Alfred Lambert, “…paddling at the air with loose-hinged hands and slapping the airport carpeting with poorly controlled feet,” measures out “hazardous distance.” He shuffles forward “with the jerking momentum of a man who knew there would be trouble if he had to start and stop again.” He gives people “unblinking” looks.
In Rabbit Redux, John Updike also described parkinsonism with clinical accuracy – “… groping for phrases, so that her sentences end in the middle … her hands constantly [at] work in a palsied waggle” – but the infirmity of Rabbit's mother was simply part of a mise-en-scène. Alfred Lambert's affliction is the engine that drives The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
If every unhappy family is indeed unhappy in its own fashion – if for the Kareninas, the cause is adultery, for the Forsythes, it is propriety, for the Buddenbrookses, it is decadence, and for the Moskats, it is gullibility – for the Lamberts, it is entrapment in their muddled notion of Alfred and his slow disintegration.
ALFRED AND ENID LAMBERT
Retired from a railroad company that was destroyed in order to provide cash for prison construction, Alfred lives with his wife Enid in middle-class St. Jude, KS. Enid's furnishings are “…of the kind that brooked no clutter,” and everyone in her church is “nice.” In her closets, however – “since the fiction of living in this house was that no one lived here” – are decades of detritus: old issues of Good Housekeeping, snapshots, telephone bills, birth certificates. With her children grown and scattered, she lives in a never-never world of Christmases past and future.
THE LAMBERT CHILDREN
Their son Chip is a libidinous college teacher in New England working hard at being a liberal. “The very definition of mental ‘health,’” he declares, “is the ability to participate in the consumer economy.” Their other son, Gary, is an anhedonic bank vice president in Philadelphia; he is married with two young children, and “his resentment of his wife, Caroline, [is] moderate and well-contained.” Their daughter Denise is a free spirited gourmet chef in Philadelphia who, to Enid's mortification, married her mentor, “…a short, unsmiling middle-aged Jew from Montreal whose idea of dressing for work was to wear an old white T-shirt.”
Thus, as the story begins, the Lambert children have already “corrected” their lives by making St. Jude – with its “…minivan drivers thirty and forty pounds overweight and sporting pastel sweats, pro-life bumper stickers, Prussian hair” – as distant as possible. There are further corrections to come, however.
A Marx Brothers aura hovers over many of the improbable escapades that provide the story line of this novel – from looting the Lithuanian economy, to marketing a brain disease therapy called “Correcktall,” to peddling a psychedelic drug (“Mexican A”) on a cruise liner, to experiencing a same-sex sexual epiphany.
Chip dabbles in sex and drugs. (“What made drugs perpetually so sexy was the opportunity to be other.”) Gary surveys his 11-year-old son's room. (“Neglected in piles, like the loot in a thief's apartment, was new photographic and computer and video equipment with an aggregate retail value possible exceeding the annual salary of Gary's secretary at CenTrust.”) Denise opens a flashy restaurant. (“Cooks were the mitochondria of humanity; they had their own separate DNA.”)
Alfred and Enid go aboard a Swedish liner, the Gunner Myrdal; “the cruise had been booked almost entirely by large groups such as the University of Rhode Island Alumni Association, American Hadassah of Chevy Chase (MD), The 85th Airborne (‘Sky Devil’) Division Reunion, and the Dade County (FL) Duplicate Bridge League.”
The backdrop to these diversions, however, remains Alfred's deterioration. “His affliction offended his sense of ownership. These shaking hands belonged to nobody but him, and yet they refused to obey him. They were like bad children.” “Leaning forward and steadying his taking hand with his supporting hand, he grasped the [snack] and got it off the plate, bore it aloft without capsizing it, and then, as it floated and bobbed, he opened his mouth and chased it down and got it. Got it. Got it.”
Facing away from a low set chair, he hesitates, “his knees bent to the rather small degree that his neuropathic lower legs permitted, his hand scooping and groping in the air behind him;” he is “afraid to take the plunge.” He also has coprophobic hallucinations, constipation necessitating humiliating enemas, and incontinence necessitating humiliating diapers.
“Alfred achieved full uprightness through a multistage process of propping, levering, hoisting, bracing, and controlled tipping. A lunatic dhoti of bunched and shredded diapers hung from his loins. ‘Look at this,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Would you look at this?’” Eventually his family is forced to take a look.
Jonathan Franzen is the author who, in refusing to chat with Oprah Winfrey on prime time, gave up the Pasha's riches. The Corrections went on to win the National Book Award. In the Disney World culture of contemporary America, artistic integrity is to be welcomed, but would it have done any harm for this hilarious, savage, touching, and altogether fine book to have as many readers as possible?
In his review, Dr. Brust refers to these books:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Forsythe Saga by John Glasworthy
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
The Family Moskat by Isaac Bashevis Singer