24 June 2004: "The Generator" (pp. 339-455)
Almost all of the fourth section of The Corrections, "The Generator," belongs to Denise Lambert. It takes its name from the cutting-edge restaurant that she opens in a refurbished former power plant on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, backed by a dot-com millionaire. The restaurant is a fabulous success - New Yorkers drive to Philadelphia just to eat there. But fabulous success is too much for Denise. Industrious and responsible, Denise has always made her own way. But when she is taken up by Brian Callahan, and her life is made extraordinary by his wealth and his wife, she falls into "weirdness and moral chaos."
Alone among the novel's sections, "The Generator" begins obliquely, with a thumbnail sketch of a Philadelphia woman named Robin Passafaro, who comes from "a family of troublemakers and true believers." This proves to be an apt beginning, for although Robin is a quiet, almost defeated woman at the start, she will come alive - coaxed by Denise - and make a great deal of trouble with her true beliefs. For the moment, however, the narrative is more concerned with Robin's adopted brother, Billy, a bad-seed sort with an extraordinary ability to make his sister feel guilty. When Brian parleys a bit of recreational computer code into a multi-million-dollar payoff (not that he was uncomfortable before this windfall), and the company that bought his code makes a deal to provide Philadelphia public schools with substandard computers, Billy, posing as a protester, bashes an executive's head in at the ribbon-cutting ceremony - and Robin is pretty sure that this is really her fault. So she throws herself into a philanthropy of her own devising, by layering an all-but empty inner-city block with good soil and hiring local teenagers to turn it into a vegetable garden, with the kids keeping the proceeds. Brian, an appealing, handsome guy has everything going for him, and therefore he has no excuse for doing anything wrong. His, I think, is this section's most intriguing portrait. Comfort, vanity, and an athletic intelligence have obscurely stunted Brian, and he has nothing of himself to give. That's why, at the beginning, Robin is similarly reduced. While she works off her guilt, he applies himself to the search for the best lunch in Philadelphia. When he finds it, at a restaurant called Mare Scuro ('dark sea'), he decides to set the chef up in a new restaurant of her own. This chef is Denise Lambert.
That Denise has become a chef makes great sense to me, because, given Enid Lambert's work in the kitchen, one of her children was bound to grow up with a determination to atone for it. Enid is a bad cook for a very simple reason: she always prefers ideas to realities. She likes the idea of a family dinner, not the actual taste of one, which she is too busy reliving in her mind, right there at the table, to notice. We will learn how a summer job in the Hamptons brought her to her career, but first a darker story must be told, and the opening section of "The Generator" closes with Brian's offer, not only to double Denise's salary, but to send her to Europe for "a couple of months" as a kind of preliminary research project. It is a prospect that Denise could not have imagined, not so many years before, when got to know Don Armour.
What I call the 'Don Armour' episode, which runs from p. 350 to p. 374, was originally published in The New Yorker, some time before the novel appeared - under a well-chosen photograph by O. Winston Link. (I forget however, the story's title.) It begins with one of those first paragraphs that make it imperative to keep reading.
Denise had always had trouble saying no when she felt wanted in the right way. Growing up in suburban St. Jude, she'd been kept at safe distances from anybody who might have wanted her in this way, but after she finished high school she worked for a summer in the Signal Department of the Midland Pacific Railroad, and here, in a big sunny room with twin rows of drafting tables, she became acquainted with the desires of a dozen older men. 350-1
Notice that 'the right way' is not a general thing, or a quality of approach, but specifically a synonym for 'sexually.' But Denise's relation to her own sexuality is oblique, expressed as a difficulty. Her desire, apparently, is roused in response to someone else's, rather like the fire surrounding Brünnhilde in The Ring Cycle. By the time we come to the almost Biblical mention of 'the desires of a dozen older men,' we've perhaps remembered Alfred Lambert's incoherent panic about trouble beginning in Signals; now we're going to find out the interior meaning of this anxiety.
The desires of a dozen older men serve to throw into relief that of the one man who hides his. Denise herself surprises the Signals draftsmen by working very hard and very efficiently, so much so that the laggard on the staff begs her to slow down because it makes him look even worse. She's popular with everyone except Don Armour.
He was a solidly-built short-legged Vietnam vet whose cheeks, close-shaved, were nearly as blue and glaucous as a plum. His blazers were tight around his massive upper arms; drafting tools seemed toy-sized in his hand; he looked like a teenager stuck at a first-grader's desk.354
There is something almost exhibitionistic about the whipsawing, in this couple of sentences, among what we might call the ages of man: the first-grader's desk and toy-sized tools, the short legs, the 'stuck' teenager, the developed arms, and the luxuriant but unwanted beard (fruitlike!). Caught in these various refractions, Don Armour doesn't settle down for viewing, but shifts like a prism's colored rays among the different stages of sexual maturity. This is as powerful a way as can be imagined to convey what we will later learn more explicitly: Don is sexually mature only in the strictest technical sense. He can reproduce. But love is beyond him, and he still lives in a fog of adolescent self-loathing. To Denise, of course, he looks like a grown man, and she surrenders to him as such, but the author makes sure that we know better. Although Don is remote and smirky whenever Denise is nearby, and seems to be the only guy in the office who doesn't like her, we learn soon enough that this is all affectation.
It didn't occur to her that Don Armour's fundamental mode was self-pity and that he might, in his self-pity, have hit on many girls before her. It didn't occur to her that he was already plotting - had been plotting since he first shook hands with her - how to get into her skirt. It didn't occur to her that he averted his eyes not simply because her beauty caused him pain but because Rule #1 in every manual advertised at the back of men's magazines ("How to Make Her WILD for You - Every Time!") was Ignore Her. It didn't occur to her that the differences of class and circumstance that were causing her discomfort might be, for Don Armour, a provocation: that she might be an object he desired for its luxury, or that a fundamentally self-pitying man whose job was in jeopardy might take a variety of satisfactions in bedding the daughter of his boss's boss's boss. None of this occurred to Denise then or after. She was still feeling responsible ten years later.365
This also hints that, for Denise, sex is not fun. 'The right way' is not a light way.
The opportunity to follow through on this unpleasant but irresistible flirtation arises in the usual way: Denise's parents go away for the weekend. This means that Denise can at least have dinner with Don. She does not intend to bring him home afterward, but Plan A falls through when the teacher whose houseplants she has been watering returns early from a trip to New Orleans. Dying of a cancer that might or might not be AIDS-related, the teacher sees right through Denise's 'visit,' but sends her off "with my blessing." So Denise takes Don to a park for a while, to wait for nightfall to conceal their arrival chez Lambert.
In her house after dark, in the frost of its air-conditioning, she tried to move him quickly toward the stairs, but he tarried in the kitchen, he lingered in the dining room. She was pierced by the unfairness of the impression that the house was obviously making. Although her parents weren't wealthy, her mother so yearned for a certain kind of elegance and had worked so hard to achieve it that to Don Armour the house looked like the house of rich people. ... His eyes fell on each object, the music boxes, the Parisian street scenes, the matching and beautifully upholstered furniture, as they'd fallen on Denise's body - was it just today? Today at lunch?368-9
The sex, for him, leads to roars that give way to sob-like sighs. As for Denise,
There was blood in proportion to her pain, which had been fairly bad, and in reverse proportion to her pleasure, which had been mainly in her head.
Then there is some more sex. It starts out with 'innocent' stroking and ends thus:
Everything he did either tickled or hurt, and when she made so bold as to whimper, she had her first experience of a man's hands pressing on her head, pushing her southward.370
Then Don leaves her room; later he leaves the house. In the morning, of course, Enid and Alfred return before Denise has a chance to clean up. She manages not to get caught with her bloody towel and sheet, but the "rest of her summer was ruined." Although she continues to see Don Armour on the next three Fridays, when he ought to have been driving to spend the weekend with his wife and children at his parents'-in-law in Indiana, she is very much aware that "she didn't love him and he didn't love her."371
She was too proud to admit to herself, let alone to Don Armour, that he wasn't what she wanted. She was too inexperienced to know she simply could have said, "Sorry - big mistake." She felt a responsibility to give him more of what he wanted. She expected that an affair, if you took the trouble to start it, went on for quite a while.372
Again, it is telling that Denise thinks of the trouble of starting an affair, when it is precisely the lack of trouble (or of apparent trouble) that leads people to misbehave. But everything of any importance in Denise's world is heavily charged with duty. That is why, a few summers later, working at a restaurant in Quogue, she will decide to drop out of school and become a cook. The aura of privilege conferred by college will make her uncomfortable, and in the hard work of a professional kitchen she will find something that, until she meets Robin Passafaro Callahan, is better than sex.
Which is not to rule out marriage, to the much older proprietor of a Philadelphia restaurant who admires her as long as she admires him but who balks when, having learned everything he has to teach her, she tries to make a few suggestions; which is also not to rule out a tempestuous affair with a female colleague that consists mostly of screaming matches followed by violent sex. But these experiences, which give a rich amplitude to Denise's story that contrasts with the linear courses of her brothers' lives, finally convince Denise to give up on relationships and to stick to work, and that's the mode she's in when Brian Callahan encounters her.
Even before he'd sold Eigenmelody for $19.5 million, Brian had moved through the world like a golden retriever. His face was meaty and less than handsome, but he had winning blue eyes and sandy hair and little-boy freckles. He looked like what he was - a former Haverford lacrosse player and basically decent man to whom nothing bad had ever happened and whom you therefore didn't want to disappoint.381
The retriever image will deepen as the story continues.
The first thing Brian does is very characteristic. He blindfolds Denise and drives her to the deserted riverside power station, and convinces her that he'll be able to transform it into a grand but utterly now dining space. Then he invites her to visit him at his summer house at Cape May. This is where Denise meets Robin:
a mouse-haired woman, covered with sweat and rust, attacked a wrought-iron table with a wire brush.
Denise had expected Brian's wife to be ironic and stylish and something of a knockout. Robin Passafaro was wearing yellow sweat pants, an MAB paint cap, a Phillies jersey of unflattering redness, and terrible glasses. She wiped her hand on her sweats and gave it to Denise. Her greeting was squeaky and oddly formal: "It's very nice to meet you." She went immediately back to work. 384-5
Denise watches Brian's daughters play droll games cooked up by the elder. ("Erin, now you be a pathogen," Sinéad said, slipping into the water, "and I'll be a leukocyte.") But when Robin changes into a bathing suit and dives into the pool, she emerges in a way that makes Denise feel "a need to get away and cook."386 After dinner, Denise drives home and calls her mother to tell her about the European junket that Brian wants her to take. She even invites her to come along. But of course Enid can't leave Alfred. What she really wants is for Denise to be sure to visit Bea Meisner's daughter, Cindy, and her aristocratic, ski-champion husband when she gets to Vienna. Surprisingly, Denise finds the cuisine of Vienna so uninspiring that she actually gives Cindy a call and accepts an invitation to dinner, at which Klaus, the husband, makes a fuss about a Sekt that Denise finds "sweet and overcarbonated and remarkably much like Sprite."390 Cindy seems to have brought St. Jude to Vienna.
After further travel in Hungary, Denise flies to Paris to hook up with Brian at a hotel on the Ile-St.-Louis. Robin has not accompanied him, pleading her project's first zucchini harvest, and Brian seems bitter about it; Denise naturally expects him to make a pass at her. After all, they're alone in Paris together, going from one fine meal to another (although Denise is rather tired of fine food by now). But Brian behaves himself.
She waited in vain, as they walked the length of the quai after dinner, for Brian to brush her hand with his. He kept looking at her hopefully, as if to be sure she had no objection to his stopping at this store window or veering down that side street. He had a happy canine way of seeking approval without seeming insecure. He described his plans for the Generator as if it were a party that he was almost certain she would enjoy. Clearly convinced, in the same way, that he was doing a Good Thing that she wanted, he backed away from her hygienically when they parted for the night in the lobby of the Deux-Iles. 393
Until two nights before their departure, when Denise knocks on Brian's door before dinner and he takes her in his arms. At first, she is hypnotized or entranced. "She was beautifully, avidly adulterous and she knew it." But the closer they get to penetration, the more haunted Denise is by a "body-sized, Robin-faced balloon of wrongness."394 She tells Brian that she can't continue. He takes it with something like the aplomb she has come to expect of him, but he confesses,
"I feel terrible. I've never done anything like this."
"See, I have," she said, lest he think her merely timid. "More than once. And I don't want to anymore." 395
It isn't just the sex, but the power behind the sex. When she gets back to Philadelphia and sees the transformation that Brian has wrought at the power station, she begins to think of him as a competitor, with a grand building that might very well outshine her cooking.
She was haunted, just as she'd feared, by the afterimage of his dick. She felt gladder and gladder that she hadn't let him put it in her. Brian had every advantage that she had, plus many of his own. He was male, he was rich, he was a born insider; he wasn't hampered by Lambert weirdnesses or strong opinions; he was an amateur with nothing to lose but throwaway money, and to succeed all he needed was a good idea and somebody else (namely her) to do the hard work. How lucky she'd been, in that hotel room, to recognize him as her adversary! Two more minutes and she would have disappeared. She would have become another facet of his really fun life, her beauty reflecting on his irresistibility, her talents redounding to his restaurant's glory. How lucky she'd been, how lucky.395-6
But it's clear that Brian's interest in Denise and the restaurant has begun, however slightly, to ebb. Then it happens that she calls Brian at home and gets Robin instead. Robin is quite rude; doubtless Robin suspects that more happened in Paris (and elsewhere) than in fact happened. For Brian's interest in her has certainly ebbed. His ideas about style have been changed by his piles of money, but poor Robin doesn't see any connection between style and happiness. Seeing this and not seeing this at the same time, Denise hangs up the phone very angry with Robin. Unfortunately in the long run, the anger doesn't last.
Maybe, if she'd been a better person, she would have left Robin alone. Maybe she wanted to make Robin like her simply to deny her the satisfaction of disliking her - to win that contest of esteem. Maybe she was just picking up the gauntlet. But the desire to be liked was real. She was haunted by the feeling that Robin had been in the hotel room with her and Brian; by that bursting sensation of Robin's presence inside her body.397
So she decides to pay a visit to Robin at the Garden Project, where she finds Robin hard at work. The conversation is awkward and almost as rocky as the neighborhood until Denise, in a bid to clear herself of suspected wrongdoing, blurts out that she's "not really into guys." Robin frowns at first, but when Denise tells her that Brian hasn't heard about this from her, she begins to laugh.
Her laugh was full-throated and embarrassing and, at the same time, Denise thought, lovely. It echoed off the rusty-corniced houses. "Poor Brian!" she said. "Poor Brian!"
Robin immediately became more cordial.400
The women decide to have dinner together, and, as they're walking, Robin gives Denise her version of what her brother Billy's smashing an executive's head in was all about. Denise is surprised to hear that there's a connection, at least in Robin's mind, between Brian's windfall and Billy's act of aggression, and when she suggests that neither Robin nor Brian is responsible, Robin retorts, "What's life for?"
"I don't know."
"I don't know either. But I don't think it's about winning."
They marched along in silence. Denise, to whom winning did matter, grimly noted that, on top of all his other luck, Brian had married a woman of principle and spirit.
She further noted, however, that Robin didn't seem particularly loyal.402
At dinner, Denise begins to find Robin endearing. When Robin becomes chilly, Denise lends her her jacket, which is to big for her, and which looks "like a letter jacket on a ball-player's girlfriend."404 We can see where this is going. And so when Denise forges a tie with Robin and her daughters - dropping food off at the Garden Project, babysitting for the girls, and Brian couldn't be happier about it, we know that this lovely picture, for which Denise really shouldn't have the time, what with getting the Generator ready to open, is just that, only a picture, and that, behind it, Denise's mind is working very deliberately on a quite different picture.
It didn't escape Denise that the qualities that would have enabled Brian to cheat on Robin - his sense of entitlement, his retrieverish conviction that whatever he was doing was the Good Thing We All Want - would also make it easier to cheat on him. Denise could feel herself becoming an extension of "Robin" in Brian's mind, and since "Robin" had permanent status as "great" in Brian's estimation, neither she nor "Denise" required further thought or worry on his part.406
He has certainly lost some of his enthusiasm for Denise and her restaurant. This is partly because he has gotten involved with the production of an independent movie. That is, he has invested in it. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, this movie is to be an update of Crime and Punishment, set in Philadelphia. Robin is the last to know, and when she finds out - finds out that Brian hasn't gotten round to telling her - she's furious.
"My husband," Robin said, "has put fifty thousand dollars, which he got from the W-- Corporation, into a movie about a North Philly anarchist who splits two women's skulls and goes to jail for it! He's getting off on how cool it is to hang out with Giovanni Ribisi, and Jerry Schwartz, and Ian What's His Face, and Stephen Whoever, while my North Philly anarchist brother, who really did split someone's skull - "
Robin has concluded that Brian "is deeply pissed off with me and he doesn't even know it."
From that day forward, Denise became a stealthy advocate of infidelity.407
Just as she had worn herself out in Paris, waiting for Brian to make a move and wondering why he didn't, Denise engineers a thousand little maneuvers, subtly presenting herself to Robin and trying not to throw herself at her. Nothing happens. Denise flies to St. Jude for a weekend, only to hear her mother talk over and over again about her poor old friend Norma Greene (see p. 123 if you've forgotten about her), and when she gets back, she rolls up her sleeve and puts Robin out of her mind, feeling better about doing so every day, as she remembers all the things that she has never liked about her - "Robin's nervousness, and Robin's bad haircut and worse clothes, and Robin's rusty-hinge voice, and Robin's forced laughter, her whole profound uncoolness."410 "But the damage had been done. ... With a persistence the more irritating for the shyness and apologies that accompanied it, Robin began to seek her out." From here on, the pace, never slow in any case, moves up to action speed. (The story has fewer than twenty pages to run.)
The Generator opened on May 23, exactly a year after Brian began paying Denise her inflated salary. The opening was delayed a final week so that Brian and Jerry Schwartz could attend the festival at Cannes. Every night, while he was away, Denise repaid his generosity and his faith in her by going to Panama Street and sleeping with his wife.411
And the sex is great. For Denise, the world becomes an enormous tongue that's forever chasing her down. The catastrophe into which she has fallen is that of inexperience. "Denise had never wanted anything, certainly not sex, like this." I claimed earlier that Denise had found, in cooking, something better than sex, and here Mr Franzen describes what her sex life had been like, with the funny, extended metaphor of "a complicated and increasingly time-consuming recipe for a dish she was too tired to enjoy in any case." Robin, however, is ready to eat.
You didn't a recipe, you didn't need prep, to eat a peach. Here was the peach, boom, here was the payoff.414
But the diet of peaches has its consequences. Denise is bothered, not by remorse, but by her inability to feel it. This is, of course, a very characteristic reaction: something's amiss in the duty department. The Generator has become a hit, but Denise is too tired now for cooking. Then there are the "stupid chances" that Denise and Robin take when Brian is around. Eventually, he walks in on them moments after their combined weight has broken Robin's old oak desk chair. They talk their way out of that one, but things cool off. Denise lets herself into the Callahan house while the family is away at Cape May, and discovers a condom wrapper. Something has led Brian to take a renewed interest in his wife. Robin appears at the Generator the next day and says that she can't continue the affair; Denise says the same.
The morning after that, a very favorable piece about the restaurant appears in the New York Times, and Denise uses her increased leverage to make a couple of changes to tone up the restaurant, including firing the manager (because he won't push her signature dish, country ribs with sauerkraut). Her stern determination reawakens Brian's interest. ("Expensive people of a sort formerly scarce in Philadelphia were three-deep at the bar when Brian came by with a dozen roses.")419 He asks her to a small, chic party on the restaurant's roof, and brags that she's tougher than anyone. This gets her into a challenge with a rock musician: he extinguishes a cigarette on his tongue; she puts hers out on the skin behind her ear. Brian wins. Presently Brian tells Denise that he's thinking of leaving Robin. We know where this is going, and it gets there just four pages later, after the rainy afternoon in New York with her parents and a night out in Philadelphia with a crowd of Brian's new movie friends, including Mira Sorvino and Stanley Tucci. Robin is not present (of course), because she's marching against the death penalty for (remember Sylvia Roth?) Khellye Winters. Brian tells her this as he drives her home.
Washington Avenue between the river and Broad was lonely at eleven on a Monday evening. Brian appeared to be experiencing his first real disappointment in life, and he couldn't stop talking. "Remember when you said if I weren't married and you weren't my employee?" he asks her.
He is still married, and she is still his employee, but the two of them let themselves think ahead a bit, and Denise asks him in for a drink.
Which was how Brian came to be sleeping in her bed at nine-thirty the next morning when her doorbell rang.425
Just the day before, with her mother had taunting her with more oblique regrets for poor old Norma Greene, Denise could at least scrape up some relief from the fact that she wasn't, as her mother feared, sleeping with a married man. Now, not twenty-four hours later, she has done exactly what her mother suspected, and who can it be at the door but Robin?
All summer, betraying Brian, she'd never felt anything like the contempt she felt for his wife as she descended the stairs now. Annoying Robin, stubborn Robin, screeching Robin, hooting Robin, styleless Robin, clueless Robin.
And yet, the moment she opened the door, her body recognized what it wanted. It wanted Brian on the street and Robin in her bed. 426
But it is altogether too late for that, and after a short stretch of cat and mouse, while we hold our breath lest Robin notice Brian's car parked across the street, and Gary Lambert calls Denise to tell her that Alfred has fallen off the Gunnar Myrdal (a solecism, as the boat had been several days at sea before Alfred explored the z-axis), all hell breaks loose. While Denise waits downstairs, the Callahans have a shouting match in her bedroom. Then Robin barrels out.
Brian followed a few minutes later. Denise had expected Robin's disapproval and could handle it, but from Brian she was hoping for a word of understanding.
"You're fired," he said.428
And this is the end of Denise's adventure with Robin Passafaro and Brian Callahan, a double adultery too twisted to contemplate quietly, conducted against the exciting and glamorous background of a hot new restaurant. Beneath the excitement and the glamour, beneath the joy of sex, we have felt Denise's rigid backbone struggle to rationalize the extreme moral murk of it all. Her contempt for Brian (even when she likes him) is a much deeper feeling than her contempt for Robin (even when she dislikes her), and it prevents her from accepting his wildly generous offer on its own terms. It is impossible for her to be on the receiving end vis-à-vis such a person. She has to subvert the arrangement somehow, and the only possibility that doesn't involve sabotaging the restaurant and ruining her own reputation - remember that this is a girl who wants to win - is to go after Robin, not so much as a lover for herself but as weapon against her husband. Up to this point, Denise acts with a dark deliberation, but when her body falls in love with Robin's, she loses self-control for the first time in her life, and it is almost a relief to discover the condom wrapper that proves that Robin still belongs to Brian. But it is not a relief, and Denise cannot, in the event, bluff her way onward without love. The incident with the cigarette is too obviously self-destructive to be taken metaphorically; it is the manifest proof of a breakdown that, in sleeping with Brian at last, Denise submits to with her characteristic variant of stoicism. She is no more destroyed by losing the Callahans and the Generator than she was sorry to say goodbye to Don Armour.
I am not sure why "The Generator" does not end here, but it is perhaps a matter of tempo. Although we will presently find ourselves in the wilds of Lithuania, the atmosphere there will be a continuation, an intensification, of Denise's "weirdness and moral chaos." It is also easy to imagine that the author decided against both a longer stay in Vilnius and a free-standing section of only twenty-five pages. The transition to Chip's brief career in Lithuania, moreover, is buffered by an exchange of e-mail between brother and sister that keeps Denise in mind. Denise begs Chip to come to St Jude for Christmas. Chip resists with a bit of philosophy and a load of selfishness.
Parents have an overwhelming Darwinian hard-wired genetic stake in their children's welfare. But children, it seems to me, have no corresponding debt to their parents.
Basically, I have very little to say to these people. And I don't think they want to hear what I do have to say.
To which Denise rather imprudently replies by a) telling Chip that she's been fired for sleeping with her boss's wife and b) pointing out that Chip owes her a debt of $20,500.432-3 Chip falls silent, and we backtrack a bit. Paralleling the trajectory of "The Failure," this update of Chip's life begins with fun and ends in catastrophe - only this time Chip is only an infinitesimal and incidental victim.
How wholly typical it was of his luck, then, that before he could enjoy even two good months in Vilnius, both his father and Lithuania fell apart.439
The "good months" are spent in a moral hell. By day, Chip manufactures grotesque lies about the soundness of investing in Lithuania Incorporated, which he portrays in fraudulent Web pages as a "for-profit nation-state" governed by "enlightened neotechnofeudalism." Investors - American suckers - will obtain such perks as "the legally enforceable right, whilst on Lithuanian soil, to such titles and honorifics as "Your Lordship" and "Your Ladyship," and "Your Grace," with non-use by service personnel punishable by public flogging and up to sixty days in jail."434 Very funny! By night, Chip and Gitanas go out on the town, with twice-weekly visits to a massage parlor where Chip discovers the pleasure of being serviced by women his own age. A far more ambiguous pleasure underlies all the others:
Gitanas was Chip's real love in Vilnius. .. Everywhere the two men went, people asked if they were brothers, but the truth was that Chip felt less like a sibling of Gitanas than like his girlfriend. He felt much like Julia: perpetually feted, lavishly treated, and almost wholly dependent on Gitanas for favors and guidance and basic necessities. ... and what a great pleasure it was, for a change, to be the pursued one - to have qualities and attributes that somebody else so wanted.439
The unwholesomeness of Chip's position could not be more clear. His cynicism is so intense that it has obliterated all sense of comparison, and so ceased altogether to be cynicism. He has wandered into Pinocchio's Land of Toys - and doesn't want to leave. Denise's e-mail sends him straight into denial. Seeing the actual size of his financial debt is a terrible shock: "The misery whose taste he thought he'd forgotten, the troubles that had seemed small from a distance, filled his head again."439 As for the bit about the boss's wife: "If his sister was on her way out as a lesbian (which, come to think of it, would make sense of several aspects of Denise that had always puzzled him), then she could certainly now use the support of her Foucaultian older brother, but Chip wasn't ready to go home yet, and so he assumed that his memory [of the now-deleted e-mail] had deceived him and that her phrase had referred to something else."448 His ability to think clearly about the United States has run aground in poststructuralist debris.
Chip was struck by the broad similarities between black-market Lithuania and free-market America. In both countries, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few; any meaningful distinction between private and public sectors had disappeared; captains of commerce lived in a ceaseless anxiety that drove them to expand their empires ruthlessly; ordinary citizens lived in ceaseless fear of being fired and ceaseless confusion about which powerful private interest owned with formerly public institution on any given day; and the economy was fueled largely by the elite's insatiable demand for luxury. ... The main difference between America and Lithuania, as far as Chip could see, was that in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-destroying entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence.441
What 'saves' him, of course, is the collapse of Gitanas's enterprise, which, aside from the Free Market Party Company, is the country's only cell-phone operator, which a bigger oligarch sabotages at the first opportunity, saddling Gitanas with thousands of dissatisfied customers. "I was a pretty good deputy prime minister," he says gloomily, "I'm not a very good criminal warlord."445 Indeed not. The very act of hiring bodyguards attracts the wrong kind of attention, leading to the hiring of more bodyguards. Inevitably, the bodyguards desert, leaving Gitanas with two burly cousins. It's at this point that he decides to send Chip home. He tosses him an envelope containing nearly thirty thousand dollars and arranges for a ride to the airport. But it's too late to count on the airport. In fewer than four pages, Mr Franzen conveys the viscous chaos of a terminal in which only the cancellation of flights is announced. A tank appears on the runway, the lights and phones go dead, and "The Generator" comes to an end. Will Chip, who has called his mother to tell her that he's on his way, make it to St Jude for Christmas? We shall have to wait and see.
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