Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief
Extras

Re-reading The Corrections.

A Journal (9)

8 November 2004: "The Last Christmas" - I (pp. 459-549)

"The Last Christmas" brings all the Lamberts together under one roof at the same time. Not for long - Chip's arrival is followed within hours by Gary's departure. But within those hours Jonathan Franzen plants a priceless cultivar of the American Holiday Nightmare. It is not the climax of The Corrections - that has occurred not quite twenty pages earlier - but it's a big, final bang for the novel. For the Lamberts, as for any family, bangs are never final; they leave messes that must be cleaned up.

The section opens with Alfred Lambert in his basement, struggling with a strand of Christmas tree lights and clinging to a moment of "rare clarity." Alfred doesn't understand how modern Christmas tree lights work (or don't), but he knows that "modernity expected him to drive to a big discount store and replaced the damaged string."459 This modernity is profoundly unlike the modernity of his childhood, which presented him with a world of small appliances and gadgets that were built with repairs in mind.

You were outfitted as a boy with a will to fix things by yourself and with a respect for individual physical objects, but eventually some of your internal hardware (including such mental hardware as this will and this respect) became obsolete, and so, even though many other parts of you still functioned well, an argument could be made for junking the whole human machine.462

In Alfred's case, it is his own human machine that refuses to junk itself. He looks wistfully back on the chance he had to drown  in the North Atlantic water, after falling overboard the Gunnar Myrdal. It would have been so easy to let go, he thinks, and yet it was impossible; reflexes took over and saved him. Now he has a shotgun at the ready, but it is unlikely that he will use it upon himself. There is a problem of privacy. Privacy is as necessary as air and water to Alfred. It is his privacy that has made Enid so discontented. He already feels doomed to the lack of privacy that will afflict him in a nursing home. The prospect has made him weep, but -

But to be seen as the finite carcass in a sea of blood and bone chips and gray matter - to inflict that version of himself upon other people - was a violation of privacy so profound it seemed it would outlive him.

He was also afraid that it might hurt.464

And with that reflection, his mind itself withdraws into the privacy of dementia.

Enid's story, in contrast, involves coming out of dementia, the shame-inhibiting madness brought on by Aslan, and Mr Franzen tells it with a light-handed verve that is almost comic. Enid is indeed a comic figure, or at least a clown, with her grim determination to put the best appearance on every aspect of her life that is open to public scrutiny. We begin with a catalogue of the disasters that haven't, thanks to Aslan, embarrassed the highly embarrassment-prone Enid. Alfred's fall overboard didn't shame her, nor did all the fuss that it caused. Her spirits remained bright and cheery right up until her supply of Aslan was exhausted, and then she 'nearly died of shame.'

Night after night she lay awake, suffered shame, and pictured the golden caplets. She was ashamed of lusting for these caplets, but she was also convinced that only they could bring relief.465

Which is every addict's dilemma. When Chuck and Bea Meisner take a trip to visit their daughter in Vienna (we met her on Denise's food-tour of Central Europe in "The Generator"), Enid is desperate enough to ask Bea to get a supply of Aslan from her son-in-law, the Austrian doctor. Making this request, which ought to have shamed her further, has the paradoxical effect of easing her soul. Or perhaps it is the advent of Christmas.

As we well know by now, Enid has narrowed her hopes and her sense of the future to 'one last Christmas' in St Jude, with her three children, her grandchildren, and all the trimmings. Enid's Christmas fetish - a complex of fetishes involving tired, somewhat laughable objects (such as the amateur-produced Advent calendar that she mounts on her front door every year) and ritualized meals, plus outings to the ballet for The Nutcracker and to a local park for the display of Christmas lights - provides Mr Franzen with a comic armature upon with to mount the final chapter of The Corrections - Uncle Jonathan's Christmas Special, as it were. (It is suspiciously reminiscent of the kind of entertainment that Chip might enjoy.) While Alfred struggles in the basement, Enid writes mildly false messages on Christmas cards: everything is under control. Everything, that is, besides the other people in her life. Denise can be counted on to arrive, but nobody has heard from Chip in ages, and Gary has made it clear that he'll be bringing only one grandson, albeit her favorite one, Jonah. Now even that is shadowed by doubt. Gary calls to report that Jonah is down with flu, and the author outdoes himself with

This camel of disappointment balked at the needle's eye of Enid's willingness to apprehend it.468

We will learn more about the situation at Gary's end of the wire later, but nothing can shake Enid's expectation of Jonah's arrival until the moment - until perhaps a few minutes after the moment - when Gary arrives, alone, the following day. By then, Enid has been encouraged further by a morning call from Chip, whom we last saw in the chaotic airport at Vilnius. That's where is when he makes his somewhat reckless promise to be home for Christmas. This unexpected development requires Enid to rummage through the drawer in which she keeps emergency gifts, an occasion for Mr Franzen to hand future anthropologists a devastating list of American junk that closes with a "cleverly boxed kit of ribbon and wrapping paper called The Gift of Giving" - a postmodern joke of sorts.471 As the hours grind toward Gary's arrival, "The quiet in the house after lunch was of such density that it nearly stopped the clocks."472 Once Gary arrives, however, quiet is out of the question.

The extent of Gary's bad faith will take time to reveal itself, but his ill-humored manner is something of a tip-off. Enid has no sooner accepted the fact of Jonah's non-appearance than Alfred begins shouting from the bathtub upstairs: he has stuck himself in it again. Gary absolutely refuses to go up and help him, because it's his intention to witness the impossibility of Enid's domestic situation. He will harp on this continually during his stay, right up to the moment he storms out the door. He will help out as little as possible. He will complain about everything, and sneer whenever he ought to smile. He hasn't been in the house for ten minutes before Enid is "remembering things about her elder son which she liked to forget when he wasn't around."472 Bad faith will do that - but of course Enid doesn't know about Gary's bad faith. She has to go upstairs and get Alfred out of the tub, while Gary answers the doorbell.

That evening, the three Lamberts drive through Waindell Park, a nondescript place decked out by the county with extravagant lighting displays, with only their cars parking lights to guide them.

The spectacle was nothing more than lights in darkness, but Enid was speechless. So often credulity was asked of you, so seldom could you summon it absolutely, but here at Waindell Park she could. Somebody had set out to delight all comers, and Enid was delighted. And tomorrow Denise and Chip came, tomorrow was The Nutcracker, and on Wednesday they would take the Christ baby from its pocket and pin the walnut cradle to the tree: she had so much to look forward to.481

Enid outdoes most optimists; one of her children will presently charge her with living in the future.

In the morning, the narrative shifts to Gary's point of view. He is very grudgingly running an errand for his mother, who wants to install a seat and a rail in the downstairs shower, so that Alfred will stop getting stuck in the bathtub. Gary hates running this errand, because it obliges him to rub shoulders with the ailing poor. Three passages stand out in the next few pages; taken together, they paint an up-to-the-minute picture of patriarchal anxiety and hypocrisy.

Gary's problem with illness in aggregate, aside from the fact that it involved large quantities of human bodies and that he didn't like human bodies in large quantities, was that it seemed to him low-class. Poor people smoked, poor people at Krispy Kreme doughnuts by the dozen. Poor people were made pregnant by close relatives. Poor people practiced poor hygiene and lived in toxic neighborhoods. Poor people with their ailments constituted a subspecies of humanity that thankfully remained invisible to Gary except in hospitals and in places like Central Discount Medical. They were a dumber, sadder, fatter, more resignedly suffering breed. A Diseased underclass that he really, really liked to keep away from.482

Like all bigotry, this has its roots in an impossible desire to feel perfectly secure in the world, an anxiety also reflected in his Cain complex.

Everything in St. Jude strove to put him in the wrong. But in the months since he'd surrendered to Caroline (and his hand had healed nicely, thank you, with hardly a scar), he'd reconciled himself to being the villain in St. Jude. When you knew in advance that you mother would consider you the villain no matter what you did, you lost your incentive to play by her rules. You asserted your own rules. You did whatever it took to preserve yourself. You pretended, if need be, that a healthy child of yours was sick.483

For Jonah isn't sick in bed; he has decided not to come when bribed by his mother with a fab new computer game. She buys tickets to fun events that Jonah will miss if he accompanies his father to St Jude. It is shabby all round; even angelic little Jonah is sullied. But Enid won't find out about that, or about Gary's paper profits in Axon shares, or about the little package that Bea Meisner handed to him after his arrival, while his mother wrestled his father out of the bathtub. He confides this last in Denise, whom he picks up at the airport after buying the shower stool. He swears her to secrecy first, and has to remind her of her oath when she expresses her disgust. If their mother wants to take Aslan, then let her take Aslan.

Gary had hoped to find her more cooperative. He already had one 'alternative' sibling and he didn't need another. It frustrated him that people could so happily drop out of the world of conventional expectations; it undercut the pleasure he took in his home and job and family; it felt like a unilateral rewriting, to his disadvantage, of the rules of life. He was especially galled that the latest defector to the 'alternative' was not some flaky Other from a family of Others or a class of Others but his own stylish and talented sister, who as recently as September had excelled in conventional ways that his friends could read about in The New York Times. Now she'd quit her job and was wearing four rings and a flaming coat and reeking of tobacco.489

These three passages, as I say, portray Gary as a patriarch. First, he believes in vertical social distinctions: there are better people and worse people. Second, he believes in conventions that relieve him of the need to distinguish the important from the unimportant. Third, because he succeeds at meeting conventions (and thereby claims membership in the class of better people), he gets to break them, so long as he does so imperceptibly, but, fourth, he is aware on some level that this right of surreptitious disobedience, depending as it does on his status as a success, really flows from a general social adoption of the conventions, and therefore he is troubled and punitive when anyone acts as though the conventions were unimportant. The religion of the patriarch is a faith in God-given conventions so obvious and unquestionable that there is no need whatsoever to think about God. To question this faith is to disturb the patriarchs, and disturbed patriarchs are rather like disturbed hornets. Gary is also a patriarch who, if he were truly honest, would have to concede that it is his wife, and not himself, who rules in his household. His worldly success notwithstanding, Gary is a failed patriarch. No wonder he's so unpleasant.

That night, after skirmishing with his mother about installing the rail in the shower and demanding repayment (it goes without saying that Gary has no generosity for his opponents in any conflict), and downing a few drinks after ferrying his parents and his sister to and from The Nutcracker (about which the novel is strangely silent; it would appear to be yet another one of Enid's empty rituals, to be endured as unconsciously as possible), Gary wakes up from a nightmare - one in which Denise was not his sister and was coming to kill him - needing to urinate. But he's afraid to go to the bathroom, because he doesn't want to get involved with one of his father's messes, which he has heard about but hasn't seen. So he relieves himself into a beer stein and gets back into bed - only to be roused by Denise, who comes after him not to kill him but to tell him that Alfred is in the bathroom calling for Gary. Having no choice now but to observe the conventions governing dutiful sons, Gary finds his father standing in the bathtub in only his pajama tops, and "nothing but psychosis in his fact." It is, in other words, the face of one of the worse sort of people, the people who get sick, whom he has seen "mainly at the bus stops and the Burger King bathrooms of central Philadelphia."497-8 Trying to help his father get his diaper back on is an ordeal from which he retreats to his own bed with a resolution that, after all he's done for his parents, "Tomorrow is Gary's Recreation Day. And then on Thursday morning we're going to blow this house wide open. We're going to put an end to this charade."499 Hypocrisy and anxiety, as tightly twinned as the snakes on a caduceus.

Denise Lambert, from whose point of view the narrative resumes, is the one Lambert who is consciously puzzled. Her parents and her brothers all believe themselves to be sure of things (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), but Denise is morally perplexed. She is an almost helplessly good person for whom bad behavior exerts an enormous appeal; pleasure and virtue are antagonists in her mind. Ordinarily, bad behavior leads to the habit of bad behavior, but in Denise's case, it leads to revulsion and reform - and to a faint, nagging sense that the habit of good behavior is contemptible. Denise is rarely at rest.

Before continuing with the Christmas count-down, Mr Franzen takes us back to where we left Denise (on page 428) in "The Generator" - being fired in her own foyer - and brings us up to date. A few days spent in New York (to make an appearance on a food-network program) receive bravura treatment:

She met with some of the New Yorkers who'd tried to hire her away from Brian - a couple of Central Park West trillionaires seeking a feudal relationship with her, a Munich banker who believed she was the Wei▀wurst Messiah who could restore German cooking to its former glory in Manhattan, and a young restaurateur, Nick Razza, who impressed her by itemizing and breaking down each of the meals he'd eaten at Mare Scuro and the Generator. Razza came from a family of purveyors in New Jersey and already owned a popular mid-range seafood grill on the Upper East Side. Now he wanted to jump into the Smith Street culinary scene in Brooklyn with a restaurant that starred, if possible, Denise. She asked him for a week to think it over.502

But most of this narrative interlude dwells on the finale of Denise's affair with Robin. One might have thought that that was already over in "The Generator," but "Robin had had a month to cool off and conclude that if sleeping with Brian was a sin then she was guilty of it also." What follows reminds us of what the author's earlier novel, Strong Motion, made so clear: Jonathan Franzen writes brilliantly about erotic ambivalence. "Denise still couldn't say no to the drug of Robin," he writes - but what is this drug really? It is certainly not Robin's body, or Robin's skill at lovemaking. "But there was something in Robin, probably her propensity to blame herself for harms that other people inflicted on her, that invited betrayal and abuse,"503 and this excites Denise no end. The sick symmetry of this relationship makes for some of the most distressing reading in The Corrections. "The more Robin agreed to be abused, the more Denise enjoyed abusing her."504 But the abuse is not wholly gratuitous; Denise is facing the prospect of putting up her parents for six months so that Alfred can participate in the Correktal trial.

*Denise couldn't imagine six months with her parents in a house and a city she was done with, six months of invisibility as the accommodating and resourceful daughter that she could barely pretend to be. She'd made a promise, however; and so she took her rage out on Robin.505

Just before leaving for St Jude, she picks a fight that turns physical when Denise slaps Robin.

"You hit me rather hard. Why did you do that?"

"Because I don't want you here. I don't want to be part of your life. I don't want to be part of anybody's life. I'm sick of watching myself be cruel to you."

Interconnecting flywheels of pride and love were spinning behind Robin's eyes. It was a while before she spoke. "OK, then," she said. "I'll leave you alone."

Denise did nothing to stop her from leaving, but when she heard the front door close she understood that she'd lost the only person who could have helped her when her parents came to town. She'd lost Robin's company, her comforts. Everything she'd spurned a minute earlier she wanted back.

She flew to St Jude.506

Denise will make two discoveries in St Jude, the first exciting and maddening but trivial, the second indescribably horrific. To retrieve a Dutch oven required for one of her many cooking projects, she has to go to a cluttered basement cupboard that disgusts her so much that she throws almost everything in it into a trash can. And what does she find at the back of the cupboard? The letter to Axon that Enid had hidden there (page 74). Having read the letter to which this was a response, Denise understands immediately that her mother was acting in concert with Gary against Alfred's wishes. When she waves the letter in front of him, Alfred is clueless, so Denise summons her mother downstairs and demands an explanation. Enid blithely replies that it doesn't matter, because a second copy of documents were duly sent to Axon - and then she crumples the letter. "I'm developing Garyitis," Denise has the presence of mind to reflect, before following her mother up to the kitchen for some desultory skirmishing (in which she tries in vain to assure her mother, without using the 'L' word, that she will never marry) before taking a nap. She is awakened by an argument about the downstairs shower stall, which Alfred won't use; presently her mother asks her to help Alfred with his stretching exercises. Denise soon finds that Alfred's dementia has proceeded so far that he cannot tell his right knee from his left, nor can he recall the exercise that he is supposed to repeat, and Denise realizes that the Correktall trial will have to do without her father's participation. He wets himself in confusion, and it is while she is trying to clean him up that the second revelation opens up, in the agonizing slow motion of Alfred's barely comprehensible speech. It begins ominously, with Alfred lying on the wetted bed.

*Alfred smiled up at the ceiling and spoke in a less agitated voice. "I lie here and I can see it," he said. "Do you see it?"

"See what?"

He pointed vaguely skyward with one finger. "Bottom on the bottom. Bottom on the bottom of the bench," he said. "Written there. Do you see it?"518

Four pages later, Denise examines the bottom of her father's workbench and finds a heart carved into it, encircling the letters "DA + DL."524 Now she knows what her father meant when he told her, incoherently, that it was "Simpler if I just quit." What he meant when he said, "It was never my intention to involve you in this."

She pieces it together. In an all but imperceptible coda to Denise's first night with Don Armour, the author suggests that when the lovemaking was over, Don did not leave the house when he left Denise's room. Now we know what he did instead, and we can piece together why. The merger with Orfic and the relocation to Little Rock were already being bruited, and Don Armour, in a twisted but very characteristic gesture, inscribed his romantic graffiti on his boss's boss's boss's workbench. Denise can work out from her father's scattered comments that when the merger was complete, and a third of the workforce was let go, Don Armour, one of the axed, "crawled" to Alfred's office with his blackmail proposal, Alfred did what anyone who knew Alfred would expect: he retired, months short of his sixty-fifth birthday and full pension rights. Denise now realizes that it was to protect her, to keep her out of "this," that Alfred made the strange decision about which Enid has been complaining ever since.

She'd never really known her father. Probably nobody had. With his shyness and his formality and his tyrannical rages he protected his interior so ferociously that if you loved him, as she did, you learned that you could do him no greater kindness than to respect his privacy.

Alfred, likewise, had shown his faith in her by taking her at face value: by declining to pry behind the front that she presented. She'd felt happiest with him when she was publicly vindicating his faith in her: when she got straight A's; when her restaurants succeeded; when reviewers loved her.

She understood, better than she would have liked to, what a disaster it had been for him to wet the bed in front of her. Lying on a stain of fast-cooling urine was not the way he wished to be with her. They only had one good way of being together, and it wasn't going to work much longer.

The odd truth about Alfred was that love, for him, was a matter not of approaching but of keeping away. She understood this better than Chip and Gary did, and so she felt a particular responsibility for him.523

These thoughts come to her on a long walk in the cold evening air. Emotional release comes while she peels potatoes in the kitchen (a suitably penal symbol) and asks Enid if Alfred ever explained his premature retirement to her. Finding out that he did not comes as no surprise, but Denise breaks down anyway, disappearing into "mush and wetness and remorse."525 Enid takes these tears as a comment on Alfred's hopeless decline, and, for once, faces it candidly. But neither mother nor daughter knows what they're going to do about it.

The boiling over of a pot of beans reminds Denise of something. Earlier in the day, she had managed to exchange the packet of Aslan in Gary's jacket pocket with Advil capsules, and then to deposit the Aslan in the Advent calendar, to which she now sends her mother. When Enid comes back with the packet and sees what's inside it, she dumps the pills down the drain. "I want the real thing or I don't want anything," she says.526. What's the real thing? "I want us all together for one last Christmas." Gary, walking into the kitchen, sarcastically says something about settling for four out of five; he for one is quite sure that Chip won't show.

When Enid wonders what's taking Alfred so long upstairs, and Gary observes that Alfred is not upstairs, Denise is dispatched to find him in the basement. "Denise didn't ask, 'Why me?'" although she wanted to,"527 a premonition that's borne out when she discovers Alfred giving himself an enema. She closes the door quickly and hears her mother proclaiming with delight that Chip has arrived. But it's not Chip, it's carolers. Standing at the front door with Gary and her mother,

she began to wonder if respecting Alfred's privacy wasn't a little bit too easy. He wanted to be left alone? Well, how nice for her! She could go back to Philadelphia, live her own life, and be doing exactly what he wanted. He was embarrassed to be seen with a plastic squirter up his ass? Well, how convenient! She was pretty goddamned embarrassed herself!529

When the singing is over, she goes back downstairs and braves the barriers to intimacy that Alfred has excreted.

She found him in much the same position, with an old beach towel wadded up between his legs. Kneeling among the shit smells and piss smells, she rested a hand on his quaking shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said.

His face was covered with sweat. His eyes glittered with madness. "Find a telephone," he said, "and call the district manager."

Now comes Chip's turn. His entry is somewhat different from those made in this section by Gary and Denise, each of whom appears on the scene before appropriating the point of view. Although only the most naive or desperate readers are likely to wonder if Chip really makes it home for Christmas, Mr Franzen gamely maintains suspense by taking us back to Lithuania, where Chip is approaching the Polish border. He exile from the garden of computer fraud is suitably hair-raising and violent. It leaves him with nothing but the clothes on his back, which he finds quite a bit more comfortable than his accustomed leather, taken from him by brigands in the chaos of political collapse. "How pleasant to be out walking in these gym shoes!"

But this was not his great revelation. His great revelation came when he was a few kilometers from the Polish border. He was straining to hear whether any of the homicidal farm dogs in the surrounding darkness might be unleashed, he had his arms outstretched, he was feeling more than a little ridiculous, when he remembered Gitanas's remark: tragedy rewritten as farce. All of a sudden he understood why nobody, including himself, had ever liked his screenplay: he'd written a thriller where he should have written farce.534

By the time Chip reaches O'Hare Airport - too late for a flight to St Jude - something of the corrosiveness of farce has eaten away his own sense of self.

He didn't understand what had happened to him. He felt like a piece of paper that had once had coherent writing on it but had been through the wash. He felt roughened, bleached, and worn out along the fold lines. He semi-dreamed of disembodied eyes and isolated mouths in ski masks. He'd lost track of what he wanted, and since who a person was was what a person wanted, you could say that he'd lost track of himself.

How strange, then, that the old man who opened the front door at nine-thirty in St. Jude the next morning seemed to know exactly who he was.535-6

But the Chip that we got to know in "The Failure" never reappears. That man, animated principally by the need to embody a youthful but brainy cool, has stayed behind in Lithuania with the leather clothes. The new, gym-shoes Chip takes a while to materialize. There are intimations that not everything will be different; a brief exchange with Gary shows him that "Everything else in the world might change, but Gary's condescension galled Chip exactly as it always had."539 Nevertheless, Chip's sense of self is so pale that, once he sits down at the breakfast table with his family, his hold on the point of view is very light, and for the first time in The Corrections the pages are filled with barely supported dialogue. Gary is at the center of it, because, according to his schedule, his final hour in St Jude is time to blow this house wide open. He insults both of his siblings and then goes after his mother, badgering her about what she's going to do when Denise and Chip leave. He taunts his father' by asking him to put his right hand on his left shoulder. At this, Alfred stands up and says to Chip, "You can see that it's not without its difficulties."542 And then he collapses, taking his place setting with him.

Chip rushes to his side, but Gary acts as if nothing has happened. His behavior guarantees that there will never be a Gary Lambert Fan Club among this novel's admirers. Delivering ultimatums but leaving before they can be met, Gary says with evident bluster, "I'm sorry I ruined your breakfast, Mom. But I, for one, feel better for having got this off my chest."543

It seemed unbelievable to Chip that Gary could simply walk out of the house with Alfred on the floor and Enid's Christmas breakfast in ruins, but Gary was in his most rational mode, his words had a formal hollowness, his eyes were evasive as he put on his coat and gathered up his bag and Enid's bag of gifts for Philadelphia, because he was afraid. Chip could see it clearly now, behind the cold front of Gary's wordless departure: his brother was afraid.

As soon as the front door had closed, Alfred made his way to the bathroom.

"Let's all be happy," Denise said, "that Gary got that off his chest and feels so much better now."

If whoever makes a movie of The Corrections mangles or omits Denise's crack - the most indispensable line in the entire novel - I shall throw things at the screen in protest. Or at least howl.

Escaping from Vilnius, Chip had resolved that as soon as the holidays were behind him, he'd get back to New York, settle down like an adult, finish his screenplay, and earn enough money to repay Denise the $24,000 that he had borrowed from her. Going to St Jude would be the final sacrifice to his resolve, a daring engagement with the family and the house of which he is so adolescently ashamed and which he has tried so hard to banish to the edge of his consciousness. The sense of being not quite real is a kind of safeguard; to be real would be really to be in St Jude. So he resists with unwonted vigor when Denise asks him to allow her to forgive him the debt.

In her peculiar mood, with her unexpected words, she was making Chip anxious. He pulled on the rivet and said, "Denise, come on. Please. At least show me the respect of letting me pay you back. I realize I've been a shit. But I don't want to be a shit all my life."548

Denise, whose thoughts are closed to us now, persists, meeting vehemence with vehemence. She acknowledges understanding that she is asking a favor that Chip will find it difficult to grant; she knows that his burgeoning self-respect hangs on showing the discipline needed to pay her back. When he begs her to postpone the discussion until the next day, she asks him another favor: will he stay behind in St Jude for a week to help his mother? This is even worse.

Chip was breathing hard. The door of the cage was closing on him fast. The sensation he'd had in the men's room at the Vilnius Airport, the feeling that his debt to Denise, far from being a burden, was his last defense, returned to him in the form of dread at the prospect of its being forgiven. He'd lived with the affliction of this debt until it had assumed the character of a neuroblastoma so intricately implicated in his cerebral architecture that he doubted he could survive its removal.547

He tries to bargain with Denise, but she refuses. Alfred begins to call out for him; Denise tells him that Alfred calls out for him even when he's not in the house. With the screws tightened to the maximum, with Alfred crying for help and Denise insisting on yes or no answers, the author drops the following paragraph, which I give entire, onto Chip's climax:

The house shook and the storms rattled and the draft from the window nearest Chip intensified; and in a gust of memory he remembered the curtains. He remembered when he'd left St. Jude for college. He remembered packing the hand-carved Austrian chessmen that his parents had given him for his high-school graduation, and the six-volume Sandburg biography of Lincoln that they'd given him for his eighteenth birthday, and his new navy-blue blazer from Brooks Brothers ("It makes you look like a handsome young doctor!" Enid hinted), and great stacks of white T-shirts and white jockey underpants and white long johns, and a fifth-grade school picture of Denise in a Lucite frame, and the very same Hudson Bay blanket that Alfred had taken as a freshman to the University of Kansas four decades earlier, and a pair of leather-clad wool mittens that likewise dated from Alfred's deep Kansan past, and a set of heavy-duty thermal curtains that Alfred had bought for him at Sears. Reading Chip's college orientation materials, Alfred had been struck by the sentence New England winters can be very cold. The curtains he'd bought at Sears were of a plasticized brown-and-pink fabric with a backing of foam rubber. They were heavy and bulky and stiff. "You'll appreciate these on a cold night," he told Chip. "You'll be surprised how much they cut down drafts." But Chip's freshman roommate was a prep-school product named Roan McCorkle who would soon be leaving thumbprints, in what appeared to be Vaseline, on the fifth-grade photo of Denise. Roan laughed at the curtains and Chip laughed, too. He put them back in the box and stowed the box in the basement of the dorm and let it gather mold there for the next four years. He had nothing against the curtains personally. They were simply curtains and they wanted no more than what any curtains wanted - to hang well, to exclude light to the best of their ability, to be neither too small nor too large for the window that it was their task in life to cover; to be pulled this way in the evening and that way in the morning; to stir in the breezes that came before rain on a summer night; to be much used and little noticed. There were numberless hospitals and retirement homes and budget motels, not just in the Midwest but in the East as well, where these particularly brown rubber-backed curtains could have had a long and useful life. It wasn't their fault that they didn't belong in a dorm room. They'd betrayed no urge to rise above their station; their material and patterning contained not a hint of unseemly social ambition. They were what they were. If anything, when he finally dug them out of the eve of graduation, their virginal pinkish folds turned out to be rather less plasticized and homely and Sears-like than he remembered. They were nowhere near as shameful as he'd thought.548-9

There will be readers, I suppose, for whom this will read as a paragraph about curtains; they will skim through it impatiently or dismiss it as overwriting. But when I read it, I think of the explications du texte that have long been part of French pedagogy, requiring students to mine a given passage for symbols and references. This paragraph, which is not about curtains, fairly bursts with symbols and references. I am not going to wade into an explication here, but I invite the reader to underline words and phrases that resonate. The Vaseline thumbprints tell us that the roommate is unworthy of Chip's respect, prep school or no. The curtains' complex simplicity (I cannot picture the foam-rubber backing) stands in for solid Alfred, who lives behind his own draft-preventing curtains. The Sandburg biography of Lincoln was for several generations a sort of American Homer and Virgil rolled into one, a book than which no other could be more important, save perhaps Scripture. There is, finally (for our purposes), Chip's recognition, when it's too late to repair, of an exaggerated misjudgment, driven by shame, insecurity, and ambition. The curtains are the integral, productive, and modest self that Chip has hitherto refused to assume. What a person wants is not who a person is.

Alfred cries out, and Chip concedes.

"All right," Chip told Denise as he started up the stairs. "If it makes you feel better, I won't pay you back."

"The Last Christmas" continues for eight further pages, but to my mind these pages belong, at least for purposes of discussion, in the novel's final section, "The Corrections," and I will write about them together, in the final installment of this journal.  (November 2004)

Permalink | The Corrections Index | Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me