-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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”