Feb 1, 2011

Notes on The Corrections

The Corrections is the kind of book you’ll either love or wont wait to put away, or maybe even be unable to complete. It was touted as funny and I found it brutal and poignant. It is poignant in the kind of way Christopher Reeves was in his final days – the sight of something broken and in utter disrepair, something which you believed would be grand and perfect. Most families are like that and if this is so, what is left of value, to value, anymore? What is left to preserve and cherish? This is the theme running through Franzen’s voluminous novel.

Many authors before Franzen have explored this theme (Roth is a master) and frankly speaking there isn’t anything really new if that is what you dig. What seemed to me to be the book’s clincher is the tenderness and love with which Franzen views and treats his flawed characters. That tenderness is as much evident in the scene where Chip sniffs the sofa where he indulged in escapades with his student, as in the scene where Gary (easily the most abominable guy in the cast) stands alienated from his family flipping grilled meat on the open air barbecue outside his kitchen.

Now I realise that The Corrections is not the kind of book that’d appeal to people who possess an intrinsically sunny disposition or have a great attachment to family & friends. But if you’re the kind who often feels alone in the middle of a party; no, correct that – if you’re the kind who often craves for a moment of quiet in the middle of a party, then you’ll love this book. What Franzen seems to be saying is that we are all equally screwed up and it is how we deal with it that defines the degree of correction we have succeeded in making. At the novel’s close (I have copied a bit of that extract here), some corrections are made voluntarily and others are forced by circumstances. Both work or do they? Only time will tell.

The term correction implies a setting right, an undoing of past mistakes – here they stand for the correction in the financial markets (Gary makes a killing during such financial movements, mood corrections which are brought about by a culture increasingly dependent on medications and drugs (mood enhancers named Aslan for Enid and drugs for Parkinsons and dementia named Correctal for Alfred!), and corrections in personal relations (Enid’s relationship with her offsprings sees a marked improvement towards the end).

The novel tells the story of the Lambert family where Alfred, the old man is a retired railroad official who belongs to and has always subscribed to an era where things were built by hand and where hard work and unshakable ethics were the only way a man could function in the world. That such a world is long gone and probably never existed except in his warped imagination is well illustrated via the current lives of his three children – Gary, Denise and Chip – as well as the flashback sequences outlining Alfred’s youth. In fact, forget identify, it is well enough impossible to tolerate Alfred’s rigid moral code, his almost dysfunctional idea of privacy and his obsession with preserving and repairing old things even when his shaking limbs and awry motor movements don’t even allow him to lift a forkful of food without making a mess. Yet, there is something to this man that will touch you occasionally, even if one were to discount the denouement which Franzen rather dramatically exposes towards the novel’s close. Though the novel may appear defeated by its own verbosity, there are sections which are truly delightful for the way in which Franzen deploys words to draw parallels & our attention to essential points he is making. Alfred untangling the wires of the christmas lights in his basement is one of those scenes.

Apart from Alfred we have Enid, his nagging, unhappy, and socially ambitious wife of 48 years whose greatest regret is that none of her children seem to share her dreams. She endlessly complains about Alfred to her children and nags him to make more of an effort to improve his condition, to follow the exercise regime prescribed by their doctor, she nags her children to gather together for one last christmas in their suburban home in St Jude – nags that are met with resistance by Alfred and ignored by her two sons Gary and Chip, and weary resignation by her daughter Denise.

Gary, a borderline alcoholic, is a portfolio manager in Pennsylvania who is trapped in a bad marriage and is endlessly manipulated by his wife Caroline who refuses to accede to her husband’s pleas to accompany him to St Jude for one final Christmas reunion. To all those touting the myth of the happy family, Franzen seems to be deliberately throwing us pictures of an increasingly lonely and defeated Gary whose only comfort seems to be in drinking himself numb. That he finally drives a hard compromise to ensure that the family is not fragmented is no surprise, for in life there are really no real chances of correction, only the illusion of one.

If Gary is married and in hell, Denise is divorced and independent and not doing much better either. A celebrity chef in Philadelphia, she possesses strains of great compassion as also the power to be ruthless and unspeakably cruel to those who care about her. A closet homosexual, occasionally bisexual, someone who is simply looking for ways to escape the shadow cast by her dysfunctional family? Who knows what she really is. Whether she will be able to set her life in order or actually manages to do so at the end is something I’m ambivalent about. There is a very moving scene in which Franzen shows how Denise is not far from becoming the person Enid has become. Without being happy yourself, there is no way you can make others happy is obviously the running idea and yet it is not so pat as that. Denise take steps which Enid is unable to and perhaps there is a faint suggestion of redemption there.

Chip, the youngest of the Lambert offsprings, is a study in utter failure and contradiction. He who quotes and follows Foucault and Marx and likes to rant about ''a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity'' devotes all his energy to pursuing women, maxing out his credit cards and then borrowing money from his sister Denise. There is just one way to define folks like him - loser. A former professor who is well on his way to securing tenure at the college he teaches, he is fired for sexual harassment: rather, unlawful sexual interaction with a student. There is everything wrong with a social order where a hapless guy like Chip is fired and loses his job for indulging in sexual activity with a brat like Rebecca who for all practical purposes seduces the poor guy. Yet the corrections which the college authrorities strive to make penalise the victim instead of the perpetrator.

I’m sure that readers who have found the book funny must have laughed at Chip’s escapades but I’m afraid I’m not one of those who find the spectacle of a grown-up man selling his books and stealing salmon from a supermarket and tucking it under his shirt really funny. To be frank, the Chip sections become fairly tedious as he continuously labours with a never-to-be-finished screenplay and finally flies to a place called Vilnius with a mobster-turned-politician Gitanas who happens to be the Lithuanian ex-husband of Chip’s girlfriend. Gitanas plans to lure American investors to become equity shareholders in Lithuania; his wants Chip to create a website for this purpose and pay him handsomely in return. Comedy is not exactly Franzen’s strong point (in the manner of Woody Allen), and all this soon turns into farce. However, disgraced and penniless, and barely escaping death in a military-coup ravaged Vilinius, Chip manages to make his way home. What he finds there and what he makes of his future are perhaps the closest anyone comes to making a true correction in this vast and sad novel.

In reading the novel I had no doubts that Franzen was well-read and had researched a lot of obscure subjects like the beginning of the railways in America, the names of molecules and components in the pharmaceutical industry, even the crazy world of gangster politics that dots the political landscape of small countries like Slovakia and Lithuania after the fall of the Soviet bloc. But all this gets a bit too much to handle as does the extended description of the cruise which Alfred and Enid take and the people they meet therein. I know Franzen makes a lot of points as he goes along, every episode, every character drawing threads which are all linked to the central theme, but it seems a little gratuituous in a novel which anyway packs quite a punch and sprawls well over 600 pages.

No comments: