Title: The Corrections.
Author: Jonathan Franzen.
Genre: Fiction, family saga, mental health.
Publication Date: September 1, 2001.
Summary: The Lamberts - Enid and Alfred and their three grown-up children - are a troubled family living in a troubled age. Alfred is slowly losing his mind to Parkinson's disease. Denise, recently divorced, is a head chef at her own restaurant, but things start to go awry when she begins an affair with his boss's wife. Gary is married with three children and a good job, but is in the midst a minor breakdown, spurred by his growing depression and his wife's refusal to go to his parents' for Christmas and turning the kids against him. Chip lost his job as a professor after having an affair with a student, so he ends up moving to Lithuania, where he builds fake websites to con wealthy investors. As Alfred's condition worsens, and the Lamberts are forced to face the secrets and failures that haunt them, Enid sets her heart on gathering everyone together for one last family Christmas.
My rating: 6.5/10.
♥ "Al? What are you doing?"
He turned to the doorway where she'd appeared. He began a sentence: "I am—" but when he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he'd entered, he would realize that the crumbs he'd dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds, silent deft darting things which he couldn't quite see in the darkness but which were so numerous and swarming in their hunger that it seemed as if they were the darkness, as if the darkness weren't uniform, weren't an absence of light but a teeming and corpuscular thing, and indeed when as a studious teenager he'd encountered the word "crepuscular" in McKay's Treasury of English Verse, the corpuscles of biology had bled into his understanding of the word, so that for his entire adult life he'd seen in twilight a corpuscularity, as of the graininess of the high-speed film necessary for photography under conditions of low ambient light, as of a kind of sinister decay; and hence the panic of a man betrayed deep in the woods whose darkness was the darkness of starlings blotting out the sunset or black ants storming a dead opossum, a darkness that didn't just exist but actively consumed the bearings that he'd sensibly established for himself, lest he be lost; but in the instant of realizing he was lost, time became marvelously slow and he discovered hitherto unguessed eternities in the space between one word and the next, or rather he became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him, the thoughtless boyish part of him crashing on out of sight blindly through the woods while he, trapped, the grownup Al, watched in oddly impersonal suspense to see if the panic-stricken little boy might, despite no longer knowing where he was or at what point he'd entered the woods of this sentence, still manage to blunder into the clearing where Enid was waiting for him, unaware of any woods - "packing my suitcase," he heard himself say. This sounded right. Verb, possessive, noun. Here was a suitcase in front of him, an important confirmation. He'd betrayed nothing.
♥ "I'm saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as "diseased." A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroys the appetite for the one pleasure in life that's free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental "health" is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you're buying into buying. And I'm saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant."
♥ "Excuse me," Melissa said, "but that is just such bullshit."
"What is bullshit?"
"This whole class," she said. "It's just bullshit every week. It's one critic after another wringing their hands about the state of criticism. Nobody can ever quite say what's wrong exactly. But they all know it's evil. They all know "corporate" is a dirty word. And if somebody's having fun or getting rich - disgusting! Evil! And it's always the death of this and the death of that. And people who think they're free aren't "really" free. And people who think they're happy aren't "really" happy. And it's impossible to radically critique society anymore, although what's so radically wrong with society that we need such a radical critique, nobody can say exactly. It is so typical and perfect that you hate those ads!" she said to Chip as, throughout Wroth Hall, bells finally rang. "Here things are getting better and better for women and people of color, and gay men and lesbians, more and more integrated and open, and all you can think about is some stupid, lame problem with signifiers and signifieds. Like, the only way you can make something bad out of an ad that's great for women - which you have to do, because there has to be something wrong with everything - is to say it's evil to be rich and evil to work for a corporation, and yes, I know the bell rang."
...Melissa's accusations had cut him to the quick. He'd never quite realized how seriously he'd taken his father's injunction to do work that was "useful" to society. Criticizing a sick culture, even if the criticism accomplished nothing, had always felt like useful work. But if the supposed sickness wasn't a sickness at all - if the great Materialist Order of technology and consumer appetite and medical science really was improving the lives of the formerly oppressed; if it was only straight white males like Chip who had a problem with this order - then there was no longer even the most abstract utility to his criticism. It was all, in Melissa's word, bullshit.
♥ "Not from me," Enid interrupted. "I don't know where my children got their talents. But not from me. I'm a nothing as a cook. A big nothing." (How strangely good it felt to say this! It was like putting scalding water on a poison-ivy rash.)
♥ "So, what, you got cigarette burns, too?" Gitanas said.
Chip showed his palm. "It's nothing."
"Self-inflicted. You pathetic American."
"Different kind of prison," Chip said.
♥ He'd had the sense, moments earlier, that Caroline was on the verge of accusing him of being "depressed," and he was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never again win an argument.
It was therefore all the more important now to resist depression - to fight it with the truth.
♥ "Impossibility is attractive. You know, the safety of dead-ended things."
♥ "Take it easy."
The phrase seemed to Alfred an eastern blight, a fitting epitaph for a once-great state, Ohio, that parasitic Teamsters had sucked nearly dry. Nobody in St. Jude would dare tell him to take it easy. On the high prairie where he'd grown up, a person who took it easy wasn't much of a man. Now came a new effeminate generation for whom "easygoing" was a compliment. Alfred heard Erie Belt track gangs yukking it up on company time, he saw flashily dressed clerks taking ten-minute breaks for coffee, he watched callow draftsmen smoke cigarettes with insinuating relish while a once-solid railroad fell to pieces all around them. "Take it easy" was the watchword of these superfriendly young men, the token of their overfamiliarity, the false reassurance that enabled them to ignore the filth they worked in.
♥ He despised the museum and its goers for everything they didn't know.
♥ Lately she had taken to feeding him grilled cheese sandwiches all day long, holding back for dinner the yellow and leafy green vegetables required for a balanced diet and letting Alfred fight her battles.
There was something almost tasty and almost sexy in letting the annoying boy be punished by her husband. In standing blamelessly aside while the boy suffered for having hurt her.
What you discovered about yourself in raising children wasn't always agreeable or attractive.
♥ Whether anybody was home meant everything to a house. It was more than a major fact: it was the only fact.
The family was the house's soul.
The waking mind was like the light in a house.
The soul was like the gopher in his hole.
Consciousness was to brain as family was to house.
Aristotle: Suppose the eye were an animal - sight would be its soul.
To understand the mind you pictured domestic activity, the hum of related lives on varied tracks, the hearth's fundamental glow. You spoke of "presence" and "clutter" and "occupation." Or, conversely, of "vacancy" and "shutting down." Of "disturbance."
♥ "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."
♥ "And so maybe the moral of this long story which you've been a total dear to listen to, Enid, is that I can't stop finding a moral to the story no matter how hard I try not to."
♥ Here was a torture that the Greek inventors of the Feast and the Stone had omitted from their Hades: the Blanket of Self-Deception. A lovely warm blanket as far as it covered the soul in torment, but it never quite covered everything. And the nights were getting cold now.
♥ "Folks," the tour guide urged, "just sit back and drink it in." But that which can be drunk can also drown.
♥ The Astors and the Vanderbilts, their pleasure domes and money; she was sick of it. Sick of envying, sick of herself. She didn't understand antiques or architecture, she couldn't draw like Sylvia, she didn't read like Ted, she had few interests and no expertise. A capacity for love was the one true thing she'd ever had. And so she tuned out the tour guide and heeded the October angle of the yellow light, the heart-mangling intensities of the season. In the wind pushing waves across the bay she could smell night's approach. It was coming at her fast: mystery and pain and a strange yearning sense of possibility, as though heartbreak were a thing to be sought and moved toward.
♥ Fear of humiliation and the craving for humiliation are closely linked: psychologists know it, Russian novelists know it. And this turns out to be not only "true" but really true. On a molecular level.
♥ After the nightmare of the previous day and nights she again had a concrete thing to look forward to; and how sweet the optimism of the person carrying a newly scored drug that she believed would change her head; how universal the craving to escape the givens of the self. No exertion more strenuous than raising hand to mouth, no act more violent than swallowing, no religious feeling, no faith in anything more mystical than cause and effect was required to experience a pill's tranformative blessings. She couldn't wait to take it.
♥ "I would never come to this neighborhood," he said.
"These couple of blocks are pretty safe."
"See, for you, that's true," he said. "A place can sense if you understand trouble. If you don't understand it, you get left alone. My problem is I understand it. If I had come to a street like this when I was your age, something ugly would have happened."
"I don't see why."
"It's just the way it was. I would look up, and suddenly there would be three strangers who hated my guts. And I hated theirs. This is a world you can't even see if you're an effective and happy person. A person like you walks right through it. It's waiting for someone like me to come along so I can have the shit beat out of me. It's had me picked out from a mile away."
♥ Life, in her experience, had a kind of velvet luster. You looked at yourself from one perspective and all you saw was weirdness. Move your head a little bit, though, and everything looked reasonably normal. She believed she couldn't hurt anybody as long as she was only working.
♥ She had reason to seem strung out, of course - she routinely slept four hours a night, and before long the kitchen was running at full throttle - and Brian distracted by his film projects, was every bit as easy to deceive as she'd anticipated. But "deceive" wasn't even the word. "Dissociate" was more like it. Her affair was like a dream life unfolding in that locked and soundproofed chamber of her brain where, growing up in St. Jude, she'd learned to hide desires.
♥ He suspected that somewhere, somehow, this new technology was stupid or lazy. Some young engineer had taken a shortcut and failed to anticipate the consequences that he was suffering now. But because he didn't understand the technology, he had no way to know the nature of the failure or to take steps to correct it.
And so the goddamned lights made a victim of him, and there wasn't a goddamned thing he could do except go out and spend.
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.
♥ The human species was given dominion over the earth and took the opportunity to exterminate other species and warm the atmosphere and generally ruin things in its own image, but it paid this price for its privileges: that the finite and specific animal body of this species contained a brain capable of conceiving the infinite and wishing to be infinite itself.
♥ The urban vacancy of Philadelphia, the hegemony of wind and sky here, struck her as enchanted. As Narnian. She loved Philadelphia the way she loved Robin Passafaro. Her heart was full and her senses were sharp, but her head felt liable to burst in the vacuum of her solitude.
♥ You thought you knew what food was, you thought it was elemental. You forgot how much restaurant there was in restaurant food and how much home was in homemade.
♥ 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.
To Chip, unfortunately, it seemed that Alfred cared about his children only to the degree that they succeeded. Chip was so busy feeling misunderstood that he never noticed how badly he himself misunderstood his father.
♥ "I want the real thing or I don't want anything."
♥ 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 lock track of himself.
♥ "Dad, Dad, Dad. What's wrong?"
Alfred looked up at his son and into his eyes. He opened his mouth, but the only word he could produce was "I—"
I have made mistakes—
I am alone—
I am wet—
I want to die—
I am sorry—
I did my best—
I love my children—
I need your help—
I want to die—
"I can't be here," he said.