The Girl on the Train Runs on Multiple Narrative Tracks

Techniques tracked:
-narrative structure: braiding first-person perspectives
-drowning your baby without being sexist


Paula Hawkins’ domestic thriller The Girl on the Train has been touted “the new Gone Girl(and so it, too, is being adapted into a movie), and while Salon’s Laura Miller identifies several ways it doesn’t live up to its predecessor (in the article I stole the above image from), I would argue Hawkins’ novel has a much more satisfactory conclusion. While Gillian Flynn presents an arresting allegorical tale of marriage’s psychological complexities, with some formal twists accentuating its dramatic ones, and sharper observed details and prose, the depiction of its principle female character, who could ultimately be characterized as a crazy, manipulative bitch, left, in my book, a lot to be desired.

One of the joys of the holiday season is being exposed to the extended blend that constitutes family. At my uncle’s gatherings, his ex- and current wife are always both present. In the sitcom Reba, which I had the fortune of being exposed to over the break, Reba’s ex-husband’s wife is a major character who herself eventually initiates divorce proceedings–an arc that could, in crudest terms, sum up that of Hawkins’ novel. While Flynn zeroes in on one marriage, Hawkins brings in a larger cast, playing on the drama inherent in the ex factor and leaving room for shifting alliances. By the end, a woman will leave the husband who left his wife for her just before the novel started.

The titular girl on the train is Rachel, who rides into London every day so her flatmate thinks she still has a job, passing directly by the house she used to share with Tom, where he now lives with Anna and their new baby (we eventually find out Rachel became the depressed drunk she is still after she failed to conceive a child). Rachel’s just as interested in the neighbors a few doors down, a couple she fantasizes has a perfect relationship–until one day she sees the woman kissing someone else. Rachel is very upset to see her cheating on her husband, betraying their supposedly perfect relationship, voluntarily throwing away what Rachel had ripped from her. Shortly thereafter, that woman, Megan, disappears from a train station on their street the same night Rachel’s there to drunkenly confront her ex (and not for the first time). Rachel can’t remember anything the next day, and even though she doesn’t believe she was involved in Megan’s disappearance, Hawkins starts dropping hints that she was–she’s got some nasty cuts and bruises, for one thing, and vague memories of having been in an argument. (But it’s early, and if the reader’s thinking Rachel’s the one who killed Megan, it must be misdirection.) Rachel goes to Megan’s husband Scott to tell him Megan was having an affair, leading them to Megan’s therapist Kamal Abdic, whom we know from Megan’s sections she was having an affair with. But the police drop him as a suspect and pursue Scott, whose short temper Rachel runs up against as well, causing her to doubt her initial conviction that he couldn’t have killed Megan. Meanwhile, Rachel’s continuing to turn up in the neighborhood, both to jog her memory at the crime scene and to help Scott, increasing the panic of Anna, who believes Rachel’s there to harass their family; Rachel’s continued drinking does little to help her credibility. It turns out Megan was pregnant when she died, but that the baby isn’t Scott’s or Kamal’s. Eventually, after talking to another guy she interacted with briefly at the station the night Megan disappeared, Rachel pieces together bits of memory–that it was Tom she got in an altercation with that night, who hit her, and who got in a car and left with Megan. Anna is discovering evidence of Tom cheating on her when Rachel comes to her with her suspicions. Then Tom shows up, and Rachel confronts him, causing her dynamic with Anna to shift from enemies to allies. After Tom eventually admits to killing Megan for getting too clingy in the course of their affair, Rachel manages to kill him with an appropriate weapon, one once emblematic of her weakness–a corkscrew.

Rachel’s narrative is alternated with that of two other first-person narrators, Anna and Megan, in a structure that almost resembles a French braid, though the primary strand the other two are wrapped around could be conceived of differently–Rachel’s could be the main thread for getting the most airtime, Megan’s and Anna’s smaller threads wound around its stabilizing core, or Megan’s past thread is the main one that Rachel’s and Anna’s present ones are wound around. These threads unspool the mystery of what happened to Megan, whose thread runs along a different timeline–Megan’s thread gives us what happens up to the point of her disappearance, while Anna’s and Rachel’s give us what happens after it. Megan’s thread, then, is imbued not with the tension of what happened–we know it will end in her violent death–but with the tension of discovering how and why she died. She tells her therapist-lover Kamal the terrible secret from her past her husband doesn’t know, that she had a baby with her boyfriend when she was still a teenager whom she fell asleep in the tub holding and accidentally drowned. When she gets pregnant in the present, she makes her climactic decision to come clean to Scott to do right by the baby and thereby make it up to the one she drowned:

I’m going to do the right thing. I’m going to do everything right. If I do everything right, then nothing can go wrong. Or if it does, it cannot be my fault.

Her logic turns out to be a wee bit problematic, because really the complete opposite will be true–doing this right thing is the critical choice that leads to her own death. (It’s also the choice that redeems her to the reader, that makes us sympathize with her even if she brought it all on herself.) When she tells Scott, he barely stops short of strangling her, and she leaves. When she tells Tom, he tells her to abort the baby because she’ll be a horrible mother, causing her to fly into a rage, to which he responds by bashing her head in, and the last thing she hears is his saying “Now look what you made me do.”

Megan’s past chronology unfolding alongside that of the present means the climactic chapters in the past and present threads come right next to each other toward the book’s end. It also means that Megan’s climactic chapter, her ending point, is the starting point of the other threads–we see the kiss that Rachel witnessed in the beginning, the event that leads to her continued involvement in the case, occur in Megan’s last chapter; there’s the added irony that the moment Megan’s deciding to do right is the same moment Rachel witnesses what will out her past transgressions–her kiss to Kamal to thank him. Alternating the threads of these timelines also enables Hawkins to heighten the tension of both threads individually by forcing us to wait even longer before a chapter’s cliffhanger is resolved. She’s effectively doubled the suspense. We’re being pulled along on two tracks.

My first fiction teacher Justin Cronin taught the traditional three-act model, with the perhaps more uniquely labeled concept of “plot points” ushering in the action of the second and third acts. In this novel, plot point one, ushering the action from the first act into the second, is Megan Hipwell’s disappearance. The trajectory of the action in the second act, which takes up the majority of the narrative, is to answer the question of who is responsible for her disappearance. Plot point two, ushering us from the second act into the third, is when Rachel figures out the answer to this question: Tom. The third act will answer the question of how the revelation of the killer’s identity will resolve itself. The answer: Tom’s death.

It’s hard to pull off a plot twist with new info that one of your first-person narrators already knew; the reader feels tricked, like if that narrator already knew it, we should have been told sooner. In Megan’s sections we see her having an affair with Kamal, but we don’t know anything about her affair with Tom until much later, when the pregnancy is revealed postmortem. If Hawkins does get away with this, she does so just barely. In the sections where we first see Megan cheating on her husband, the man she’s with isn’t named; later when it’s revealed she’s sleeping with Kamal the reader assumes he was the male pronoun she was sleeping with earlier, but she’s left the possibility open it was Tom. Other passages, like this one where Megan runs into Anna, has a whole new layer of meaning once you know Megan’s sleeping with Tom, which on first read, you don’t:

…as I turn the corner I see [Anna], coming towards me…. She looks at me and nods and gives me one of those weak smiles, which I don’t return. Usually, I would pretend to be nice, but this morning I feel real, like myself. I feel high, almost like I’m tripping, and I couldn’t fake nice if I tried.

The expositional explanation of how Megan’s and Tom’s affair started and how she suddenly found herself falling for him did feel a bit rushed. However, it’s nicely symmetrical narratively, if not quite proportionately–all three of the female narrators fall for Tom, the killer.

Personally I enjoyed the representation of the cycle of Rachel’s drunkenness and shame, and the distinctness of the female voices. Each had their defining trait–Rachel’s drunken desperation, Anna’s domestic security, Megan’s domestic discontent. But initially, a couple of things bothered me. I guess female writers rarely get accused of being sexist by default, but if Jonathan Franzen had written this plot, he might well have. (If he’d written Gone Girl, he definitely would have.) Rachel’s being a complete mess over not being able to have a baby bothered me; the entire basis of her self-worth and identity were predicated on making herself a part of the typical domestic unit. Though, sure, there are probably plenty of women who feel such things, and anyway, Rachel’s dedication to Tom is proven utterly ridiculous in the end, to her and to the reader, when he’s revealed to be a liar and a killer. So then I was bothered by her potential stupidity for believing she knew a man she didn’t at all, and loving him, which would then be a problem for all three of these female protagonists. But after thinking about it, the conclusion seems to show the violence and manipulation men are capable of, which would make this book an apt response to Gone Girl, where it was the woman who turned out to be the ultimately violent and manipulative one. But Hawkins’ Tom is more complex than Flynn’s Amy–someone who feels like a real man, any man, and not just a psychopath.

As an addendum to the sexism discussion, compare John Updike’s version of a woman accidentally drowning her baby in a bathtub in Rabbit, Run:

With a sob of protest she grapples for the child but the water pushes up at her hands, her bathrobe tends to float, and the slippery thing squirms in the sudden opacity. She has a hold, feels a heartbeat on her thumb, and then loses it, and the skin of the water leaps with pale refracted oblongs that she can’t seize the solid of; it is only a moment, but a moment dragged out in a thicker time. Then she has Becky squeezed in her hands…

A contorted memory of how they give artificial respiration pumps Janice’s cold wet arms in frantic rhythmic hugs; under her clenched lids great scarlet prayers arise, wordless, monotonous, and she seems to be clasping the knees of a vast third person whose name, Father, Father, beats against her head like physical blows. Though her wild heart bathes the universe in red, no spark kindles in the space between her arms; for all of her pouring prayers she doesn’t feel the faintest tremor of an answer in the darkness against her. Her sense of the third person with them widens enormously, and she knows, knows, while knocks sound at the door, that the worst thing that has ever happened to any woman in the world has happened to her.

to Hawkins’:

The room gets darker and darker until I’m there again, lying in the water, her body pressing against mine, a candle flickering just behind my head. I can hear it guttering, smell the wax, feel the chill of the air around my neck and shoulders. I’m heavy, my body sinking into the warmth. I’m exhausted. And then suddenly the candle is out and I’m cold. Really cold, my teeth chattering in my head, my whole body shaking. The house feels like it’s shaking, too, the wind screaming, tearing at the slates on the roof.

“I fell asleep,” I say, and then I can’t say any more, because I can feel her again, no longer on my chest, her body wedged between my arm and the edge of the tub, her face in the water. We were both so cold.

In both Updike’s and Hawkins’ renditions, the man had run out on the woman, leaving her to care for the baby alone, thus implicating the man in the baby’s death. But notably, in Updike’s version, the woman’s response to the man’s leaving is to get drunk, which is what causes her to then drown the baby, while in Hawkins’ version, the woman is not drunk, but tired because the man isn’t there to help her. Which version gives the woman a little more credit?  


Axes and Utes: Tension and Narrative Unreliability in Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days

Techniques tracked:
-manipulating tension: when knowing what is going to happen makes you want to know how it happened
-how to pull off plot twists with an unreliable narrator


The structure of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days is relatively straightforward, yet highly effective. We begin in London in November of 1985, when our first-person narrator, seventeen-year-old Peggy, cuts her father’s image from the last photograph that remains of him. The second sentence does an amazing amount of work: “He didn’t look like a liar.” The plot of the novel will be how Peggy comes to find out her father is a liar, while also revealing Peggy herself to be one, the quintessential unreliable narrator.

The second chapter takes us back nine years, to when this business of her father being a liar must have started. Peggy describes the survivalist club her father is a part of; he was particularly close with a man named Oliver Hannington. The bulk of the book’s chapters will be dedicated to unspooling this past narrative; Fuller establishes a pattern of three chapters in the past then one in the present, three in the past, one in the present, etc. In the past, while Peggy’s German mother Ute, a pianist, is away touring, her father has a fight with Oliver Hannington and then absconds with Peggy to a cabin deep in the woods, far from the reaches of civilization or of any other human being. While the chronic tension is how Peggy figured out her father is a liar, which she’s figured out before the novel’s starting point in 1985, the acute tension is her figuring out what drove him to abscond with her to the forest in the first place, which she’s piecing together in the novel’s present, after she’s returned.

In the chapters that recount Peggy’s years in the cabin, die Hütte, with her father, he tells her that all of civilization, including her mother, has been destroyed, and that they’re the last two people on earth. When Peggy eventually meets a man named Reuben in the forest, this theory is challenged, but Peggy believes Reuben is merely a survivor like she and her father. As her father becomes increasingly unhinged–most directly evidenced by his calling Peggy “Ute,” his wife’s name–Peggy spends more and more time with Reuben. He’s incredulous when she tells him of her father’s plan to kill them both with poison mushrooms, more so of her own seeming willingness to participate in the plan because she’s promised her father to than with the plan itself. The morning they’re supposed to eat the mushrooms, Reuben sneaks into the cabin and spirits Peggy away, and they consummate their relationship physically for the first (and only) time. Forced to return to the cabin for Peggy’s shoes, Reuben ends up killing her father with their axe after her father slices part of her ear off with a knife for breaking her promise. Reuben then abandons Peggy to walk for several days until she stumbles on a village, though this is still not enough for her to figure out her father’s lied.

In the present thread, Peggy’s been home for two months. She has a little brother, Oskar, she didn’t know about who was born not long after she left. She hears about how her mother dealt with her absence and notes her mother’s distress upon learning her father fought with Oliver Hannington right before they left. She learns that the one piece of music her father took with them, the one he taught her to play piano with on one he made her out of wood (her mother had always refused to teach her to play because their home piano was too nice for beginners), was the same music her mother played during the concert where she first met him, when he was serving as her page-turner. Eventually, we learn that Peggy’s pregnant. After we’ve gotten the climax in the past thread of how her father died–as well as the moment she was in the hospital and realized everyone there wasn’t survivors, but that her father had lied–her mother shows her the note her father left before he took her into the woods, which says he’s keeping Peggy while Ute can keep “the other one.” Her mother admits she didn’t know if Peggy’s brother was Oliver’s or Peggy’s father’s when she became pregnant, and her telling Peggy’s father this was why he left. Peggy’s father is redeemed somewhat, as both parents are made complicit in his crime.

Climaxes in past and present accounted for, the book could have ended there and still been damn good, but there’s a twist: right after Peggy’s mother makes her climactic reveal about Oliver, she gets a call informing her that Peggy must have made Reuben up. The only fingerprints on the axe that killed her father are hers; none of the evidence they should be able to trace Reuben by (a blue hat left behind) is there. Described so baldly, the twist might sound either predictable or far-fetched, but in the course of the book, the revelation not only makes perfect sense, but adds an even deeper sinister undercurrent to what we’ve read thus far–this means, for one thing, that Peggy is pregnant with her own father’s baby.

At the end, I wasn’t exasperated with Peggy’s unreliability and the fact that so much of what I’d read and understood to be happening had not, in fact, literally happened, because it made perfect sense that her psyche hadn’t been able to process it. This manifestation of how incredibly stressful her situation was made me feel even sorrier for her. While the version of things the reader gets is a lot less horrifying than what actually happens to her, becoming aware of it after the fact still deepens its horror, makes it far worse than if it had been described graphically in the moment. But Fuller also had to lay careful clues to pull this ending off without pissing off the reader.

The first clue(s) is the placement of Reuben’s appearances. It’s always in the aftermath of Peggy’s father doing something sinister, another step down the slope of his derangement, that Reuben appears. The first time she sees footprints is after her father starts muttering about Oliver Hannington and his lies about how fortified the cabin was (Oliver H sends them to that cabin both directly, by telling her father about it, and indirectly, by sleeping with Ute). Reuben’s and Peggy’s first face-to-face meeting comes right after Peggy tries to take a spyglass that her father then strikes her in the head with, drawing blood that Reuben then washes away. It seems the more her father deteriorates mentally, the more Reuben develops physically (they finally have sex the morning Peggy’s father is trying to kill her).

Another big clue is the axe. The first time an axe is mentioned, Peggy is, in the present thread, considering what things her little brother might or might not know, not having had a father:

He was almost as tall as me, but so young. I was still shocked, every time I looked at him, to think I was exactly his age when my father and I left this house. While Ute was ladling porridge, made with water—the way I liked it—I wondered whether the Scouts had taught Oskar how to light a fire without matches, or how to catch squirrels by their necks, or use an axe with one smooth, swift motion. Perhaps they were things he and I could discuss another day.

Then, when she actually first tries to use it:

On top of the pile of salvageable items was an axe. I considered it while putting the skinning knife in the pocket of my dungarees. The axe was long-handled and heavy-headed and, grasping it in two hands, I pulled it from the heap. Its shaft was polished from years of sweat and oily hands. I ran my thumb along the pitted edge of the blade without any idea of what the action meant. Attempting to skin the rabbit with a forbidden knife would get me into trouble, but my father had never warned me about using an axe.

I hefted the axe into the air, where it wobbled, deciding whether to tip me over backward, but my shoulders tilted and the axe took over, swinging itself forward with terrifying violence—taking me with it. I shut my eyes; the axe was in charge. With a life of its own, it cleaved the air and I felt the crunch as steel met flesh and bone, and it buried its blade into the earth with the downward force. It pulled me in its wake, my forehead slamming into the handle.

Tellingly, she injures herself trying to use it. That “without any idea of what the action meant” is definitely more eye-catching and resonant on second read, as is the idea of the axe having a life of its own. When her father tries to teach her to use the axe, she still does it with her eyes closed, but as time goes on, she gets the hang of it, in a passage that comes right after she’s tried to tell her father about Reuben, but he won’t listen:

I sat down on the bed, my news spoiled. After a moment’s thought, I clamped my lips together and went to the corner by the stove and picked up the axe. I carried it outside with the sharpening stone. I was powerful with the tool in my hands and angry enough with my father to use it. I stroked the blade with the stone until the sun caught its edge. I placed a small log on the block, as my father and I had done last autumn, and holding the axe shaft halfway down, I lifted it over my head and let its weight slam into the wood. The little log split clean in two.

She’s angry enough with her father to use it! And we see that at this point, she’s more than capable of doing so. There’s also her dream that pretty much encapsulates the past thread’s entire trajectory:

I dreamed of two people frozen to death in their single bed, locked together in the shape of a double S. When the spring sunshine crept under the door, the bodies defrosted and melted. An unknown man came upon the cabin, hacking his way in with an axe through the stems of a thorny rose which bound the door shut. I saw his hand, rough and hairy, reach out to pull back the sleeping bags, revealing faceless pulp, like the slippery guts of fish. I woke sweating and terrified at the image and the feeling I was left with, but even worse was the realization a few seconds later that no man would ever fight his way into die Hütte to find our decomposing bodies; there was no one left in the world but the two of us.

Another clue comes in the passage describing the night leading into the morning her father dies, after he’s been calling Peggy “Ute” again:

“It’s our last night,” [my father] said, and yanked on the covers so that they came free from under my body and he was able to climb in beside me.

I lay still with my arms straight down and my eyes shut, and thought about the view I had seen from the tree, how the land curved gracefully down to the river and up the other side. How the wintereyes and beech across the water did look perfect from far away, like the dark green heads of curly kale that I grew in the garden, complex and convoluted. And I thought about how all the bad things—the snake that ate the bird’s egg, the eagle that ripped the mouse into bloody shreds, the ants in the honey—were the necessary details in a world that would still be here after we were gone. After a time my father went back to his own bed and I heard his breathing change as he fell asleep. I lay awake in the dark for a long while, climbing the tree again, but without difficulty this time, and standing on the branch with my arms out. I dived off and a warm breeze caught me, and like the eagle I flew over the mountain ledges, the gribble, the butterfly heather, and the wintereyes.

“Punzel.” Reuben hissed my name in the dark. “Punzel!” his voice came again beside my ear.

This is the first passage where her father overtly tries to get in her bed, where the act is referenced; the reader reads it initially as Peggy distracting herself with other thoughts while he’s doing something bad to her, which is itself not literally described. It turns out, though, that where on first read the fantasy appeared to end, it actually didn’t.

In the end, I forgive Peggy for being unreliable, having come to understand her unreliability as a product of her father’s. While I hardly let her father off the hook, he is far from a purely evil villain. That he spends so much of the first summer making her wood piano that they almost starve to death that winter is the perfect encapsulation of the tragedy and ill-fatedness of his love. In the final lines of the book, Peggy seems to understand this as she takes a bath and remembers Reuben:

I slid into the tepid water, watching the very top of my belly rise above it like a tiny island. I closed my eyes and remembered the warm summer sun turning the tips of Reuben’s hair orange.

If Reuben was more developed the more her father was deranged, then he functions as a repository for her father’s good qualities as they leak out of him; Peggy mentally preserves them in a new form. In remembering Reuben like this, after she knows he wasn’t real, she’s really remembering the best side of her father; summer is, notably, die Hütte’s best season.


In Defense of Franzen Pt II: The Purity Post

Techniques tracked:
-Conflict/plot model: the character gets what s/he wants but doesn’t want it anymore
-Having a section of the novel “literally” play a role in the plot


To admit one has a complicated relationship with Jonathan Franzen is to mark oneself as a cliché, and so I am one,” begins Megan Abbott’s segment of The Oyster Review’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, itself an embodiment of conflicted Franzen responses, and my sentiments here could be expressed no better.

This year marks the publication of Franzen’s second novel since 2001’s National-Book-Award-winning The Corrections. While the jury of public opinion may remain split on whether such abstract concepts make the best titles (Franzen joked at his reading in Houston this past September that the book could have been called Guilty Secrets), the new one’s title also refers to a character, as opposed to the purely abstract, like 2010’s Freedom. But in one respect Purity leans on Freedom too much, where it should have leaned on other aspects more. 

In keeping with the character-driven plots Franzen initiated with The Corrections, as discussed in a previous post, the book is divided into seven discrete novella-length sections by point of view.

  1. “Purity in Oakland” (Pip)

The first follows the title character, Purity Tyler, or “Pip,” a recent college grad crippled by student debt who’s living in squatter’s quarters while working as an “outreach assistant” for an energy start-up: i.e., a dead-end job trying to sell people what they don’t want. Her mother, after apparently changing her identity around the time Pip was born, has been living a hermit’s life in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, where Pip grew up, cut off from the rest of the world like her mother still is. The book begins with phone conversations between them, during which Pip warns that she’s coming up to talk about the one thing her mother has long refused to: who Pip’s father is. (Here is the character’s desire from which the entire plot of the book derives, the driving question, though in the early pages it’s hardly treated as such.) Pip brings home a boy named Jason, but they’re interrupted by a German named Annagret exhorting Pip to apply for the Wikileaks-like Sunlight Project. After initiating an email exchange with its famous and charismatic leader Andreas Wolf, who implies he can help her find her father, Pip threatens her mother with leaving for South America if her mother doesn’t offer up her father’s identity.

  1. “The Republic of Bad Taste” (Andreas)

In this section, we go back in time to meet a young Andreas Wolf in 1987 East Germany, back when the Berlin Wall is still up and he is an embarrassment to the Republic pondering the totalitarianism of the State. Because of his own fall from privilege (about which more later), he has credibility with the youth he counsels out of the church basement he lives in, and uses it to sleep with many of the girls. Eventually, he falls in love with one, Annagret, whose stepfather, a powerful State informant, is extorting her for sexual favors, and he and Annagret eventually plot his murder. We get the exposition about Andreas’s childhood: his unhealthy attachment to his mother Katya, the privilege afforded by his father’s government position, his excessive masturbation, the homeless man who reveals he’s Andreas’s real father (arrested for subversion to the State), jumping from a bridge, the short-lived subversive literary career that leads to his essential banishment to the church basement. Andreas has Annagret bring the man, Horst, to his parents’ vacation home, where he kills and buries him. To avoid State scrutiny, Andreas doesn’t see Annagret for two years. When the Wall falls, Andreas penetrates a state facility and gets hold of his file, hoping to destroy any last links to his crime; he escapes with the file by attracting the attention of nearby cameramen, a fateful moment where he distracts by spouting off what will become Sunlight Project principles, in effect the moment he becomes famous.

  1. Too Much Information (Leila)

In this section we follow Leila Helou, an investigative journalist for Denver Independent who’s in Amarillo following a story about a missing nuclear warhead, a story it turns out originates with her intern Pip Tyler, who found suspicious photos of the warhead on Facebook. We get Leila’s backstory: before pursuing newspaper work, she was getting a graduate degree in fiction writing at the University of Denver, dropping out after marrying one of her famous-novelist instructors, Charles. He won’t give her a baby while he’s working on his next opus, so she takes a long-distance job in D.C., where she meets Tom Aberant, who started Denver Independent with twenty million dollars from his ex-wife Anabel’s wealthy father (if this seems irrelevant, just wait). Leila’s about to leave her novelist-husband for Tom when the critical failure of Charles’ finally released opus leads to a drunken motorcycle accident that leaves him partially paralyzed, forcing Leila to stick around to take care of him. Tom, it turns out, won’t give her a baby either, on the moral grounds that he screwed his ex-wife out of having one. Leila stays with Tom, but never leaves her husband, either, and doesn’t get her baby. We learn Pip is actually living with Tom and Leila, the only way she can afford to continue living in Denver and working at the magazine, and Leila’s getting anxious about potential chemistry between Pip and Tom. Leila eventually gets the full story on the warhead, which involves a rogue army officer trying to sell it to a Mexican cartel, then flies home to monitor Tom and Pip; when she gets back she and Tom get in a blowout fight about both their other marriages before Tom gets out that he thinks Pip might be his daughter, though Pip doesn’t seem to be aware of this possibility herself.

  1. Moonglow Dairy (Pip)

The next section returns to Pip, describing her stint at Los Volcanes, the Bolivian headquarters of The Sunlight Project, where Andreas concedes that Pip is right that he, not the truth, is the Project’s true product. Eventually, in a secret meeting off the compound, he tells her about the murder he committed (Tom Aberant and Annagret are the only others who know about it). He wants her to spy on the other interns because he’s paranoid there’s a journalist among them. Back at the compound, Andreas avoids her, stoking her desire for him. She finally talks to him alone right after he finds out his mother has cancer. They get a hotel room and he confesses he’s in love with her, but as they’re about to consummate, Pip backs down, ultimately suspicious of his motives. Andreas eventually confesses the difficulties of locating her father, and suggests she learn old-fashioned journalism. He asks her to go work for Denver Independent, where she can open an email for him that will install spyware for him to monitor Tom Aberant. We then jump to the moments right after the end of the previous section–Pip gets home after Tom and Leila have their fight. Pip has come to love Tom and Leila, and this night, when she texts Andreas to try to uninstall the spyware from DI’s systems, he texts back that he doesn’t want her anymore. Pip wants to confess to Tom that Andreas sent her, but as she’s about to, Leila interrupts with the conveniently timed information that she’s just found out one of her sources on the nuke story talked to The Sunlight Project first. Later Tom calls her into his office and asks, clearly already knowing the answer, who sent her. Pip confesses, and Tom says he’s more concerned about his home computer than work ones, and, asking Pip not to read any documents Andreas might send her, he sends her home.

  1. [le1o9n8a0rd] (Tom)

The next section is an anomaly that Franzen has admitted he personally despises: a section in the first-person. Tom Aberant describes visiting his ex-wife Anabel where she lives in a cabin in New Jersey, where they start arguing as soon as he gets there about how soon he has to leave. They have sex in a clearing and Anabel tries to tell him he doesn’t need condoms but he uses one anyway; after that, Anabel destroys the condoms. We break for Tom’s backstory, unspooling the story of how he came to be married, and then divorced, from Anabel. They met in college, when he was editor of the newspaper, which covered the story of an art student—Anabel—covering herself in butcher paper in the dean’s chair. When the story didn’t paint her in the most favorable light, she confronted him, and they wound up dating. Anabel has an interesting history, the heir to a corporate fortune who’s sworn off her massive inheritance. Tom lets Anabel lure him away from journalism grad school and into marriage, retrospectively likening their relationship to a drug addiction; she forces him to give up all creative pursuits for the sake of her own. Once Tom meets Anabel’s billionaire father David, an ongoing cat-and-mouse game begins of David trying to give him money; Anabel swears it will kill her if Tom ever accepts any. Tom works as a freelance journalist while Anabel pursues an elaborate film idea to document every inch of her body that drags out over years. Then Tom goes to Germany with his mother so she can die with her family, simultaneously covering the news story of the Wall’s fall. He meets Andreas Wolf at a bar and is eager to get the perspective of an East German for his story. After Tom opens up about his troubled marriage, Andreas eventually confesses his murder, and Tom, who says he’s sick of being clean, helps Andreas relocate the body from his parents’ backyard, the last step in ensuring no trail leads back to him. Andreas runs back into the woods after they bury it, and Tom hears him unzip his fly and knows he’s jerking off on the grave. When they part ways after driving back into the city, he never sees Andreas again. We then return to the post-divorce scene of Tom in the New Jersey woods with Anabel. He reluctantly enters her cabin but refuses her overtures of love and tells her that her father is giving him money to start a magazine—even though the truth is that he will once again refuse David’s money, he lies to get Anabel to stop calling him, knowing this is the one thing that will end their relationship for good. Tom soon learns that Anabel wrote David a note telling him not to look for her, and disappeared. When David dies, he leaves Tom money that, with Anabel gone, Tom finally does take to start his magazine. Tom believes Anabel is still alive, and that she’s morally beaten him by vanishing.

  1. The Killer (Andreas)

At his Bolivian headquarters, an extremely listless Andreas gets a radio call that Tom Aberant is here to see him. We then get everything that’s led up to this point, including some of what we saw from Pip’s perspective in section 4: He’s quit doing interviews recently, believing the Internet to be totalitarian, its own version of socialism. He’s become obsessed with the Internet version of himself, believing it to be more real than he is. Shortly after he buries the body with Tom, he goes to find Annagret, who makes it clear that he only reminds her of the horrible thing they did, but believing that horrible thing will be for nothing if they can’t be together, he convinces her, and even though Andreas realizes it’s a mistake and feels trapped by her idealized version of him, they stay together for a decade while he starts The Sunlight Project on his media momentum. When Annagret becomes unexpectedly close with his mother Katya and even wants to confess what they’ve done to her, Andreas encounters a rage in himself that he recognizes as the Killer’s, which becomes more and more integrated with his fantasy life as he escapes extravagantly into online porn. He tries writing to Tom but gets a lukewarm response. Eventually Annagret gets involved with someone else, allowing him to dump her guilt-free. The Killer in him resurfaces when a photographer gets a shot of him with a benefactor of questionable reputation; he persuades the photographer to destroy the images based on the fact that they would destroy the good work the Project is doing, but is still consumed with paranoia that increases until it reaches Tom Aberant, who never gave the time of day to Andreas’s overtures of friendship. Andreas believes Tom told his girlfriend Leila about the murder based on a quote of hers he reads in an interview:

Andreas Wolf is a man so full of his own dirty secrets that he sees the entire world as dirty secrets.

Andreas vaguely remembers jacking off over the grave and realizes that Tom has never returned his overtures over the years because he glimpsed “the Killer.” Andreas digs up the dirt on Tom’s vanished ex-wife and is eventually able to locate her, discovering Pip’s existence and inferring Tom’s ignorance of it. He sends Annagret to California with the goal of luring Pip to work for the Project. Revisiting what happened in Pip’s section, with an emphasis on how close the consummation came to occurring, we learn that Andreas did really love her, and that her rejection of him was a painful reenactment of all of Tom’s. And so, Andreas sends her to Denver with the (long-shot) goal of having Tom unknowingly sleep with his own daughter.

We return to the present of Andreas walking to meet Tom, considering that the worst Tom can do is kill him. This prospect is actually a relief. Andreas tells Tom that he, Tom, started all of this by never showing up to their dinner date in Berlin after burying the body. Tom threatens to tell the world what Andreas did and show the cops the gravesite if Andreas doesn’t leave Pip alone and shred everything he found on Tom’s computer. That Tom came all this way to ensure his computer was protected piques Andreas’ interest enough to finally look at what’s on it, and he discovers a document that’s actually section 4 of the book itself—Tom’s memoir with the story of Pip’s origin. He emails the document to Pip, then leaves on a hike with Tom, at the summit of which he tells Tom what he emailed to Pip and tries to convince Tom to push him off the cliff, hoping for the last relief of knowing that Tom’s capable of killing, too. But Tom refuses, and once again the job of killing falls to Andreas himself, who leaps to his death.

  1. The Rain Comes (Pip)

Pip, who’s moved back into her old digs in the Bay Area even though the house is about to be foreclosed on, is working at a coffeeshop. At home, she whacks dead tennis balls against the garage to help her deal with Andreas’s death, among other things. We get the backstory: she got Andreas’s email in Denver, then shortly thereafter texts from Tom telling her Andreas had killed himself and that he was mentally ill. Pip feels guilty, thinks that Andreas was asking her to save him and that maybe it would have been the right thing to consummate the relationship. She decides that since it was Andreas’s last act on earth she should read his email, but to honor her promise to Tom never to read anything from his computer by never telling him she’s read it. Once she reads it, however, she regrets it:

…in his last hour of life, he’d given her the thing she’d most wanted, the answer to her question. But now that she had it, she didn’t want it. She saw that she’d done a very bad thing to both her mother and Tom by getting it. Both of them had known, and neither of them had wanted her to know.

She debates whether to keep maintaining her mother’s illusions about what she knows. Jason comes back to the coffeeshop and after he breaks up with his girlfriend they start playing tennis together. She flies to Wichita to meet with the lawyer who’s in charge of the trust fund to get him to invest the money to buy Dreyfuss’s house. He says he’ll do it if in six months she hands over her mother’s identity; Pip agrees. She finally trusts Jason enough to officially date him. When she calls her mother to tell her she’s coming, she’s shocked to realize her mother is mad at her. When she gets there she gets her mother’s version of what really happened by letting her mother believe she heard Tom’s (which in a way she did), and her mother basically capitulates to do what Pip tells her with the money, though she still doesn’t want to take more than Tom did. Pip then calls Tom and tells him she knows everything, but lies about how she knows it, and says he can make it up by coming out to see her mother because she wants them to forgive each other. Pip gets Jason to drive Tom in from the airport, then leaves her parents in the cabin alone together. When she and Jason return, they can hear Tom and Anabel inside fighting viciously. What this portends for her own personal prospects depresses Pip, but as it starts raining again she believes it’s possible that she can do better. The End.  

“…now that she had it, she didn’t want it.” This is a perfect summation of a plot formula I’ve often taught my students via Ben Fountain’s “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera.” In it, an ornithology student kidnapped in South America desperately wants his freedom, but it can only be secured at the cost of the one thing it turns out he values more. It’s a common modus operandi of conflict: the only way to get what you want is to no longer want it. Pip’s desire to learn her father’s identity is introduced in the opening pages and remains the predominant force motivating her actions, going to Bolivia and then to Denver. Knowing what she wants, possessing, in essence, the key to her character, Andreas is able to almost, but not quite, manipulate her to his ends. Andreas wants initially only to keep his secret that he is a killer, motivating his actions to cover his trail and to present himself as the most honest man in the world. But while he succeeds in keeping his secret, doing so tortures him. 

There’s a satisfying symmetry in the plot arc; at the end, Pip gets to keep the same secret from both of her parents, to balance things out: she doesn’t tell either of them the way that she found out Tom was her father was reading Tom’s memoir. The novel concludes with a complex question of legacy, and whether Pip’s accepting one from her parents necessarily means she has to accept others. There might be less satisfaction in Pip ultimately getting access to a wad of money (or perhaps that’s just personal jealousy, my own student-loan saga unconcluded as I read the book’s…), seeming to solve most of her problems rather than causing any more. She grapples briefly with the issue of trusting people now that she’s heir to a trust fund, but Jason rather quickly and too easily brings that issue to a close. 

Franzen is a writer familiar with accusations of misogyny, but the majority  of these seem based on his personal actions and pronouncements rather than the way women are represented in his fiction; Rebecca Solnit’s jab in her blog post “80 Books No Woman Should Read” might be emblematic:

Also, I understand that there is a writer named Jonathan Franzen, but I have not read him, except for his recurrent attacks on Jennifer Weiner in interviews.

Franzen’s 2012 New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton isn’t doing him any favors, called sexist for claiming Wharton wasn’t “pretty,” allowing critics to entirely dismiss the argument and ignore the nuance of his account of how her anxieties about physical appearance manifested to produce sympathetic characters in her work, and the reactions seemed outsized and based on a preexisting hatred of Franzen rather than on what he actually wrote. (Franzen’s nonfiction admittedly seems to strike a much more pretentious note than his fiction.) But Franzen has repeatedly championed female writers as having a strong influence on him, particularly Paula Fox and Alice Munro, and has created many female protagonists. The act of a man attempting to render a woman could be considered inherently sexist, a situation of a man imposing his own voice and perspective, for all practical purposes replacing a woman’s voice with his own–but neglecting to represent women altogether is obviously also sexist. Franzen is trying. Is he succeeding?

Franzen’s Freedom depiction of Patti’s own parents wanting to downplay her rape was bold and on-point, and, as good literature should, raises serious questions about the way our society functions. In Purity he’s reworked a male protagonist from Dickens’ Great Expectations into a female lead; most of his adaptation of that book seems to consist of reversals: instead of the main character being an orphan, she seeks the knowledge of her living parents’ unknown pasts and present; instead of a climax being the loss of an unexpected fortune, it is the gaining of one. If Purity has a problem with sexism, it’s not as much with its title character as with her mother. At his September Houston reading, Franzen remarked that it would be sexist to create female characters that were entirely perfect, that he was treating them as human in depicting their flaws, just as he would men; this was a seeming justification for Anabel’s general craziness. But it’s not just her general craziness that has led some to cite her as this novel’s sexist problem. Franzen made an interesting choice in allocating a point-of-view section to Leila instead of to Anabel, one that I haven’t been able to find justification for, except that possibly it didn’t fit neatly into the tight plot he had constructed.

One of the big twists in this novel occurs formally, when we find out section 5, “[le1o9n8a0rd],” is actually a document that exists in the novel itself. The section figures in the plot literally, in that it physically exists so that another character can read it, and that character’s reading it is itself one of the plot’s major climaxes. In Freedom, the section from Patti’s point of view that describes what happens leading up to and including her sleeping with Richard exists as a physical document she’s written at the behest of her therapist that then figures climactically in the plot when Richard leaves it for Patti’s husband Walter to find, and Walter thus learns of Patti’s infidelity. A pretty cool narrative trick, to have the telling of a story then affect the outcome of the larger story it’s a part of–but encountering it again in Purity, I was hoping for it to do more work than it did in Freedom. While, as previously noted, it feels like an appropriate victory/revenge for Pip to get to keep the secret of knowing her parents’ secrets, in certain ways it seems a little anticlimactic, an avoidance of confrontation. Pip’s discovery of the document grants her emotional maturity and instills a semblance of family balance, but it doesn’t do as much for generating direct drama as Walter’s discovery of Patti’s document in Freedom. As Franzen’s Guilty Secrets joke makes clear, secrets figure much more heavily in this novel than in its predecessor, making the device more thematically appropriate here; it’s almost as if Franzen deployed the perfect plot device for it a novel too soon.  

At any rate, Pip’s reading Tom’s version of events is the catalyst for her to get to hear the version of her mother’s life her mother has so long avoided giving her. Is it a necessary product of this plot that Tom’s version of events, and of Anabel’s life, be so much more fully represented than Anabel’s, as they are in the novel? Is the fact that Anabel doesn’t get to tell her own story merely sexism on Franzen’s part, or a reflection of the fact that this is, in fact, Anabel’s whole problem in the plot of the book itself? The narrative itself might not seem to be intentionally depriving Anabel of a voice if you consider that it’s an integral part of the plot that she intentionally deprives herself of one. But is Franzen sexist to to have a plot that so underrepresents a female voice, or is he merely accurately representing society and thus calling attention to its problems? Is form appropriately reflecting function here? Or is the function itself sexist? Could all this Franzen-bashing just be a way to distract ourselves from the fact that there are other institutions we should be attacking? 

What potentially seems generous about the novel’s conclusion is Pip’s conclusion that what her mother’s done with her life–rejecting a billion-dollar trust fund, conceiving a child by a man without ever telling him, and dropping off the face of the planet (all things patently perceived as crazy by outsiders)–were in fact “resourceful” means on her mother’s part to the end of generating the love in her life that no one else was willing and/or able to give her. But for this ending to work, does Anabel’s own version of her story have to be so underrepresented? If the whole plot is supposed to be Pip’s delayed comprehension of her mother’s story, and the reader is accompanying Pip on that journey, then they can’t just be handed Anabel’s story part and parcel. But toward the end, Pip does get her mother’s version of the story, and it’s skimmed over in a couple of paragraphs. Since plot-wise it bears too many similarities to a section we’ve already gotten (Tom’s), perhaps it can’t be rehashed in full without feeling repetitive, and we apparently had to get Tom’s version first.  

Leila’s section doesn’t figure in the plot in a concrete way that would justify why she needs to get that section instead of Anabel (aside from the aforementioned potential reason of Anabel’s narrative feeling repetitive). For Franzen’s plot of intrigue, where the documented version of events that figures so significantly figures so by means of installed spyware, the one the memoir is stolen from has to be the one in power, the one with a computer and an office. There’s no conceivable means by which Andreas might have stolen Anabel’s memoir from her if she’s hiding out in the forest. So is the plot itself sexist, or is sexism merely an unfortunate and unavoidable byproduct of this plot? To me, Anabel seems a bit too straight-up crazy without enough of a justification of her craziness. Even if it makes sense narratively for her story to be glossed over, the whole plot largely figures on one woman’s unreasonableness without the reader finally coming to sympathize with or at least comprehend that unreasonableness. In the end, Pip does, but I don’t think the reader fully follows her there. We infer Pip is able to generate this sympathy because she grew up with her mother and knows her the best, and has experienced the redeemable qualities of her character, but these are not adequately represented in the novel itself (this despite the fact that he’s been criticized for overexplaining much of the other characters’ motivations to the point of draining the narrative of its realism). I thoroughly enjoyed Anabel; she was the prototype of a Franzen character in that she was so fully, utterly herself in all her dialog and gestures, but based on my experiences with other Franzen characters, I was expecting more developed insight into what made her that way. An explanation exists that can be pointed to, but it’s largely told and not shown, leaving her bland in comparison to her predecessors, Denise Lambert and Patti Berglund.



In Defense of Franzen Pt I: The Corrections

Techniques tracked:

-The value of unlikable characters
-Characters’ tragic flaws generating plot


Jonathan Franzen is one fairly controversial middle-aged upper-middle-class white dude. Even disregarding the whole Oprah thing, I have not personally come across a more polarizing novel than his 2001 National-Book-Award-winning The Corrections. People either love it or hate it. And I mean really hate it. Centered around the Midwestern Lambert family, the three grown children of which have migrated to the East Coast, the plot of the novel is explicitly driven by (the acute tension) the question of whether the whole nuclear family will be able to gather for “one last Christmas” (it is supposedly the last Christmas before the house the kids were raised in is sold, the decrepit state of which is a stand-in for the decrepit state of the family itself), while implicitly being driven by (the chronic tension) the question of which of the grown kids will ultimately be responsible for caring for the ailing parents in their old age. The long saga(s) of what’s happened to each of the kids up to the point of the “last Christmas” is all an extended jockeying for the position of who will (not) be the caretaker. Franzen succeeds in upending expectations (among my criteria for good literature): in the end, it’s the least responsible-seeming of the three who winds up coming through while the other two supposedly more responsible siblings fall apart.

Franzen’s first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, were elaborately structured plots of political intrigue largely amounting to moral soapboxes that didn’t conceal their identity as such adequately to this reader, at least. Strong Motion, if I remember correctly, has a character rant for several pages about the antifeminist evils of the pro-life movement. While I certainly appreciate the sentiment, this glaring break-from-plot is pretty much going to undermine any possibility of positive reinforcement for his side of the argument, since it’s way too obvious that an argument is what’s being presented.

This past September, when Franzen was reading from Purity in Houston, he said that to him, the novel is basically a series of interlinked novellas, that he doesn’t know any other way to do it at this point, because he’s no longer satisfied with just one character, one perspective. (Novellas mentioned as inspiration: Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love & Goodwill, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, an often-cited fave of his, and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.) Aside from being nearly identical to the sentiment David Mitchell expressed a year prior when he was in town reading from The Bone Clocks, this seems like a move Franzen started making with The Corrections, in many ways a sharp departure from his previous work, while also a realization of its promise. The broadest way to characterize this shift would be from plot-based to character-based, but Franzen did not have to discard his elaborate plots when shifting to character; with The Corrections he proved that character could in fact be integrated with plot quite well–could, in fact, be used to generate it, and so character is the organizing principle that the novella-sections are divided by. The book manifests the principle he reiterated again at his recent reading: all characters should be “morally dubious.”

“St. Jude”

In this brief opening section that could be classified as prologue or prelude, Enid is desperately searching for a notarized agreement signed by her husband Alfred accepting money for purchase of an old patent of his by the Axon Corporation; Enid was supposed to mail it but didn’t, hoping more money might somehow be extracted from Axon even though Alfred’s made it clear he has no intention of pursuing more. Alfred, confused from the onset of dementia, starts packing for their upcoming fall cruise too soon.

“The Failure”

The first extended section or novella, though reserving the right to delve into other points of view with a roving omniscience, as will other sections, is focalized on Chip, the middle child. (The logic of starting with the middle child will become apparent with the conclusion.) He meets his parents at the airport in NYC, the departure point for their fall cruise, then returns with them to his apartment in time to catch his girlfriend Julia fleeing. While his parents wait inside, she dumps him and informs him that the draft of his screenplay her boss, a producer, is currently reading might have some misogyny problems. Chip’s younger sister Denise arrives, and despite her referencing the money he owes her, he abandons her to chase down his script to try to make corrections before the producer can read it. We get the backstory of what led Chip to this particular point: he was an English professor who had a feminist girlfriend for ten years, then dated around before a student at the university he taught for started hitting on him. When other factors converged to prevent Chip from getting the tenure he’d been assured of, he gives in and has an affair with the student, culminating in a drug-fueled Thanksgiving tryst that leads to their breakup. When Chip tries to see her later, she accuses him of stalking and he’s fired from the school; he borrows money from Denise and wastes it suing for wrongful termination and then on a lavish lifestyle in NYC, believing, once he starts dating Denise’s college friend Julia who works for the producer, that he’ll soon be making enough money himself to support it, which becomes increasingly questionable. Chip runs out of the money he’s borrowed from Denise right as she calls demanding he host lunch for their parents when they come through town for their cruise, forcing him to steal an expensive fish filet from a store, a low point.

Denise eats the stolen fish with her parents without Chip while he’s off chasing the script; her mother tries to enlist her help with insurance problems and seems to be under the impression she’s having an affair with a married man. She doesn’t press the issue because she needs an ally on the Christmas front, and she tries to bring up the patent letter before it becomes clear Denise will side with Alfred. We learn that Alfred, who worked for a railroad for decades, retired after it was taken over by corporate raiders. When Chip gets to the producer’s office, she’s entertaining Julia’s ex-husband, a Lithuanian named Gitanas who it turns out is looking for someone to return to Lithuania with him to do some potentially lucrative work. This proves fortunate for Chip, who discovers the producer has given pages of his script to her kid to color on. He opts to join Gitanas, returning to his apartment right after his family has left. He gets on a plane for Lithuania with Gitanas, and Gitanas learns that Chip has been sleeping with Julia when he starts to watch surveillance footage from her apartment, but seems to accept this.

      “The More He Thought About It, The Angrier He Got”

This section, focalized on Gary, the eldest Lambert child, begins with him developing family photos (poorly) in his home darkroom in Philadelphia and thinking about his “profitable entanglement with the Axon corporation” while his wife and older two sons play soccer outside. Enid calls to ask about their Christmas plans, and Gary’s wife Caroline claims she hurt her back running to get the phone, moaning in pain while Gary tries to talk to Enid. During the same call Gary learns that his father’s been offered money by Axon for an old patent; Gary concurs with Enid is not nearly enough and tries to convince his father to try for more money but Alfred refuses. Gary remembers how he retired abruptly fourteen years ago when he could have doubled his pension by staying on a couple more years and helping with the takeover transition. The fight about the origin of Caroline’s back injury escalates when she argues that Gary is depressed and when Gary tries to convince her to go to St. Jude for Christmas when he told her she’d never have to again.

Wanting to invest in Axon after some research on the company, Gary attends a pitch for the “Correcktall” process Axon wants to use Alfred’s patent for, at which Denise insists on meeting him. The show increases Gary’s belief that the company isn’t offering his father anywhere near what they should be, but he fails to secure shares, while Denise attempts to get their father enrolled in testing for the process to help his Parkinson’s and/or Alzheimer’s. Denise tries to convince Gary to come to St. Jude for Christmas while confronting him for leading their mother to believe she was having an affair with a married man. At home, Gary becomes increasingly paranoid that Caroline is manipulating their older two sons to her side, but Gary wants to give her mom her last Christmas so she’ll agree to sell the house and move Alfred into a home where he needs to be. One day Caroline calls Gary at work panicked about a potential intruder but ignores him when he gets home, asking him to cook dinner; he gets so drunk in his disappointment that they’re not going to make up that he butchers the dinner and explodes when he finds out Caroline told one of their sons he was depressed. He then goes out to trim the hedges to prove he feels great, but in his inebriation cuts his thumb badly, making a huge mess. The next morning he capitulates to his wife that he’s depressed and that no one has to go to St. Jude for Christmas who doesn’t want to. Then the phone rings with his mother calling from the cruise ship.

“At Sea”

Enid and Alfred are on the ship belowdecks, he awake and she asleep. We get the backstory about the mistake on Enid’s part that changed everything, when, after marrying Alfred on the promise of his good looks instead of acknowledging the reality of his attitude, she’s pregnant with Denise and tries to convince Alfred to invest in Erie Belt stock; due to his job he knows that a merger is going through that will raise the stock. He refuses and leaves for a trip to examine the railroad and write the report that will usher the merger through, during which he virulently resists and resents sexual temptation. When he gets home from the trip, he runs into his neighbor Chuck Meisner, a banker to whom he somewhat unwittingly reveals the purpose of his trip. Alfred then promptly explodes at Enid for a minor infraction (displaced anger at the transgression he’s made with Chuck), but confirms with Chuck when he calls later that night to double check about the stock. After Alfred works a bit in his home lab, that very night making the beginning of the discovery that will lead to the patent Axon later wants, Enid, who made a Dinner of Revenge of liver for Alfred for leaving for his trip in such a huff, challenges Alfred’s decision to tell Chuck about the stock when he won’t use the tip himself. (This is the pivotal point on which everything in the book turns, and it comes pretty much dead center, right in the middle.) She tries to convince him to invest in the stock again with the novelty of oral sex, but he refuses that and then rapes her, a betrayal of the fetus (Denise) for which it’s noted that she will in turn betray him later. After that point in the marriage, Alfred escapes with a new mistress, sleep, which never betrays him until…

Alfred can’t sleep on the cruise ship and has a hallucination that a turd is berating him; he calls to Enid for help, but she won’t wake up. We jump to her POV and hear how she went to the on-board doctor, who gave her some pills called Aslan, illegal in the States and bearing a striking resemblance to the pills Chip took with his student, to help her cope after Alfred kept her up all night the night before talking about the turd. She’s made a friend named Sylvia she went out gambling with after Alfred went to bed the first night, winning enough to pay for the pills, and also hearing the lurid tale of Sylvia dealing with the upcoming execution of her daughter’s murderer and her husband’s denial that the murder happened. Enid feels good on the pill after waking to Alfred who’s tried and failed to put diapers on after his night talking to the turd. They go to breakfast and then Enid leaves with Sylvia for an investment lecture. Switch back to Alfred, who wanders looking for a bathroom but encounters a troubling figment from the past in one that prevents him from using it. He flees to the top of the ship and climbs out past a fence to relieve himself, where he sees one of their mealtime companions naked and sunbathing; there’s debate about whether the ship pitches or there’s wind or whether Alfred himself leans forward to peek at the woman. Back to Enid at the investment lecture about how it’s been a bull market for so long it’s got to correct itself soon; winter is coming. Enid sees Alfred fall past the window, but on the pills, is calm. Back to Alfred briefly, thinking about his children as kids as he falls.

“The Generator”

Focalized on Denise, the youngest Lambert, this section begins with a long expositional narrative of the Passafaro family, with a specific focus on Robin Passafaro, whose violent adopted brother Billy almost killed a CEO in a violent attack at a protest of an unveiling ceremony after that same company paid Robin’s husband Brian $19 million for some music-search-related software. With this money Brian hired Denise as head chef for his new restaurant, The Generator. We get Denise’s backstory: the baby of the family, she’s wildly competitive. She works as an intern for the same railroad her father works for the summer before she leaves for Swarthmore, the same summer before the merger goes through and Alfred abruptly retires. While there she has a brief affair with one of her married coworkers, Don Armour, who takes her virginity. She later drops out of college after working at a restaurant and falling in love with the life of a chef. She eventually marries one of her older mentors, Emile Berger, when she’s 23, but they divorce after five years. Believing she’s possibly a lesbian, she embarks on a short-lived same-sex affair that convinces her she’s actually not before Brian offers her the head chef job. When she meets his family, Robin is cold to her. Denise and Brian go to Europe together for business and almost sleep together, but Denise stops it, apparently guilty about Robin, who later warms up to her when Denise tells her she’s not into men. Denise pursues Robin while Brian’s increasingly distracted with a film project he’s funding, a Crime and Punishment remake that bears striking similarities to Robin’s adopted brother’s criminal saga. Denise and Robin get sexually involved right before the restaurant finally opens. Denise jeopardizes her position by becoming increasingly heedless with the affair and prioritizing it over her job, but things with Robin end badly. Denise goes to NYC for the lunch with her parents that Chip bails on, and then right after that to the Axon road show with Gary. Then, after Brian claims his marriage is over, she sleeps with him, and Robin shows up at her door the next day to apologize with Brian still in Denise’s bed. Robin flips when she realizes he’s there and goes upstairs to him as Gary calls with the news that Alfred fell off the cruise ship but is alive. Brian fires Denise.

We get a series of email exchanges between Chip and Denise in which she tries to convince him to come home from Lithuania for Christmas not just for their parents’ sake, but for hers. Then we switch to Chip and get the story of what he’s been doing in Lithuania: he helps Gitanas, who’s seeking political revenge for past wrongs done to his country by the west, start a fraudulent website prompting westerners to invest in Lithuania for fabricated reasons it’s up-and-coming. Investors are sending a lot of money, but Gitanas attracts the attention of a criminal gang by hiring bodyguards, which becomes an even bigger problem as the country’s political situation destabilizes and the gang rigs an election in an attempt to take over. When the current president refuses to honor the election results, chaos starts, and Gitanas tries to get Chip out of the country (with the full cut of the proceeds from their endeavor, with which he’s hoping to repay his debt to Denise, in cash on his person), but the power at the airport goes out.

“One Last Christmas”

Alfred is in the basement, trying to fix a string of broken Christmas lights and pondering suicide before he loses the capability to do it, regretting not letting himself drown when he fell off the ship. Then we go to Enid and get what happened in the intervening interim: she suffers no shame in the aftermath of Alfred’s fall until after they get back, when she starts intensely craving Aslan and asks Bea Meisner to get her some while she’s in Europe (Enid only feels comfortable doing so because she feels Bea owes her a favor for living off that investment her husband made based on Alfred’s tip so many years ago), but then the craving subsides. Denise has apparently offered to let her and Alfred stay with her in Philly in the spring while Alfred undergoes the Corecktall testing. Gary’s supposed to come for Christmas with his youngest son Jonah but then shows up without him and announces he’s not going to help out with Alfred. While Enid’s helping Alfred in the tub, Bea Meisner stops by and Gary’s left to answer it. They go see Christmas lights and we get the intervening interim on Gary: he and Caroline have reconciled but have still been subtly fighting over whether Jonah will go with Gary for Christmas or not; Jonah eventually chose not to. Gary picks up Denise from the airport and shows her the pills Bea Meisner gave him for Enid; Denise berates him for not giving them to her. Enid’s request for Gary, installing a bar in the shower for Alfred, gets overly complicated, but he continues with it, largely due to guilt about Jonah and that he’s currently up on his investment in Axon, having been able to invest substantially using Caroline’s family money after their reconciliation. In the course of installing the bar he discovers Alfred’s shotgun is out and divines he’s contemplating suicide. That night Alfred calls for Chip and then Gary, so Gary finally does have to help him in the bathroom.

Then we get what happened to Denise in the intervening interim: she gets back with Robin but treats her like shit as she’s supposed to be prepping for her parents to come, eventually driving Robin away and then regretting it. At home for Christmas, she steals Enid’s pills back from Gary when Gary’s helping Alfred in the bathroom. On Christmas Eve she feels stifled and starts throwing old crap out, coming across the unmailed notarized documents for Axon that Enid was so desperate to find weeks ago, but Alfred barely reacts. Denise refuses when Enid tries to make her put the baby Jesus in the last pocket of the Advent calendar, Enid’s most cherished tradition, then makes attempts to be more honest with Enid about why she was fired, but Enid doesn’t want to hear it. When Enid gets Denise to help Alfred with his stretching exercises, he wets the bed and then refers to Don Armour telling him to check the “bottom of the bench.” Denise checks the underside of a workbench in the basement and finds “DA + DL” penciled there, figuring Don Armour must have left it the night he took her virginity as proof of their tryst to extort Alfred, who then quit instead of submitting. She asks if her mother has any idea why her father retired early and when Enid says no Denise breaks down and lets Enid believe it’s because she’s upset about Alfred’s condition, which Enid concedes is too deteriorated for him to go through with the Corecktall testing. Denise tells her to check the advent pocket, where she stowed the pills, but when Enid finds them she crushes them in the garbage disposal. Denise violates Alfred’s privacy to help him as he’s trying to give himself an enema.   

Then we get what happens to Chip in the intervening interim: Gitanas returns to the airport to pick him up; as they’re driving out of the country, some military police pursue them and they get in a wreck. After the “police” rob them and Chip loses the bulk of his cash, which had been just enough to cover the debt he’d been hoping to pay off, Gitanas sends Chip off on foot in the direction of the Polish border, and eventually he’s able to get to the airport there and get out, landing in St. Jude on Christmas morning with no luggage. He sits down at the breakfast table with just a few minutes before Gary has to leave for the airport, at which point, with all five of them finally there, Gary demands his discussion about his parents’ future, adamant that the Correcktall testing isn’t feasible. During the argument Alfred stands up and falls over, dragging the whole breakfast with him. Gary leaves. That night Enid asks Chip if she’ll help take Alfred to the hospital for a drug holiday and Chip, determined to pay off his debt to Denise, says he has to go back to NYC:

Enid’s bleakness deepened, but she didn’t seem surprised by his refusal. “I guess this is my responsibility, then,” she said. “I guess I always knew it would be.”

Then Chip talks to Denise and she says she wants to forgive the debt in exchange for his helping out in lieu of her so she can leave.

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.

Alfred yells down asking if Chip can help him and Chip agrees to not pay Denise back. We then jump to Alfred in a hospital, believing he’s in a prison. He asks Chip, who’s there, to help kill him, but Chip (tearing himself away from staring at Alfred’s female doctor) says he can’t.

“The Corrections”

An epilogue of matching brief length to the opening “St. Jude” describes the aftermath: the booming bull market finally corrects itself, but since Enid was never able to invest much, she doesn’t lose much. Alfred goes into a home and Enid’s life and disposition, particularly toward her children, are vastly improved. Chip winds up sticking around for months to help with Alfred, and when he eventually marries Alfred’s doctor, Enid doesn’t even care that she’s Jewish. Alfred dies after two years in the home, and Enid plans on making changes in her life. The End.  

The plot functions as the manifestation of the intersection of many different characters’ tragic flaws. Enid’s inability to perceive the reality of her husband extends to her perception of her children; Alfred’s stubborn morality prevents him from getting as far ahead as he could in a capitalist climate. The fact that Alfred hasn’t set them up well enough for retirement in the first place, a product of his moral stubbornness, is itself the very source of the novel’s tension of which of the children will be in the position to take care of their parents. But then we find out that of Alfred’s poor financial decisions, the most egregious one is actually the fault of Denise for what she did with Don Armour. But, the book allocates blame for Denise’s actions here to Alfred’s original prenatal betrayal of her, which is largely a product of his failed sexual morality–morality that fails specifically because he tries to uphold it in the first place, if one reads his rape of his wife as an explosion from the pressure of suppression.

Different as they are, what Gary, Chip, and Denise have in common are their attempts to set up their lives as corrections to their parents’:


…he’d chosen to pursue a life of the mind.

Since Alfred had once mildly but unforgettably remarked that he didn’t see the point of literary theory, and since Enid … had regularly begged Chip to abandon his pursuit of an “impractical” doctorate in the humanities … Chip had had plenty of incentives to work hard and prove his parents wrong.


His parents were cowed by authority of all kinds. When Gary wanted to reassure himself that he’d escaped their fate, when he needed to measure his distance from St. Jude, he considered his own fearlessness in the face of authority—including the authority of his father.


Denise spent the next summer … falling in love with the life of a cook. … She loved the deep stillness that underlay the din. A good crew was like an elective family in which everyone in the little hot world of the kitchen stood on equal footing, and every cook had weirdnesses concealed in her past or in his character, and even in the midst of the most sweaty togetherness each family member enjoyed privacy and autonomy: she loved this.

A tragic flaw manifests in the character doing something specifically by trying to avoid doing that thing. The Lambert children’s tragic flaws originate from them trying to correct their parents’ flaws; each of the children has a tragic flaw(s) bequeathed to them by their parent(s) that is specifically what prevents them from entirely escaping those parents. Denise’s compulsion toward unattainable perfection leaves her vulnerable to the advances of an older colleague; what she does with that colleague turns out to determine the outcome of her parents’ fortunes; her discovery of her complicity is precisely what prevents her, already emotionally unstable, from being able to remain in close enough proximity to her parents to help them, even though the outward circumstances of her life seem to have converged for that purpose:

By trying to protect herself from her family’s hunger, the daughter accomplished just the opposite. She ensured that when her family’s hunger reached its peak her life would fall apart and leave her without a spouse, without kids, without a job, without responsibilities, without a defense of any kind. It was as if, all along, she’d been conspiring to make herself available to nurse her parents.

While “The Failure”–that is, Chip, who is mainly a failure by his mother’s Midwestern standards–is the one who comes through for Enid in the end, it is the tragic flaw of his lust, the flaw of Alfred’s that Alfred overcompensates to quash, that leads to Chip’s affair with the student that leads to everything else that leaves him in the position he finds himself in on Christmas Day. While Gary, the one whose life on the surface looks the most like his parents’, is the most at odds with them due to the authority he adopts and tries to run their lives with. Gary also shares Alfred’s depression, something he has trouble admitting because he doesn’t want to be like his father; his inability to admit he’s depressed causes more problems than the depression itself.

Each of the kids who turns out not be the caretaker believes initially that the responsibility will fall to them:


If Enid and Alfred ever ran out of money, it would fall to him and Caroline—not to his undercapitalized sister, not to his feckless brother—to pay for their care. But he had enough self-control not to spell this out for Alfred.


Meanwhile her brothers had conspired to make themselves unavailable. Chip had fled to Eastern Europe and Gary had placed himself under Caroline’s thumb. Gary, it was true, did “take responsibility” for his parents, but his idea of responsibility was to bully and give orders. The burden of listening to Enid and Alfred and being patient and understanding fell squarely on the daughter’s shoulders. Already Denise could see that she would be the only child in St. Jude for Christmas dinner and the only child on duty in the weeks and months and years after that.

But she’s wrong.

I remember reading this in college and someone claiming that there seemed to be no point in the whole Lithuania section except for the sake of Franzen the writer showing off. But if this were the sole purpose of a passage’s existence, there actually wouldn’t be anything here to show off. That is, showing off for showing off’s sake shows the opposite, that you are not a good writer, because what you should be showing is that each piece has a purpose more substantial than just showing off. On the most basic level of plot, while Chip’s going so far abroad demonstrates the lengths he’s willing to go to escape his family, it also renders the possibility that Chip will wind up as the caretaker more remote, setting us up for the surprise ending. But his going to Lithuania also does work thematically; it’s a country that’s been screwed by its own weakness in its struggle for independence; the country follows the same trajectory as the characters. And most importantly, even if he’s robbed of what he earned in the process, even if he’s battle-scarred with largely self-inflicted wounds, Chip escapes. While much of the book reveals him to be a misogynistic asshole who lets his sex drive run his life, the conclusion reserves hope that tragic flaws can be potentially be channeled as means toward more productive ends.                        

My feeling is a book could only induce such strong feelings of hatred if it felt like it was real. That’s how well rendered these characters are. People don’t hate the book, they hate the characters, and they hate them because they’re bad people. I can assure you this is why my mother doesn’t like it (and doesn’t like that it’s my favorite book). I bet it’s also the reason that my friend’s father who opened it as a Christmas present from one son only to have another son say “Is that the book with the really angry guy that reminds you of Dad?” probably doesn’t like it that much either.

But they’re not bad people. They are people. Let all ye who stand in judgment who have not committed some similar atrocity cast the first stone, as some guy named Jesus once said. And if you haven’t committed any atrocities just yet, let me be the one to ruin your day by assuring you, you are every bit of capable of doing so as the ones who have done so already. That’s what Franzen teaches us. To recognize the evil kernels in ourselves bequeathed by previous generations so that they can be squashed before they fully blossom. If anything, he shows us that the rough patches on life’s path are an integral part of the path itself, that you can’t get where you’re going without them. At his recent reading, Franzen was unequivocal: without mistakes, novels don’t exist. He writes “for people who have experienced genuine doubt about goodness and have done things they feel really bad about.” 


“Selling Indulgence in Corporate Japan” Write Up by Abby Evans

I scoured the internet to find a good nonfiction piece to do my presentation on. At first, I picked a piece about the guy who hacked OKCupid to find his fiancee, an article which combined all of my main interests: computer hacking, romance, sketchy morals, and really smart people. The article itself, however, wasn’t “of literary merit,” so I moved on. The title “Selling Indulgence in Corporate Japan” [by Andy Couturier] felt intellectual, so I went for that after the OKCupid disappointment. It was the first piece that didn’t feel so extra. By that I mean it wasn’t overly lyrical or overly sentimental, and, best of all, I didn’t really like the narrator on the first reading. I also dug the writing a lot. More on that later.

Alright, so this is a pretty interesting piece. It’s about the narrator’s time teaching English in Japan, and basically the whole thing investigates cultural differences between American and Japan, most significantly this idea of each person in Japan living in two different worlds. In the piece, he describes these two worlds as the world of work and the world of sweetness. That is, one part of a person’s life would be dedicated to contributing to the world’s second largest economy, and this would be a world of intense structure and formality, and is kind of this overwhelming, rule­driven world of work and corporations. And the other side is the world of sweetness, where places of “indulgence” are written into society to counteract this intense working world on the other side. This side of sweetness, the narrator says, is the side that allows for Japanese manga and “comfort women” and receptionists and even the narrator’s own job. Throughout the piece, the narrator struggles with his role in Japanese society, including his own perception of himself versus how he is being perceived by others. In the end, he determines that he, like the receptionists at the corporation where he works, is just another example of these “indulgences” that are necessarily to Japanese society. He realizes that his role isn’t as much to teach English as it is to create a space of acceptance, lightheartedness, and even fun for these corporate workers.

Throughout the piece, the narrator especially emphasizes the differences between Japanese culture and his own through the use of language. This is natural, as the narrator’s an English teacher. He talks about the difference between American and Japanese phrases, in particular the phrases in Japanese that denote humility, different levels of respect, politeness, etc. He shows these examples of customs that must be followed in Japan: humbling phrases that must be spoken at the end of conversations, and verbal exchanges of apologies and self­deprecation. In contrast, his English classroom is revealed as a place where these formalities are no longer necessary, as they are not present in the English language. Thus, his classroom becomes a place of indulgence, free from these rules. It’s a fascinating comparison and an effective motif.

The interesting thing is, the first time I read the piece, I didn’t particularly like the narrator. I feel differently now, but let me just analyze this real quick. On the first read, he felt very Piper Chapman­esque. He’s the American foreigner attempting to judge a culture based on his halfway knowledge of Japanese history. Every new observation he receives working as an English teacher at a Japanese corporation immediately becomes a cultural truism: an immediate reference point that he can continue to build cultural knowledge on top of, without regard for the accuracy of the new statement. When a man in his class mentions cherry blossoms, he immediately draws a conclusion about Japanese masculinity and sticks to it. Obviously, there’s his misguided attempt to teach one of the receptionists about feminism, informing her that she is oppressed. I think after several reads, though, I realized it doesn’t matter. Of course he’s not the authority on Japanese culture. This is his story, his creative nonfiction. It’s about his observations and his exploration of himself. And so with that view in mind, I could turn to the piece again. It turns out the piece is really this weird journey of empathy, where he was able to put himself in the shoes of all these different people he’s interacting with, and he can try to understand their culture. As a premise, that’s really, really interesting. This concept of finding one’s place in a foreign culture, reevaluating the things once seen as human truths, is incredibly gripping. That must be why I was so drawn to it as to email it to Rolater before I even finished it.

It’s a really great piece. It presents fascinating observations on Japanese culture from the point of view of an outsider, while also evaluating, in a way, American culture. By figuring out what parts of himself were cultural, he could better understand just base humans, I think. That’s what gives the piece that universal appeal that all pieces of writing strive for. And the narrator’s journey in self­perception was incredibly compelling, absolutely relatable. We all want to think of ourselves one way, and we see the things that we were raised with as true, so that struggle to empathize and understand while those understandings are being thrown away is powerful.


“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” Write Up by Laura Mercado


“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie is a short story about Jackson Jackson’s quest to retrieve his grandmother’s powwow regalia from the pawn shop. This piece is told by following Jackson’s life from an ordinary day as he catches sight of his family’s old memorabilia in a pawn shop and his “quest” to get it back, making it an un-ordinary day.

Alexie uses indirect characterization sprinkled throughout the story to reveal Jackson’s complex personality. Starting off in the first sentence, “because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks,” we are immediately offered an exclusive glimpse into the character’s deepest secret. This sets us up for the rest of his closed personality and gives us a forewarning of the upcoming conflict.

We are able to gather the rest of the character’s personality from his added commentary. For example, when he simply states, “Maybe you don’t understand the value of a clean bathroom, but I do,” we are given a window into his past experiences. You only truly appreciate something when you have experienced a lack of it, so with just this sentence we can add further evidence supporting the idea that Jackson’s life so far has had a fair share of obstacles.

We can also detect another major personality trait: Jackson’s focus on seemingly-little details. The fact that he can differentiate public bathrooms from private bathrooms with so many details allows us to recognize his skill in focusing on small specifics that most people would not be able or care to notice. Since so much emphasis is put on exposing the reader to this skill fairy early-on, we can already infer that it will prove crucial to the story’s plot.

As we continue with the story, our inference is proven correct. The author’s ability to casually introduce the main conflict of the story in the line “But the strangest thing was the old powwow-dance regalia I saw hanging in the window,” is partially accomplished due to the stunning imagery that was previously used. Descriptions of what Jackson saw like Sharon and the Seven-Eleven used such a great amount of vivid imagery that I felt like I was trailing behind him the whole time or watching a 4D movie, which had me actively engaged throughout the entire piece. Even at the first page-and-a-half or so before the conflict is introduced, my attention never once strayed from the pages.

The great imagery was kept up even after the main conflict was introduced, as seen in the quote, “Thinking hard, we huddled in an alley beneath the Alaska Way Viaduct and finished off those bottles one, two, and three” and ties in perfectly with Jackson’s tendency to focus on small, insignificant details as it added even more to the feeling of all this being genuine.

Overall, I hope to use this unique yet effective combination of imagery at this quality and deep indirect characterization to make my pieces scream “this is actually happening” and hold readers hostage until they have read every word.

“Unwrapped” Write Up by Brittany Sanchez

Unwrapped” by Dina Honour is a long piece about a boy Honour once knew in college. The piece is composed of flashbacks of a presentation the boy, Joshua, gave in class, her memories of him in high school, her time with friends, and her reflection on Joshua’s teachings. The most compelling thing about this piece is Joshua. We start off with descriptions of him as lifeless and odd-looking. He has a long scar around his eye and does a college presentation on wrapping a present. He’s intriguing and we want to know more about him. Honour gives us what we want.

She uses dialogue, repetition, elaboration, speculation, and the motif of eyes to tell Joshua’s story. The repetition and elaboration of certain ideas make emphasize Honour’s feelings about him. Honour didn’t know him and she admits it multiple times. She elaborates so that there’s always extra. She wants to emphasize that there is always more than one or two options. There’s always a choice. She speculates about who Joshua was because she doesn’t know. She wants to imagine a backstory for him so she can feel better about not getting to know him. The speculation represents the guilt she feels for Joshua’s death.

We feel embarrassed for him. Guilty. She couldn’t do anything to help him and neither could we. We just see the aftereffects. We had an inkling about where this was going and it was confirmed. Her purpose is to remind us to leave room for mistakes, to not be too hard on ourselves. We can learn that a story doesn’t have to be completely in scene. It can be focused on one central scene, and go off into descriptions and a different scene to make the central scene stronger.

In reference to writing, she shows that you can have multiple purposes that form one main idea. It works if they all can be connected. Honour proves with this piece that anything can be a story, even if you think it has no significance. If you tie it back to something important further down the line, it’s a compelling story. She started off with a boy wrapping a present and ended up with a hard hitting message about mistakes.