25 January 2010
St Jude and The Failure (as far as Chip’s theft of the salmon)
About one-sixth of the way through. One timeline is about to catch up with another: the main spine is the parental stop-off visit for lunch at Chip’s apartment in New York (on the way to catch a cruise ship); and the set-piece farce of Chip’s expedition to buy food for the lunch is the last mistake (so far) in the string of flashbacks that have taken him from university teacher to intellectual down-and-out.
We’ve been with Chip for most of the novel, although most of my favourite sections take us inside the head of his fast-fading dad, in his mid-70s and not coming to terms with his failing powers. We’ve seen in the short St Jude chapter how his wife can’t cope with the idea of him slowly retreating from her: she’s endlessly irritated by his failures but her own behaviour is as bad, particularly the way she hides important letters from him and hoards junk and out-of date food. It all seems desperately familiar to anyone who has witnessed the aging process. Franzen doesn’t overdo the metaphor of battling against failure, but Alfred has to put together a strategy to achieve every tiny thing. An action as simple as bringing an hors d’oeuvre to the mouth is set about with hidden traps. And shortly after he’s dropped an oily canapé on to the expensive chaise longue his wife hears the crash of a vase of flowers their daughter has just put out….
But what about Chip? How has he managed to get himself fired? Because he’s an idiot. If the parental sections are pitch-perfect descriptions of the frustrations and terrors of growing old, the longer sections focused on Chip are farcical. He’s in his 30s, but he might as well still be in his teens for the level of maturity he shows. He’s self-indulgent, ruled by the demands of his dick and, well, he does stupid things. Having helped to write the college’s teacher/student behaviour code he ends up in a motel room, dosed up with a kind of illicit early draft of Viagra, and… doing what you’d expect with a nubile 19-year-old student. Ok, she made all the running and led him on, but, well, what was he thinking of? Wrong question, obviously: thinking had nothing to do with it.
Ok, so I don’t find it particularly funny, from his ejaculation on to the laptop screen to the shoplifted salmon slipping down inside his trousers like – wait for it – a codpiece. Chip has a problem with maturity – he hasn’t got any – and he constantly relies on girlfriends to prop up his sagging ego and, once he’s ballsed everything up, on his sister to prop up his sagging finances…
… because in this novel, sibling relationships are as important as parent/child relationships. And as problematic. There’s that endless American middle class competitiveness: Chip, once he’s on the skids, can no longer patronize his sister and brother’s successes: even before this, Franzen presents his post-Marxist analysis of capitalist culture as a kind of self-indulgent game. Meanwhile, he remembers his father as authoritarian and controlling, and can’t get his head round the old man’s failing powers any more than his mother can. He’s so depressed by his own stupidity he neglects to phone his father on his 75th birthday until his sister phones to nag him. (There’s a big contrast with Melissa, the student he takes to the motel. She has such an untroubled relationship with her parents that Chip calls it sick. Hee hee.)
And though it all, like words through seaside rock, runs the theme of money. Enid, their mother, constantly points out how much other 30-somethings are earning, constantly worries about the cost of everything – there’s a family thing about what percentage tip to leave – while Chip lives on thousands of dollars’ worth of loans from his sister to perpetuate an unsustainable lifestyle. He thinks his ship is about to come in – he’s written a screenplay loosely based on his ejection from the college, in which the character based on him is the only honourable one in town – but it’s as stupid as everything else he’s done. I hope he gets sorted out soon, because I’m getting a bit fed up with him.
To the end of The Failure
I didn’t guess for a minute where Chip’s story was heading. It seems that this male American psyche isn’t from the same world as, say, Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s novels. We’re in a Paul Auster world, or a Martin Amis world where stupid people get into ludicrous scrapes. It turns out that his next meal-ticket is to be someone we took for a bit-part player in a minor character’s story. He’s the estranged husband of Chip’s childishly self-centred girlfriend, the one who’s just dumped him, and he’s a dodgy Lithuanian politician. He’s called Gitanas – and I wonder if Franzen really did base his name on a cigarette. What possible reason could the clownish Chip have for not going along with his latest scam?
This is the culmination of events following Chip’s hasty exit from his own apartment before the lunch even begins. He leaves his sister Denise looking after the parents while he wild-goose-chases his way around Manhattan after his manuscript. What it needs are a few corrections (geddit?), such as deleting the six-page post-Structuralist lecture it opens with. He ends up at the office of his agent – a woman who is also the now ex-girlfriend’s boss – who has been cornered by the politician. The person this man needs, she instantly decides, is Chip. He’ll be the one to redesign the website whose only function is to dupe US investors into handing over valuable dollars on false promises…. The things that tip the balance for Chip are seeing that the agent has given the script to her daughter to draw pictures on, the fact that he has no other hope of getting any real money – he’s just taken nine dollars from a shop assistant – and the politician has just waved $3000 in hundreds in front of him. Time to pack a case and get on the next plane to Vilnius.
Meanwhile there’s Denise. She doesn’t get a real thread to herself – so far she’s just another bit-part player in Chip’s life – but as far as we can tell she’s the sensible one in the family. She cleans up after Chip, has a real job running her own restaurant 16 hours a day. And even from where we’re standing – which is often in the centre of the highly Chip-centred universe – she seems not to hate her parents. Sure, she often finds them infuriating, but basically she goes along with them most of the time. The question of Christmas keeps coming up, and she seems ok with their plans – a position Chip decides is a kind of brownie point-winning game she’s playing, but might be, simply, that she doesn’t mind them having one last Christmas at their house instead of at Gary’s. Gary sounds like a tit, but we’ve got nobody’s word for it. Nobody reliable anyway. Good job we’re about to meet him in the next thread.
The more he thought about it, the angrier he got…
…which takes us up to about two-fifths of the way through. And, well, we were warned: Gary really is a tit. Franzen has whisked us back a couple of weeks from the day of the lunch Chip absents himself from to a Sunday afternoon in Philly, and into the number-crunching mind of the oldest sib. He’s a banker, but the numbers in his head today refer to the levels of his own serotonin and various other ingredients of his body chemistry. He’s worried about how far into the red he’s going (a long way) and family life isn’t helping. In fact, the pointless point-scoring pitched battle he has with his wife Caroline is just the start: it will carry both of them through the next three weeks and 100 pages….
Franzen does some clever literary things while taking us through their ridiculous fight: he plays games with the timeline, and he kicks around references to what we’ve already heard about, but from this new angle. And he makes a convincing marital row based on unrelated things that the participants see as inextricably linked. This is a marriage-ender, Gary warns. It isn’t, obviously. And throughout, there are their three boys, not so much pawns in the game as trophies to be fought over and paraded in triumph.
The point of view is Gary’s, and it isn’t pretty – but Caroline is as bad. They each have something to prove: Gary that Caroline’s back injury was caused by her playing football, not rushing for the phone before his mother can hang up after her customary three rings; and Caroline that Gary is Clinically Depressed. Worse than this: nobody actually says it, but the winner of the argument will decide what will happen at Christmas. We know for sure that Gary tries to enlist his sons on his side, and there’s pretty strong evidence that Caroline does the same thing. At several stages I found myself wondering why I keep on reading American novels with their stupid protagonists – but then Franzen does something clever and I’m back with him.
There are other threads running through. One takes Gary and Denise, near the end of the three-week row and therefore after Chip’s lunch in New York, to a kind of roadshow run by the company which underpaid Alfred for a patent based on work he did in his spare time for most of his life. Franzen does that novelistic thing of bringing things neatly together: the product they’re launching – with nods and winks, literally, to potential shareholders – is Corecktall. It sounds like some kind of futuristic nano-bionic cure-all for the sort of neural deterioration Alfred is suffering – he has Parkinson’s – and it sounds too good to be true. Gary has been trying to get shares for days, but there’s a run on them so he hopes to shame the company bosses into letting him have some. Idiot. Denise, who really does sound like the sensible one, suspects it might all be a hoax. So, following on from the new trail Chip is following, there might be a theme emerging. Well.
Franzen turns the high-octane presentation into a set piece: this is how fortunes are made from products that are still, as one of the directors says (wink, wink), in the early stages of research. As it goes on, Franzen uses the numbered PowerPoint headings as titles for episodes in the battle between Gary and his wife: the set piece becomes the framing device for a whole series of flashbacks… and then, smooth as you like, the narrative moves on. The presentation is over, Gary is arguing with Denise in the corporate gardens outside… and once he gets home it’s time for Gary’s worst excesses in the fight.
I had to stop reading several times as, in order to prove that everything’s hunky-dory and he isn’t depressed – he proves the opposite. He ends up with his hand wrapped in bandages and covered with a bag, in bed on a Tuesday morning, in a foetal position. An incident the previous day (Caroline thought there was somebody getting ready to burgle the house and phoned him, sexily vulnerable) has made him remember they haven’t had sex for weeks and she is the most desirable woman in the world. She sees him on the bed, comes over and… he capitulates. ‘I surrender,’ he says, and spells it out for her: yes, he is depressed, and yes, he’s given up on his mother’s idea for Christmas. In the blink of an eye his locomotive is entering that same ol’ tunnel that never somehow seems the same. Another example, to go with all those we saw in the Chip section, of how men in this world make decisions.
But Gary isn’t Chip. In their sexual habits, all the sibs are different: If Chip doesn’t care where he puts it about – there’s even been a memorable scene between him and his chaise longue once the student has buggered off – Gary is predictably monogamous. While Denise… we’re not sure about Denise yet – but we do know she’s divorced, and now extremely pissed off with Gary for letting their mother know she’s seeing a married man. That’s what their row was about after the presentation: Denise hates their mother to think badly of her.
It’s another theme running through the whole novel: parent/child relationships in general, and the continuing influence of the parents in the lives of these three supposed adults in particular. Chip finds his father overbearing – we’ve heard about how, as a child, he would lie and cheat in order to get on his father’s good side – and finds his mother a constant irritant. Gary cites his upbringing as an excuse for the materialism he systematically indulges in: it’s what his parents wanted for him. (His whole family, urged on by Caroline – who spends her way out of any crisis – is Franzen’s embodiment of American greed: they approach the acquisition of thousands of dollar’ worth of stuff as other families approach religion.) And Denise? Her work ethic finds favour with the parents and she nurtures their approval, often by simply offering a better alternative than her brothers.
Patterns of behaviour repeat themselves or find echoes. Gary’s boys seek to find favour with their parents, often playing one off against the other. The parents encourage this as part of their ongoing battle strategies – and add to it the ingredient of seeking the boys’ approval in a kind of parental ratings war. Meanwhile Caroline’s relationship with her parents (one of whom died young) is based on material indulgence being presented as proof of love. This obviously fills some kind of void in her life, because her bedside table is piled up with self-help psychology books – but we see her repeating her own upbringing with her boys. It echoes the sentimental version of filial affection Chip found so gruesome in his student lover: spoilt kids think their parents love them, and some of them never grow out of it.
There’s a lot going on, as the highly provisional lines of filial and sibling (and marital) alliances are redrawn or abandoned. And in Franzen’s America, the glue seems to be money. Chip’s (no doubt doomed) determination to get some quick, Gary’s habit of assessing his emotional life like a bank balance, Caroline’s unquestioning indulgence – because it makes them like her – of her boys’ expensive desires. As for the older generation: they have a fear of spending, a penny-pinching residue from a less prosperous time that they mistake for prudence; and, as Gary sees the matter of the patent, his father shows a foolish disregard for the modern way of business that he mistakes for moral principle. (Gary isn’t wrong in this: Franzen’s satire isn’t only directed at families, and the company that offers the pittance seems to be made up entirely of sharks.)
And all along, like annoying background noise, is Christmas. It crystallizes in one neat package all the ways in which this family fails to function properly. Chip doesn’t give a toss: he spent the previous Christmas alone, kicking around the presents he’d received and not thinking about the random books he’d taken from his own shelves and wrapped contemptuously in a wrong-headed send-up of what Christmas is all about. Gary would like to go, because approval is the only emotional currency he’s capable of dealing in – but eight years ago, following a Christmas that didn’t pander to her cosseted tastes, Caroline made him promise they’d never go to the Midwestern parental home ever again. Denise? She’ll go with the flow. And all for the sentimentalized vision of Christmas that only exists inside their mother’s under-stimulated head. She doesn’t get out enough, in (I think) Chip’s opinion, so she fixates on Christmas for 300 days before the event. Now Gary’s given in: they don’t have to go. Oh dear.
Franzen likes these plays on words, as we’ve seen with the half-dozen meanings we’ve had for the word ‘correction’. Now, Alfred’s at sea, on the clean-lined Scandinavian cruiser that is as close as he and Enid ever get to holiday pleasure – and he’s coming away from his moorings in other ways as well. At the end of Gary’s story, some days in the future, there had been a telephone call; with (gulp) no regard for the expense, Enid was calling about Alfred from on board ship. Whoa.
We’re inside Alfred’s head. ‘200 hours’ clocks up: 2 o’clock? Or 200 hours into the trip? Dunno – but I bet Al does, and you can see where Gary gets it from. I guess Al relies on the certainty of numbers for the same kind of reason as Gary: nothing else computes. He also tries to calculate the engineering needed to eliminate all the vibration in the ship except for this final two-hertz sub-bass throb, but that’s no good: half the time he doesn’t know how much is inside his own Parkinson’s-pummelled body. Occasionally, he’s relieved when somebody else notices it – but that doesn’t help him in the dark watches of the night.
And suddenly it’s 30 years earlier and Al is about to leave on a 12-day inspection tour of all the track owned by the railway company he works for. Soon he’s as sleepless in motel rooms as he is on the ship. In particular, the sounds of other people having sex is disturbing him, and over the next 30 or 40 pages we get insights into this warm-blooded man who has overlaid so many layers of correctness – there’s that word again, nearly – that he seems as cold as the metal he works with. His first words to Enid after nearly a fortnight away are a complaint, and he methodically smashes up the pile of glasses at the top of the stairs – ‘the one thing’ he asked her to take care of. Sheesh. Gary and Chip, morphed into grade-school kids, are as scared of him as Enid is, and we spend the rest of the evening touring their different thought processes.
The longest stopover is with the six-year-old Chipper – and there’s no farcical comedy in the life of the school-aged Chip. As he sits at the table contemplating his half-eaten dinner and exploring with his fingers the underside of the table, Franzen describes the complexity of his thoughts in completely adult-sounding language. He is responding to the pointless punishment his father feels duty-bound to inflict on him with an equally pointless refusal to give in until, after three hours of deep reflection he reaches an existential location where reality ceases to have any meaning. It’s a totally convincing rendering of the intensity of childhood. And when his father, now out of his basement lab, finds him asleep a further two hours after that, he blames his wife. But she’s already absolved herself: the only person to blame is the stubborn man she married.
The echoes of the point-scoring between Gary and Caroline are glaring. And in Al’s inflexible pronouncements we recognise Gary’s equally stubborn ‘because I’ve said so’ 30 years later. (It doesn’t matter that Gary was the good boy, the one who always ate his dinner and made the lolly-stick jailhouse he longed for his father to approve of. A pattern is a pattern.) And the echoes in the bedroom are even more painful: the distance between this couple – they have fumbling, awkward sex they both immediately regret – is a reminder of the ‘tennis court sized’ (I think that was the phrase) distances in their son’s marital bed.
But Franzen likes to bring us some light relief. We’re back on the boat, and back to the day of the embarkation. It’s full of ridiculous jokes, from the formulaic wisecracks on the tee-shirts worn by the group-booking passengers (… never die, they only…) to Franzen’s own running joke of the names of the public rooms on board. I think it’s the dining room that owes its name to Soren Kierkegaard – a reminder of the mottoes from Schopenhauer we’ve been getting that define the arctic frigidity of Al’s philosophy.
The humour gets blacker. Soon we’re in the night-time bedroom. Al’s awake, and he’s being plagued by an imaginary talking turd that seems to be based on Mr Hankey, the Christmas poo from South Park, circa 1997. (Oddly enough, Chip’s extravagant reactions to food he doesn’t like remind me of Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes. And the way Chip drifts into his own reality reminds me of Calvin as well. Maybe Franzen likes the comics as much as I do: the ones I’ve mentioned are at least as satirical about the US as Franzen is.) Anyway, this piece of crap is quite witty, but it sends Al into a paroxysm of confusion. In his head, somehow, he’s back at work and there’s an urgent problem to be sorted out, apparently involving both the bathroom plumbing and his own pyjamas. It’s another one of Franzen’s terrifyingly convincing portrayals of a mind in free-fall. He ends up in a heap wearing at least two badly fitted incontinence nappies. Enid doesn’t wake up this time – but on a different night later in the chapter she does, and the implications of what she witnesses terrify her. Franzen has already told us: her life will never be the same afterwards. Blimey.
Franzen mixes the tone at other times on board. Al and Enid find themselves with the other ‘floaters’ – those who aren’t members of an organised group – and I found the sniping between two couples from different Scandinavian countries rather engaging. But in the middle of the usual round of activities one of the other floaters tells Enid her story. This woman is a painter of guns, she tells Enid… and then she tells her why. So now we’ve got a different family story: the torture and murder of a beautiful, capable (etc.) daughter. It becomes the story of the murderer, of the anomie of a generation, and you think, ok. The mother, an East Coast liberal, understands all about deprivation and parental abuse. And she wants the killer to die. I wonder why we get such a bleak little tale at (more or less) the mid-point of the novel. All I know is, Franzen isn’t in the business of offering easy solutions. I’m not sure he offers any solutions at all, in fact: it seems that even if you get it right as a parent, some other parent’s kid comes and fucks it up.
Later, as a kind of gesture of solidarity, Enid begins to confess about something in her own life that isn’t perfect. She’s about to say how worried she is about Alfred – but suddenly comes up against the difference in status (i.e. income) between her and her listener, and she stops. She pretends she was going to talk about Chip: maybe he doesn’t really work for the Wall Street Journal, maybe she heard it wrong. That’s Enid for you: she’s known all along but somehow chose to go along with a less problematic version of reality. We soon get another example: she wakes up to find Al lying in the shower and, well, she asks him what he’s doing. As you would. Then they get ready and go to breakfast as normal. I’m not sure if this is the same night we’ve already heard about from Al’s point of view. I’m not sure it matters: it’s enough to make Enid realise she might need to do something.
She goes to see the ship’s doctor, and we get another of Franzen’s episodes of black comedy. The doctor is little more than a salesman for a not fully tested medication, and he gets her name wrong eight or ten times during his sales pitch. She’s not a person, she’s another of his meal tickets, and he’s programmed to listen out for key words. She’s worried about her husband? She’s confused about something? Confused? he asks, more than once. And she leaves with eight of his little pills named, in a novel which has made several references to the Narnia books, Aslan. Good old golden-maned Aslan, he’ll sort us out. And she sleeps right through Al’s next bad night. Result.
Unfortunately…. The medicated Enid is no good for Al, obviously. As she makes her way to a seminar about – guess what? – making money, he wanders off to find another toilet. And is attacked by his night-terror hallucinations in the daytime. He leaves the toilet fast and makes his way to the highest deck – then higher still as he seeks a hiding-place where he can piss. It turns into another set piece account of a consciousness set adrift. As he’s done before, he resorts to building a three-dimensional grid in his head so he can gauge vectors and distances – but what’s the point? He’s troubled by the sight of a naked woman he recognises on the nudist sun-deck he shouldn’t be able to see… and then he realises his trousers are soaked. Suddenly the embracing sea looks inviting by comparison with the awkward wetness…
…and we’re in the seminar with Enid. Franzen has fun with the limp metaphors the seminar leader comes up with: their autumn colour-chasing cruise depends on the predictability of the seasons, but (gasp) is everything so predictable? He’s talking about investments, but all Enid recognises is the unpredictability of death. And suddenly, described in terms of the Newtonian physics Al knows all about, something is falling past the window. In the 0.4 seconds during which the falling object is visible to her, she recognises it. It’s Alfred, wearing that awful black raincoat he carries in case he needs to hide one of those embarrassing accidental leakages. (If she knows that’s why he carries it, she’s not telling even herself.) It’s my favourite moment in the novel so far.
Can male writers do women? In all the other chapters the main character is male, and Franzen ranges around their lives, and in and out of their concerns and anxieties, as if he knows what he’s talking about. In this chapter he seems less sure, and he gives us what is essentially a 100-page Bildungsroman, told chronologically, about Denise and her problematic adulthood. But before he gets on to that we get a shortish section, mainly about a new character and her delinquent brother, and there’s a section at the end catching up with Chip in Vilnius. These bits feel like safe ground by comparison.
Maybe they feel like that because nothing in the territory feels particularly innovative. Robin Passafaro (who she? we wonder) is described in terms of the other members of her family, mainly her well-meaning – in other words, stupid – leftward-leaning father and her adopted brother Billy who is congenitally evil. The tale of the boy’s evolution from delinquent kid to ultra-violent ‘activist’ is told as comedy. The tone reminded me of Evelyn Waugh’s early novels: appalling things happen, but it’s as though nobody really gets hurt. The injury Billy inflicts on a frontman from a computer firm which has just clinched a lucrative and dodgy educational sponsorship deal – all corporations are dodgy in Franzen-land – is described in all its horror… and we aren’t horrified.
This section is only a few pages long, and there’s nothing in it to make Franzen’s readers uncomfortable. Maybe that’s my problem with it: certain things, as I’ve already suggested, are simply given, and it strikes me as lazy. But hey. It leads on to a twist: Robin is married to a software designer, who has just sold some lucrative software to the computer firm (called W– but sounding like Microsoft) and suddenly they’re millionaires. Robin suspects her brother might have been motivated to half-kill the executive through a kind of fraternal envy: it appears that in this world family rivalries can lead anywhere. And, after that little lesson, it turns out we’re getting this satirical thumbnail sketch because… Denise gets to know them. Ah.
I don’t want to go on about Denise’s unsentimental education. She starts as an over-achieving 18-year-old, doing a summer job in her father’s office – and doing it better than anybody else has ever done it, even the permanent staff. Then we get the first of the sexual episodes: the loss of virginity to a married man she works with. It’s rubbish, because all she’s doing is trying to please. But that’s all she ever aims for, in any context – that’s why she’s such a high achiever – and… it doesn’t sustain her forever. To college, and confusion. Her friend goes for the straightforward approach to sex, and Denise doesn’t: she’s no idea of what she wants, but it isn’t that. She’s never had any idea, and only slept with the married colleague simply in order to get laid before college, only did – a constant theme – what was expected. Denise’s upbringing hasn’t prepared her for adult life, and when she realises she prefers cooking to studying she drops out.
She’s good at it – it suits her fastidious, patient approach – and… and I’m bored now. Boss, sex, success in the restaurant business, marriage. Only later, following her discovery of a couple of unexpected lovers, do we find out her husband does nothing for her sexually. Amazing what you can find out through same-sex sex with somebody unsuitable. Divorce. And, by a route I’ve now forgotten, discovery of Robin’s husband Brian who fancies using some of his money to buy her a restaurant. Before it opens, she goes on a tedious food pilgrimage to Europe and Brian joins her for a couple of weeks. She wonders when he’ll get her into bed (she’s ok with this), but by the time he gets round to making a move she’s gone off the idea.
Robin has always disliked Denise, but Denise likes to be liked and works on her, largely via the daughters. One thing leads to another, and Denise eventually gets Robin to think she’s had the idea of getting into bed with her. Mistake: Robin is a tireless lover, as she’s already told Denise, and the restaurant – now a huge success – suffers from the head chef’s frequent absences. When Brian nearly discovers them at it, Denise has to knock it on the head. Or, well, that outcome is somehow reached, and she stops seeing Robin even socially.
What’s a girl to do – or, rather, the 30-something Denise who still doesn’t know what she’s doing? She goes for a boring night out to some business-related event with Brian. He goes about enjoying his new wealth like other people enjoy new hobbies, and his comfortable spending – in fact, the comfort he enjoys in just about every aspect of his life – gets right up Denise’s nose. But she ends up in bed with him and almost immediately we get the discovery by Robin, the inevitable conversation between her and Brian, the equally inevitable sack for Denise. Are we nearly there yet?
The Denise thread has never seemed very satisfactory to me: I’m not convinced by her sexual awakening through relationships with other women, and I’m not particularly convinced (or terribly bothered) by the near-celebrity status she achieves through her cooking. To me, both of these seem arbitrary – as though Franzen decided he needed to mix her up emotionally whilst giving her huge success in an area she wasn’t really bothered about. It didn’t seem to be written from inside like the best parts of this novel – so still the only authors I’ve ever read who get to the bottom of female sexuality are Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing. (I’m also reading Villette at the moment, and whatever it is that Charlotte Bronte manages to do with the equally mixed-up Lucy Snowe, Franzen doesn’t even come close to with Denise.) Anyway, we’ve reached the ironic conclusion, rather long in coming, that the sibling who had seemed so sorted out is just as confused as the others. Ok.
Via a series of emails Denise sends to Chip, in which she plays the older sister despite being six years younger than he is, Franzen segues into a new thread about 5000 miles to the east. Chip doesn’t want to be reminded about the lunch he absconded from, the money he owes Denise and the approach of Christmas, but, well, it brings him back into the novel after an absence of almost 300 pages. And it reminds us that outside Denise’s personal life there’s a family life to get back to.
But not yet. In Vilnius we get back to Franzen in Evelyn Waugh mode. His version of Lithuania is a ridiculous place where stupid things happen. Chip continues to help running the scam, via a website designed by the sort of unemployed IT nerds you’d conveniently be falling over in a country in meltdown. It’s so preposterous Franzen half-apologises: ‘the more patently satirical the promises’, the more money flows in from gullible Americans. It’s one of those Waugh-like situations, like the frantic assault by Robin’s brother near the start of this chapter, in which we know none of it is real. It’s a satirical thread that often appears in this novel, most often wherever business deals are in the frame… but it doesn’t define the whole novel. Maybe that’s what I like about it: reality is almost always preposterous and arbitrary, and Franzen can have fun with that – but the effects on people are palpable, physically and emotionally real. Franzen does misery like nobody else I’ve ever read.
Vilnius. Inevitably, things fall apart. Gitanas seems willing to go down with the sinking ship. After three months, and as Christmas approaches, he gives Chip nearly $30,000 as ‘severance pay’ – we’ve come to expect this kind of business terminology when the whole thing is a cardboard cut-out – but he will stay in the country to go and see his mother. Chip heads for the airport, and he manages to phone his own mother that he might be home by Christmas. But things haven’t been looking good all day, and now they’re looking worse. In a line that could come straight out of a Waugh novel, a prosperous American girl wonders aloud: ‘Excuse me, what is a tank is doing in the middle of the runway?’ Oh dear.
One Last Christmas and The Corrections – to the end
Tiny Tim didn’t die – and neither does Al, at first, in spite of all that sea and Newton’s laws of motion. We’re inside Al’s head at the start of One Last Christmas and Franzen maintains the thread of his declining mental faculties by occasional, quite astonishing, visits there throughout the chapter. Alongside At Sea, these are my favourite chapters in the novel.
Al is sorting out Christmas lights. He has strings of them going back to the time when they were made to last – or, more tellingly, made to be repaired. They become a symbol, not only of a world before the built-in obsolescence of the 21st Century that Al objects to so much, but of himself: he’s the obsolete model, with skills achieved through hard work – like the knack of fixing things – that nobody wants any more. If this sounds laboured, it isn’t: for me, being back inside Franzen’s version of the old man’s head is where I want to be. We also get (now, or during one of the next visits we pay to Al’s troubled consciousness) how he survived his ordeal in the sea. By default, that’s how: human beings are hard-wired to reach for the life-belt, to kick against the pull of the deep. He doesn’t make a big thing of it, but even at this relatively early stage in his decline Al finds this aspect of his neural engineering regrettable.
He doesn’t change his mind. In fact, the trajectory of his headlong fall into dementia, described both from inside and outside, is the book’s strongest narrative thread. I don’t know how Franzen does it, but he gives Al just enough awareness to recognise what’s happening to him. At one point he imagines he’s like a two-dimensional being trying to make sense of a three-dimensional puzzle – Al’s always had a thing about 3D mathematical imaging – but, as time and the disease move on, he stops even being able to do this. He doesn’t recognise the hospital for what it is: it’s a prison, and the physiotherapist is his gaoler. (This unfailingly courteous man unashamedly calls her ‘that black bastard.’)
Only one aspect of his disintegrating personality remains: his fervent wish to die. We’ve seen the fall from the ship, we’ve seen the shotgun and cartridges he’s got out – but that’s in the past. As all his power drains away he attempts to fling himself at windows – although long before the end he’s confused about why: he just wants what’s ‘out there’. His last hope is Chip, now visiting every day (tell you later). But Chip tells him he can’t help him to die, so that’s that…. Until, after two years in a rest-home, he refuses to eat. As Enid realises, on the last page of a short chapter about assorted corrections that occur after the main events – and the last page of the novel – she has never been able to correct his ability to refuse.
Meanwhile, in the elegantly – but invisibly – choreographed Christmas chapter, the trajectories of all the family members come together for a few fractious hours. The elegant bit is how Franzen gets them there, and how each of them is given enough time alone (narratively speaking) to remind us how rubbish they are. After Al it’s Enid, on the phone to Gary and choosing not to understand that the ‘fever’ that Jonah, her favourite grandson, is suffering from is really her son’s gutless way of telling her he’s coming alone. Enid’s Christmas preparations are exactly what you’d expect – but Franzen doesn’t patronise her. There’s something touching about the cliché-bound presentation of the festival that she insists on: she believes in it, because at some elemental level it represents everything she loves about her family. This is what makes Jonah’s absence such a cruelty: she’s attempting, in that artificial – yet totally sincere – Midwestern way to make some new memories. Ah me – she’s as obsolete as her husband.
Gary. Don’t get me started on Gary: Franzen has made him unattractive from the start – he’s self-serving, self-indulgent, self-justifying – but by the end of his three days at his parents’ house we have no respect for him at all. We’ve already seen how he’s picked up his father’s least attractive traits – especially his insistence on his own rightness – and he arrives in St Jude in the mood to bully his parents. Franzen also makes sure we understand exactly how craven he’s been to let Enid down about Jonah: the appalling, point-scoring Caroline uses his weakness – his longing to be accepted by his own children – to make sure he caves in.
Denise. We’ve seen her with Alfred and Enid before, but Franzen has a twist for her. And us. She’s playing the dutiful daughter, nodding and smiling at Enid, cooking, even trying to help her father until she realises how far gone he is. She’s trying to get him to exercise – part of Enid’s project to get him back to some sort of normal – when he soaks the bed he’s lying on. But that’s not the moment of real revelation, even though Enid eventually has to accept what (no doubt) she’s always known: Alfred won’t be going to Philadelphia for a six-month course of Corecktall.
The real horror comes in one of those wonderfully modulated moments when at least two paths cross like lines in one of Al’s three-dimensional graphs. He tells her not to come into the basement but, suspecting he might be about to use the shotgun, she opens the door anyway – on to a scene of almost infantile helplessness. The old protocols are still in place, and she’s full of apologies. Alfred is as embarrassed as you’d expect – but, as so often happens, he’s also travelling along a different timeline. He’s referring to when he resigned, forfeiting the chance of a much better pension, two years before he needed to – and Denise realises he did it because the work colleague who’d slept with her was going to publicise the affair if he didn’t. ‘I didn’t mean to involve you in this,’ he says, and on one level he’s obviously talking about her finding him vainly trying to fit an incontinence pad. But he’s also talking about his accidental revelation of why he resigned, and of how he never let her know. From where he’s lying he can see the initials scratched into the underside of the table, the ones that proved to him all those years ago that ‘DA’ really had been there. Al shows himself to have been scrupulously careful of his 18-year-old daughter’s needs – but Denise, now in her 30s, is utterly mortified.
It isn’t the end of the novel, for Denise or anyone else. Franzen might be unrelenting in the way he tracks the arcs of the lives that people have set up for themselves, but he isn’t cruel. In the short final chapter he does that Victorian novelist thing of letting us know about what happens to his characters in the couple of years that follow – and how, against the odds, some of them are able to salvage something from the wreckage. The ones who don’t are Alfred and Gary. The ones who do are Denise, Chip and Enid.
But I’m still on the previous chapter, which is all about how they get there. Or don’t. I haven’t mentioned Chip who, we know (and as Gary triumphantly keeps insisting) is not going to make it home for Christmas. Well, Franzen has a surprise for us: he needs Chip at the family breakfast on Christmas morning, so he gets him there. And, because Chip’s storyline has been preposterous from the beginning, his journey from a disintegrating Vilnius is allowed to be straight out of a sly post-Cold War thriller. He loses all his money, except for just enough to get him home, because Franzen needs him poor. (Tell you why later.) Franzen even does magical things with time: after all the legs and dog-legs of his journey Chip arrives, like Scrooge after all those nights of spirit visitations, smack in the middle of Christmas morning.
So. Now Gary can have the family meeting he’s been insisting on… and his behaviour is vile. It isn’t Chip who spoils his mother’s Christmas, it’s Gary with his stark presentation of home truths that nobody needs to hear. Thankfully he has a plane to catch – his clock-watching is another unattractive characteristic to put with all the rest – and he leaves the others to sort things out. Which they do.
As a measure of the level of balance each character reaches, Franzen does clever things with money. It’s a theme that runs through the whole novel even more than I’ve mentioned, and now it feels like another one of those times when trajectories come together. First, there’s Denise and Chip. He sounds sincere in his wish to earn enough to pay her back – but, in a long and tortured conversation, she forces him to accept that she doesn’t want it. What she wants is for Chip to do the right thing with his parents, and stay in St Jude for a week or so. (He ends up staying for months.) During the course of their talk, they both come to an understanding of the limits to the power and importance of money. It matters, of course it matters, but not as much as a lot of other things.
It’s a lesson Enid is able to learn as well: sure, the bigger pension would have been nice but, with Alfred finally in a home, it’s as if she suddenly realises that all her efforts to keep up with her wealthier neighbours are pointless. She stops doing it – and reassesses at least one of her friendships at the same time. (A running gag throughout a lot of the novel is to do with the richest couple in the neighbourhood. They made their money by buying shares in Al’s company after he let slip that it was about to be bought out – an investment Alfred, on a matter of principle, refused to make. It’s another sign of his obsolescence, to go with his refusal to haggle over the value of his patent – but, on an aesthetic level at least, the good guys have the last laugh: the rich neighbours are unspeakable money snobs.)
And then there’s Gary. You can just imagine Franzen cooking up little tortures for him. For a start there’s the receipt for less than five dollars that he keeps showing his mother to remind her that she owes it to him. The rest of the family let him know what a tit he’s being – and they don’t know what we know: the shares he managed to buy in the in the company behind Corecktall have doubled in value – but he’s decided not to mention it, literally to keep it to himself. And guess what: one of the eponymous ‘corrections’ in the final chapter is to the pricing of over-valued stock. It turns out Denise had been right to suspect a scam at the presentation all those months before. Like flies to wanton boys, that’s Gary and everybody like him.
The chapter that introduces us to Chip near the start of the novel is The Failure. The final pages seem designed to disprove that assessment of him. I don’t want to go on about the novel’s title but, well, he’s made enough adjustments in his life for the reserve school teacher he becomes to be a far greater success than the high-flying academic he hoped to be. He’s even gained enough emotional intelligence in his late 30s to realise that the fanciable doctor he first met at his dad’s hospital could be more to him than the one-night stand he would have aimed for in the recent past: reader, he marries her.
The success/failure message – and it really does seem like a message in this modern take on an old-fashioned morality tale – gets through to the two women in the novel as well. Denise still isn’t sorted out – when is anybody, ever? – but she’s come to recognise that she doesn’t have to get on to the pages of the New York Times to achieve some sort of fulfilment. And it’s no accident that Franzen gives the last sentence in a final chapter full of readjustments to Enid: ‘She was 75 and she was going to make some changes in her life.’ You bet.
That’s all right then. Except it isn’t: for Enid to be happy – Franzen is quite explicit about this – Alfred must first disappear and then die. She isn’t callous; it’s just the nature of things beyond the control of either of them: while he is alive, he is impossible to live with. If his story is a tragedy – and the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that’s what it is, to be ranked alongside Death of a Salesman – his tragic flaw is to become more monstrous the more he tries to do the right thing. The long flashback to Chip’s childhood during At Sea shows this perfectly, and for most of the novel his compulsion to control is presented as terribly destructive. And yet… the revelation about his resignation demonstrates exactly how, through the logical application of moral principles, he allows his daughter her innocence. For me, the failure of his philosophy – you know, the one we’ve always assumed is being satirised – is desperately sad. And the way Franzen presents his growing confusion is the equivalent of the soliloquies in earlier forms of tragedy: we’re given leave to witness his disintegration from inside. He doesn’t get the last word, because tragic figures never do. But it’s his story that stays with me.