, but no sooner has he said goodbye to Denise and turned back toward his office than we find out that he has been lying. Over lunch about a year a ago, Denise denied that she was seeing anyone romantically but turned pale and blushed when Gary came out and asked her if she was involved with a married man. He took this as a 'yes.'  

The more Gary thought about this sister's involvement with married men, the angrier he got. Nevertheless, he should never have mentioned the matter to Enid. The disclosure had come of drinking gin on an empty stomach while listening to his mother sing Denise's praises at Christmastime... Enid extolled the generous multimillionaire who was bankrolling Denise's new restaurant and had sent her on a luxury two-month tasting tour of France and Central Europe, she extolled Denise's long hours and her dedication and her thrift, and in her backhandedly comparative way she carped about Gary's "materialism" and "ostentation" and "obsession with money" - as if she herself weren't dollar-sign-headed! As if she herself, given the opportunity, wouldn't have bought a house like Gary's and furnished it very much the same way he had. He wanted to say to her: Of your three children, my life looks by far the most like yours! I have what you taught me to want! And now that I have it, you disapprove of it!
But what he actually said, when the juniper spirits finally boiled over, was: "Why don't you ask Denise who she's sleeping with? Ask her if the guy's married and if he has any kids."217

The plain fact is that Gary has been medicating his anhedonia with quantities of gin and vodka, but it is another sign of the novel's warm-heartedness that instead of leading Gary further into misery his drinking brings about a comic dénouement that resolves his marital problems. Back at the office, he is summoned home by Caroline, who claims to have seen a prowler across the street from the house. Aroused by her anxiety, Gary is only too happy to come to the rescue, but by the time he gets home the danger has passed and Caroline barely acknowledges him. Furious, he pours himself a couple of drinks and fires up the grill for yet another meal of miscellaneous meats. Pouring a third drink, he looks out the window to see his dinner in flames. But because he is not depressed, he not only chokes down a half-cooked, half-burnt piece of chicken but announces that he is going to trim the hedge. The ensuing scenes will play very well at the movies. 

Probably, finding himself unable to reach the twelve inches of hedge nearest the house, he should have turned off the clipper and come down and moved the ladder closer, but since it was a matter of twelve inches and he didn't have infinite reserves of energy and patience, he tried to walk the ladder toward the house, to kind of swing its legs and hop with it, while continuing to grip, in his left hand, the running clipper.228

This leads directly to an urgent need for bandaging and a very bloodied bathroom, after which Gary returns to the kitchen for yet another drink; and it is now that he discovers that, contrary to his orders, his son Caleb has installed a surveillance camera over the cabinets. 

He dropped the bloody, dusty guest towel in the bucket and approached the back door. The camera reared up in its bracket to keep him centered in its field. He stood directly below it and looked into its eye. He shook his head and mouthed the words No, Caleb. Naturally, the camera made no response. Gary realized, now, that the room was probably miked for sound as well. He could speak to Caleb directly, but he was afraid that if he looked up into Caleb's proxy eye and heard his own voice and let it be heard in Caleb's room, the result would be an intolerably strong upsurge in the reality of what was happening. He therefore shook his head again and made a sweeping motion with his left hand, a film director's Cut! Then he took the bucket from the sink and swabbed the front porch. 
Because he was drunk, the problem of the camera and Caleb's witnessing of his injury and his furtive involvement with the liquor cabinet didn't stay in Gary's head as an ensemble of conscious thoughts and anxieties but turned in on itself and became a kind of physical presence inside him, a hard tumorous mass descending through his stomach and coming to rest in his lower gut. The problem wasn't going anywhere, of course. But, for the moment, it was impervious to thought.230-1

Somehow, he gets through the night without bleeding to death. But in the morning, he finds that he doesn't want to get up. Surrendering to the depression that he has been resisting is simply too comfortable. Instead of fighting his misery, he wallows in it. When Caroline spies his bloody hand and asks what's wrong, he tells her first that she doesn't have to go to St. Jude for Christmas and second that he's depressed. And then they make love.

An irony, of course, was that as soon as he'd surrendered ... he not only no longer felt depressed, he felt euphoric. 
The thought came to him - inappropriately, perhaps, considering the tender conjugal act that he was now engaged in; but he was who he was, he was Gary Lambert, and he had inappropriate thoughts and he was sick of apologizing! - that he could now safely ask Caroline to buy him 4,500 shares of Axon and that she would gladly do it.234-5

And then, having 'spent himself gloriously,' he hears the phone ring. It's Enid, calling from her cruise with some bad news. 

Permalink | The Corrections Index | Portico

Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press

Write to me