“And when the event, the big change in your life, is simply an insight—isn't that a strange thing? That absolutely nothing changes except that you see things differently and you're less fearful and less anxious and generally stronger as a result: isn't it amazing that a completely invisible thing in your head can feel realer than anything you've experienced before? You see things more clearly and you know that you're seeing them more clearly. And it comes to you that this is what it means to love life, this is all anybody who talks seriously about God is ever talking about. Moments like this.”
The Lamberts are experiencing corrections. Not economic ones like the rest of the country, although money does underline everything they worry about. The whole family, in a myriad of ways, is each on the verge of their very own unique self-destruction.
“THE CORRECTION, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle let down, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.”
There may be big events that finally shove us forward, backwards or sideways, but in the aftermath most of us can find, with some self-evaluation, that the crash in our lives was preceded by a series of miniature inadvisable decisions. Sometimes we have to crash to correct.
Alfred is the father, a Kansan, who believed in hard work and honest labor. He has always been moody, self-contained, in many ways... unknowable. At the age of 75 he has come down with Parkinson’s and is quickly becoming a burden, impossible to bear, for his wife Enid and his kids. He has trouble controlling his bowels and this manifests itself in an almost comic, if it weren’t so tragic, series of delusions of talking turds pursuing him relentlessly through the corridors of his own mind. He was an amateur chemist and made an important discovery that for unknowable reasons (it will be revealed later in the book) refuses to fight for his rights to be richly rewarded. It drives his oldest son Gary nuts.
”Gary didn’t know which version of Alfred made him angrier: the spiteful old tyrant who’d made a brilliant discovery in the basement and cheated himself out of a fortune, or the clueless basement amateur who’d unwittingly replicated the work of real chemists, spent scarce family money to file and maintain a vaguely worded patent, and was now being tossed a scrap from the table…. Both versions incensed him.
I admit there are several moments when I too felt the urge to strangle Alfred. He is from a generation and geography where a man makes decisions, and never feels the need to explain himself. He doesn’t care how angry or upset you are. Tears nor threats will move him to give you the reasons that led him to his decisions.
Gary is an investment banker in Philadelphia. He has a beautiful wife named Caroline and three sons. He is fighting with his wife more regularly than normal, and she insists that he is clinically depressed. He believes, and is not just paranoid about this issue, that his wife is manipulating events behind his back, subtly turning his sons against him. She denies everything, concedes nothing. He finds her in pain from her back and realizes as angry as he is….
”That her face was beautiful and that the agony in it was mistakable for ecstasy--that the sight of her doubled-over and mud-spattered and red-cheeked and vanquished and wild-haired on the Persian rug turned him on; that some part of him believed her denials and was full of tenderness for her--only deepened his feeling of betrayal.”
He has a haughty disdain for nearly everyone. He talks down to his mother. He is furious and almost unhinged with his father. He is dismissive of his siblings. His lust for his wife is inspired as much by his desire to try and control her as it is about physical contact. Her fights with him heightens all kinds of feelings of desire. He is almost snobbishly gleeful in his fidelity to her, but as he revels in his superiority there are also other issues knocking around in his head.
”It occurred to Gary, as the young estate planner leaned into him to let a raft of sweltering humanity leave the elevator, as she pressed her hennaed head against his ribs more intimately than seemed strictly necessary, that another reason he’d remained faithful to Caroline through twenty years of marriage was his steadily growing aversion to physical contact with other human beings. Certainly he was in love with fidelity; certainly he got an erotic kick out of adhering to principle; but somewhere between his brain and his balls a wire was also perhaps coming loose, because when he mentally undressed and violated this little redhaired girl his main thought was how stuffy and undisinfected he would find the site of his infidelity--a coliform-bacterial supply closet, a Courtyard Marriott with dried semen on the walls and bedspreads…. each site over warm and underventilated and suggestive of genital warts and chlamydia in its own unpleasant way--and what a struggle it would be to breath, how smothering her flesh, how squalid and foredoomed his efforts not to condescend…”
So really he is faithful because it is unhygienic to cheat.
Chip is the middle child, a teacher at a college when we first meet him. He involves himself with a student who pursued him relentless not so much out of sexual attractiveness, but that she needed his help on a paper for another class. Classic barter system; that unfortunately for Chip, is discovered. After he is fired he writes a breast obsessed first draft of a screenplay called The Academy Purple. It is really horrible. He loses yet another girlfriend, Julia who's boss decides that she needs to upgrade boyfriends. Julia has a husband from Lithuanian who needs someone with Chip’s skills. (???) With zero prospects in NY Chip decides to fly to Lithuania to help defraud American investors; greed can always be exploited.
After cratering over the loss of his young college lover that left him snuffling his furniture for any residual essence of her nether regions, Chip is getting over lost girlfriends quicker helped by fantasy detours about a bartender he just met.
”If he couldn’t get Julia back, he wanted in the worst way to have sex with the bartender. Who looked about thirty-nine herself. He wanted to fill his hands with her smoky hair. He imagined that she lived in a rehabbed tenement on East Fifth, he imagined that she drank a beer at bedtime and slept in faded sleeveless tops and gym shorts, that her posture was weary, her navel unassumingly pierced, her pussy like a seasoned baseball glove, her toenails painted the plainest basic red. He wanted to feel her legs across his back, he wanted to hear the story of her forty-odd years.”
Things don’t go well for Chip in Lithuania, but he was so damn close.
”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.”
Denise is the youngest sibling, a successful chef who finds herself the main negotiator between her parents and her brothers. She has a history of being attracted to older men which probably has something to do with her uneasy relationship with her father. After her marriage to a colleague, twice her age, falls to pieces she is done with men and decides to try her luck with women.
With mixed results.
She gets an opportunity of a lifetime when she meets a young entrepreneur, a member of the recently wealthy who decides he wants to open a restaurant. He wants Denise to be his chef and he wants her in his bed. She resists, barely, intent on not letting sex destroy this opportunity for her. Kudos for trying to break a bad pattern. Good thinking...but sleeping with his wife nullifies all that careful arms length tango she carried out so well with the husband.
”Her car was like a tongue gliding down the melty asphalt streets, her feet like twin tongues licking the pavement, the front door of the house on Panama Street like a mouth that swallowed her, the Persian runner in the hall outside the master bedroom like a tongue beckoning, the bed in its cloak of comforter and pillows a big soft tongue begging to be depressed, and then.”
The problem with Denise is she has a hard time resisting people who find her attractive. She enjoys the fact that older men really appreciate her shapely body. The sexual attraction that males and females have for her compels her forward in a relationship long past the time when any of it is still pleasurable for her. She loses everything for something she really didn’t want in the first place.
I haven’t even gotten to the mother Enid. She is at that point in her life where she is ready to go do things and finds her husband”moldering and devaluing” before her very eyes. He is an albatross around her neck; and yet, she still loves him. She desperately clings to the idea of the whole Lambert family coming together one more time in St. Jude for Christmas.
If you are someone who likes to read books where you like the characters you might struggle with this book. I find that a lot of people who say they don’t like this book abandon it before completion.
It is natural to want someone in a story that you can root for.
As Jonathan Franzen unpacks these characters he exposes those things that are generally hidden beneath our clothes like a nasty wart near a nipple or cellulite on our butt cheeks. The type of flaws we would prefer to be seen in half-light, not the glaring brightness of daylight. I started out not liking any of these characters, their flaws were dominating their inherently good qualities, but as Franzen so deftly unspools more revelations I became more and more sympathetic.
What we have to remember is that none of us knows someone’s whole history. We get pieces and sometimes those are the best pieces, and sometimes we only see someone at their worst moment. We never have the whole story that might make sense out of the senseless. We have a tendency to ignore our own flaws and castigate those same flaws in others. You might be starting to understand where I’m going with all this. These characters are human, maybe too human, but that could be because Jonathan Franzen may have wrote one of the most honest books you’ll ever read.