Sunday, March 27, 2011

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow's 1959 novel followed his breakthrough The Adventures of Augie March (1953), yet received perplexed and lukewarm reviews at best, notably Prescott's review (2/23/59) in The New York Times, citing parallels to Don Quixote, calling it "an unsuccessful experiment, noble in purpose but dismal in result." Nevertheless, the Pulitzer Prize committee for fiction recommended it be awarded the prize for that year. The passage of time has been kind to Bellow and informed critics soon realized the scope of this uplifting buildungsroman with its ample allusions and demands on the reader's intellect.

A week before the novel appeared in book stores, Bellow published an article in The New York Times Book Review (2/15/59) entitled "The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story," claiming that too much thinking about symbols and allusions might lead readers to misunderstand a novel. As an aside, Bellow uses the term reisemotif ("journey" motif), relevant to the book and to the pseudo-eponymous blogger !! Critics have never understood why Bellow published this article before the symbol-packed Rain King hit the shelves. Yet there exists an eerie parallel to Don Quixote. We will revisit DQ.

Story. Eugene Henderson, a 55-year old millionaire and pig farmer from Danbury, Connecticut lives on an estate which his father wanted to bequeath to his older brother, who died young. Establishing the piggery was based on an anti-Semitic impulse based on a conversation with a fellow Jewish soldier during the War: "I knew that if Goldstein had not been a Jew I might have said cattle and not pigs" (pp. 25, 253). He is searching for purpose and meaning in his life and decides to find it in an undisclosed area of East Africa (since Lamu Island and Malindi, Kenya are mentioned on numerous occasions - I visited both in 1973). At the outset, Henderson warns the reader "What made me take this trip to Africa ? There is no quick explanation. Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated" (p. 9). His first marriage to Frances ended in divorce and his marriage to Lily is aggravated by his hot temper.

Bellow's Africa is the Africa of books, notably Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Ernest Hemingway ("E.H.") as portrayed (see photo) in Life magazine (p. 93): "the world is a mind. Travel is mental travel" (p. 159).

Henderson's inner voice keeps crying out "I want, I want, I want" (p. 17), but he has no clue as to what he wants, yet it compels him to leave his tedium vitae of a home in Danbury for deepest Africa. He hires a native guide Romilayu, who takes him to Arnewi (imaginary), where he befriends the chief Itelo. The Arnewi teach him about "grun-tu-molani" (pp. 84, 266) which means "I want to live." He gains the chief's respect after beating him in a wrestling match. He attempts to rid their cistern of pesky frogs, by devising an explosive device, but eliminates the water as well as the frogs. Sensing his welcome is expired, he travels to the Wariri tribe, where he meets King Dahfu, who is widely travelled and educated in Beirut. He makes a bet with Dahfu that it will not rain. In a ceremony to bring on the rainy season, Henderson jumps in and uses his massive strength to move the giant wooden statue Mummah, and unwittingly is anointed the Rain King (the "Sungo" (p. 186) as in "sun go") for the village. Of course, this carries some responsibilities, unanticipated, like becoming the next King, when Dahfu succumbs to injuries, suffered in an entanglement with a lion, supposedly the reincarnation of the late King Gmilo. Anticipating no good, Henderson Sungo and Romilayu get out of Dodge. He leaves with a lion cub believed to contain the reincarnated spirit of Dahfu: "The King would want me to take it along...he's got to survive in some form" (p. 306).

Biblical references abound. He eliminates the cistern frogs as if he was Moses dispensing with a plague. His imitations of Atti's roaring become invocations with biblical resonance: "Moooorcy!....Secoooooooor...De profooooondis" (p. 258) (mercy, au secours, de profundis). The book is replete with references to Handel's Messiah (pp. 38, 84, 314).

Love and Death. The themes of love and death fill the novel. Henderson relates that he has "observed a connection between women's love and the great principles of life" (p. 95). Henderson realizes that love is the goal toward which all human striving should be directed. Life should achieve a constant spiritual growth to the accomplishment of achieving love.

Novel as Quest. Henderson has been identified with many quest novels, particularly Don Quixote, but more recently Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. At one point he says to Itelo: "Your Highness, I am really kind of on a quest" (p. 66). Ultimately, the reader is not convinced that Henderson has achieved the illumination appropriate to a successful quest. It is unclear if the epic atonement of his journey generates at "at-one-ment" with his father. Four Quartets is referenced: "There is that poem about the nightingale singing that human-kind cannot stand too much reality. But how much unreality can it stand ?" (p. 104). Kiernan (Saul Bellow) points out that Bellow debunks a tradition that limits questers to aristocrats such as Holden Caulfield and the Eliot persona. The vulgarian Henderson is a clown, more of a Sancho Panza than a Don Quixote. Embarrassed that his life is developing an epic dimension, he says "I don't even deserve to be chronicled on toilet paper" (p. 200). Henderson's vulgarity is important to Bellow's parody: "I didn't want to be a shit about it" (p. 56), although he can be clever, describing Lily as "the altar of my ego" (p. 150). Henderson is so far from a traditional quester, he is a caricature. He resembles Jewish comedian or meshuggah. While Henderson fails to embrace his leonine self with Atti, he does recall at the end of the novel a decrepit brown bear named Smolak, with whom, as a 19-year old, he did tricks at a carnival in Canada: "Smolak and I were outcasts together" (p. 317).

Don Quixote. Contemplating reading this book ? Read Don Quixote first, it informs the reading of Bellow's book. The Don Quixote/Sancho Panza pair is an uncanny set-up for the Henderson/Romilayu pair. Perhaps the weirdest connection relates to the caveat/disclaimer that Bellow published a week before the book's release and the Author's Preface of Don Quixote in which Cervantes attacks the scholarly display of knowledge and describes himself as bringing "a book as dry as a kex, void of invention, barren of good phrase, poor of conceits, and altogether empty both of learning and of eloquence...I am naturally lazy and unwilling to go searching for authors to say that which I can say well enough without them" (Shelton translation, 1612).

In Dahfu's court, Henderson says "my purpose was t see essentials, only essentials, nothing but essentials, and to guard against hallucinations. Things are not what they seem anyway" (p. 154). Don Quixote also has a preoccupation with reality, notwithstanding Sancho's constant chiding for failing to resolve hallucinations; truth is the basis for knight-errantry.

Bellow faithfully follows the Cervantine model. Both Don Quixote and Henderson launch their quest at the age of about 50. DQ is searching for immortality: “Oh, happy the age, and fortunate the time, wherein my famous feats shall be revealed, feats worthy to be graven in brass, carved in marble, and delivered with most curious art in tables for a future instruction and memory” (1st part, book 1, chap 2). Henderson, the anti-hero says “I’ll say it straight out, I don’t even deserve to be chronicled on toilet paper” (p. 200). Both protagonists wish to connect with their ancestry. DQ finds an old suit of armour in his attic and takes it as his knight’s attire (1st, 1, 1). Henderson goes to his storeroom and “I found the dusty old case and I opened it, and there lay the instrument my father used to play, inside that little sarcophagus” (p. 29) and “my main purpose was to reach my father playing on his violin” (p. 34). Henderson is described as “a regular bargain basement of deformities” (p. 83). For his part, DQ adopts the name “Knight of the Ill-favored Face” (1st, 3, 7). Both are influenced greatly by literature. Those surrounding DQ thinks he goes crazy with books, at one point his library is burned (1st, 1, 6). Henderson knows “I am a nervous and emotional reader. I hold a book up to my face and it takes only one good sentence to turn my brain into a volcano” (p. 229).

Parallels exist between the protagonists’ attendants. While DQ offers his squire Sancho Panza an island (1st, 1, 7), Henderson offers Romilayu a jeep ! (p. 110). Both offer gentle resistance to their masters. In the famous windmill scene, Sancho cannot believe that DQ hallucinates and sees them as giants (1st, 1, 8). The adventure where DQ attacks the sheep is similar (1st, 3, 4). Most absurd is the barber’s basin that DQ adopts as the Helmet of Mambrino (1st, 3, 7). DQ is teased about the helmet in the galley slaves chapter (1st, 3, 8). At the end of Bellow’s novel, Henderson uses the helmet as a basin for the lion cub ! (p. 313).

Mtalba, Queen of the Arnewi, offers herself to Henderson: “time was when I would have felt differently about the love she offered me” (p. 103). In a hilarious sequence, DQ mistakes a prostitute’s (Maritornes) late night sojourn towards a guest at an inn, as a come-on when she stumbles at his bedside: “I could wish to find myself in terms, most high and beautiful lady, to be able to recompense so great a favour” (1st, 3, 2).

The subject of teeth is frequent in both novels (as also adopted in Martin Amos’ Dead Babies). Henderson’s second bridge is “acrylic, supposed to be unbreakable – fort comme la mort” (p. 125). DQ loses his cheek teeth on one of his adventures: “a mouth without cheek teeth is like a mill without a mill stone; and a tooth is much more to be esteemed than a diamond” (1st, 3, 4).

Both protagonists must face the lion. They both take on new names. DQ adopts the name “Knight of the Lions” (2nd, 17) after braving two lions whose cage has been opened by a lion tamer. This is after DQ has been "captured" in an ox cart (1st, 4, 19) to return to his village: "and ended it will be when the furious Manchegan lion and the white Tobosian dove shall be united in one." Later (1st, 4, 22): "it is necessary to shut you up in a cage and carry you on a team of oxen, even as one carries a lion..." Henderson writes to Lily “I want you to enroll me at Medical Center and give my name as Leo E. Henderson” (p. 267). The letter to Lily is entrusted to Romilayu, but he is stopped on his way and fetched to return and help Henderson’s escape. Bellow has mimicked the famous letter scene in DQ. Sancho is waylaid on the road to El Toboso by the barber and the priest who convince him to rescue his master in the Sierra Morena where he is in seclusion (1st, 3, 9).

Both DQ and Henderson come in direct contact with death. DQ comes upon a corpse in the adventure of the hearse (1st, 3, 5). Later, DQ encounters a group of itinerant players who have just performed ‘The Parliament of Death’, they personify the roles they play (2nd , 13). Henderson finds a corpse in his hut in the Wariri village (p. 130).

An obvious reference to Moses, Henderson seeks to eliminate the frog infestation in the Arnewi’s cistern. For his part, DQ seeks to free a young man, Andrés, from the beatings of his master (1st, 1, 4). Later he frees a group of galley-slaves (1st, 3, 8). Both protagonists have messianic qualities. Late in the book, DQ descends into the legendary cave of Montesinos (2nd, 23) and spends 3 days there – a direct corollary to Christ’s visit to Hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection. This is the only adventure in which DQ has no witness – suggesting an adventure of the spirit. Henderson’s excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, identify him with the “man of sorrows” (p. 258). Henderson is also resurrected – from the tomb after Dahfu’s death. In the Wariri village it is said that “The view of the Bunam is you have been expected” (p. 180).

Arnewi vs. Wariri: Reich vs. Freud. Kiernan (Saul Bellow) points out that the two tribes are diametrically opposed. The Arnewi are all about light: "they had played catch with the light and some of it had come off" (p. 54). The Wariri live in a fallen world, given to political assassination and to scourging their gods. They are "chillen darkness" (p. 112) in Romilayu's phrase. They "play catch" (p. 78) not with the light but with the skulls of former kings. Kiernan posits tat in psychological terms, the Arnewi and Wariri offer Henderson a choice between Wilhelm Reich and Sigmund Freud. Reich believes that a society free of repression would find itself naturally happy. The Wariri embody Freud's notion that societies are repressive and that nature and culture are antithetical. The Arnewi emphasize stasis, being (p. 153), and cyclical time. The Wariri emphasize progress, becoming (p. 153), and linear time: "maybe time was invented so that misery might have an end" (p. 295). Yet the distinction is not black and white as Dahfu has Reichian tendencies. His classification of men into types such as "the immune elephant," "the shrewd pig," "the fateful hysterical," "the hollow genital," and "the narcissus intoxicated" (pp. 205, 252) is an echo of Reich's classification of human types into clinical categories like hysterical, compulsive, and masochistic.

From an existential viewpoint, the Arnewi symbolize the masochistic aspect of a relationship in that they reify themselves by wishing to make themselves into objects to be dominated by others, they submit themselves to fate. The Wariri are the sadistic type, trying to dominate others, e.g., beating the gods.`

Speaking Somatically. Henderson feels a great chasm between reality and ideas: "I often want to say things and they stay in my mind. Therefore they don't actually exist; you can't take credit for them if they never emerge" (p. 166). He believes in a reciprocity between body and mind: "That's how it is with my ideas...They seem to get strong while I weaken" (p. 94). Dahfu believes with Reich that man's experience originates in his own mind: "Disease is a speech of the psyche" (p. 224). The key to the novel is to be found in the "reality" into which King Dahfu ("daffy" ?) initiates Henderson. Pifer (Saul Bellow: Against the Grain) nails it with here explication. Dahfu's insights are profound. Dahfu instructs his friend on the "connection between insides and outsides, especially as applied to human beings" (p. 222). He tells Henderson "You are in the flesh as your soul is" (p. 252). By "speaking somatically" (p. 204), Dahfu illustrates the "utterly dynamic" (p. 222) non-Cartesian union of body and mind - "the flesh influencing the mind, the mind influencing the flesh, back again to the mind, back once more to the flesh" (p. 222). Henderson resists: "thinking of mind and flesh as I knew them" (p.222). Dahfu embodies elements of Psalm 19 "You are related to all. The very gnats are your cousins. The sky is your thoughts. The leaves are your insurance, and you need no other. There is no interruption all night to the speech of the stars" (p. 250). By urging Henderson to come face-to-face with the lion Atti, Dahfu compels his friend to confront "somatically" rather than abstractly the fact and terror of death. Henderson gradually enters into a relation with the lion, until dread no longer paralyzes him. Henderson undergoes an epiphany: "And so I was the beast. I gave myself to it, and all my sorrow came out in the roaring. My lungs supplied the air but the note came from the soul" (p. 251). The spiritual release in this physical ordeal verifies the "connection between insides and outsides."

Existentialism. Holm (American Studies in Scandinavia) points out the role of French Existentialism in Bellow's novels, especially the novels of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre maintains that existence precedes essence. Human beings exist, but what they are or what they may become depends on what they choose to do and they must take responsibility for it. For some that freedom may be unbearable. In an effort to escape this anguish, the individual may shirk responsibility for himself and cling to some transcendent belief in Destiny. Sartre calls this "mauvaise foi" (bad faith). Bad faith denies freedom of choice. After the two World Wars, the existentialist notion of the absurdity of life has attained wide acceptance. In existentialist terms, teal life (acceptance of reality) is an opportunity, a form of being that must be chosen by the individual. Man is free to make his own choices, but no matter what, the choice will be for nothing. It is absurd. The only thing that man can rely on is death. Man must accept that death is part of reality.

Existentialism and Henderson the Rain King. Bellow's characters are unable to accept reality because of their fear of facing death as the only certainty in an absurd world, entangling themselves in a web of alienation which is a result of bad faith. Trying to escape from physical nature, the protagonists are confronted with a sense of unreality. The final obstacle to overcome in seeking a meaningful existence is the evasion of physical nature. Man must accept that he is part of the physical existence, that he too will perish. Man only then may he realize himself as an existing person. Henderson senses that the acceptance on one's own mortality is a prerequisite of self-realization: "All the major tasks and the big conquests ere done before my time. That left the biggest problem of all, which was to encounter death. We've just got to do something about it" (p. 260). The individual's search for a fulfillment of his life, for a search from a life of unreality to reality, is dependent upon acceptance of death. Holms opines that this is the overall theme of Bellow's fiction. Henderson is an existential hero.

In the novel, Henderson plays at being God, resulting in the alienation from life. Looking down at his dead housekeeper Miss Lenox, he thinks: "So this was it, the end - farewell?" (p. 42). He now feels he has no significance, he is shocked to see the parallels to his own life. In his trip, Henderson goes to the Africa of his soul. His experiences in Africa represent his various stages of his development in this Bildungsroman: "maybe every guy has his own Africa" (p. 259). He opines "It is the strangeness of life - a thing that makes death more remote" (p. 84) and later "You did not believe you had to perish" (p. 245). While visiting the Wariri, Henderson confronts death directly: he is "maddened by the provocation of [a] corpse" (p. 133). Henderson wonders if someone is teaching him a lesson: "Why was I lately being shown corpses ? " (p. 131). Moreover, "the dead man in his silence sending a message to me such as, 'Here, man, is your being, which you think so terrific.' And just as silently I replied, 'Oh, be quiet dead man, for Christ's sake'" (p. 132). At least he recognizes the warning: he is "convinced that the presence of this corpse was a challenge which had to be answered" (p. 132). He throws the dead body into a ravine, only to awake to find it has been returned to his hut, symbolic that he can not ignore dealing with the death issue.

Dahfu knows that "Grun-tu-molani was just a starter" (p. 205). So begins the sessions with the lion Atti (attitude, relaxed). Atti is an embodiment of reality. Dahfu wants Henderson to accept reality: "You ask, what can she do for you ? Many things. First she is unavoidable...And this is what you need, as you are an avoider...She will force the present moment on you" (p. 244). Henderson acquiesces and lets himself "act the lion" (p. 271). In accordance with Sartrean notion that "the Other" is a foil against which to define oneself, he says "I had a voice that said, I want! I want? I? It should have told me she wants, he wants, they want...The opposite makes the opposite" (p. 269). Henderson faces his own symbolic death in Dahfu's. Did Henderson change from his journey "into the interior [?] Yes, I did. I have had a look into some of the fundamentals, but don't expect me to tickle your idle curiosity' (p. 311) he writes to Lily. Henderson informs Lily that he has decided to pursue a medical career, in effect a death-fighting art. This casts further doubt as to his willingness to accept death. So, did he change ? Holms believes not, that the meeting of the Persian boy, who speaks "only Persian" (p. 315) on the plane is symbolic of his adolescent self, "with hair like Persian lamb's fur" (p. 10). Before his quest, he spoke only "Hendersonian" (p.). Bellow's tendency toward "open" endings cast doubt on the success of self-realization. "We are the first generation to see clouds from both sides. What a privilege! First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward" (p. 263). People's dreams upward symbolize their belief in religious transcendentalism, whereas their dreams downward are symbols of the existential theory of the absurdity of life. Henderson and Bellow both are caught in between.

The Pith Helmet. Attentive readers will note the symbolism of Henderson's pith helmet. Pifer (Saul Bellow: Against the Grain) has the insight on his "Linus blanket." Worn to shield himself from the blazing African sun, the helmet also emblemizes Henderson's militant resistance to reality. He tells Dahfu "I always have some headpiece or other. In Italy during the war I slept in my helmet, too" (p. 196). Dahfu protests at wearing it indoors: "'But surely a headcover indoors is not necessary'...I refused to take the hint. I sat before him in my white pith hat" (p. 196). When stripped by the natives: "I've got to have my helmet" (p. 191). Later, terrified by the lion Atti, he fails to "reset my helmet when it sunk over my brows" (p. 211). As Henderson affirms the union of mind and flesh: "The hair on my head, especially at the back...[was] thriving. I was growing black curls, thicker than usual, like a merino sheep, very black, and they were unseating my helmet. Maybe my mind, beginning to change sponsors, so to speak was stimulating the growth of a different man" (p. 256). His regenerated psyche appears to be unseating the "carapace-like helmet" (p. 270) along with the dread that enslaved him. Towards the end of the book, Henderson adopts a new relationship with his helmet. He shows a willing divestment in his headgear when taking the lion cub "I can carry it in my helmet" (p. 306). On the plane flying over the Atlantic, he removes the helmet one final time and places it "inside the wicker basket with the cub" (p. 313). The cub "needed a familiar object to calm him" (p. 313). For Henderson, the helmet is no longer a shield.

Summary. Kiernan (Saul Bellow) is eloquent in his summary analysis of the novel: Bellow is amused by myths and rituals that reduce the world to coherence - he offers an alternate vision that embraces the inconsistent and irreconcilable. Everything consorts with its opposite: the dialectically opposed Arnewi and Wariri are the same tribe; Freudians are functional Reichians; Sancho Panzas are ideological Don Quixotes. The inconsistency and inconclusiveness that are often thought of as a failing of Henderson the Rain King are Bellow's narrative postulate, and it is his particular achievement to have turned the postulate into novelistic terra firma.

Both Sides Now. Joni Mitchell's song "Both Sides Now" was inspired on a flight she took while reading the novel and coming across the line "We are the first generation to see the clouds from both sides" (p. 263). Later, Henderson says to Romilayu "We're supposed to think that nobility is unreal. But that's just it. The illusion is on the other foot. They make us think we crave more and more illusions. Why, I don't crave illusions at all" (p. 298). Joni sings "I've looked at clouds from both sides now, From up and down, and still somehow....It's life's illusions I recall, I really don't know life at all."

Favorite Lines. "maybe every guy has his own Africa" (p. 259) and "I am a true adorer of life, and if I can't reach as high as the face of it, I plant my kiss somewhere lower down" (p. 144),

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

We can never be certain that Jonathan Franzen was on a mission to write the first Great American Novel of the 21st century (capturing the last days of the previous one), but regardless, many critics think he did, at least one comparing The Corrections (2001) to Mann's Buddenbrooks. However, comments in his Harper's essay "Perchance to Dream" reveal that he harbored that desire (see post below). Franzen spent most of his youth in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, Missouri. It is interesting to note that Saul Bellow, generally credited with sharing the mantle of best American 20th century author with Faulkner, spent much of his life in Chicago, and first leveraged that regional experience into The Adventures of Augie March, which many consider, to this day, a major triumph of American literature. Certainly, Franzen leveraged his own personal experience, for which an article entitled "My Father's Brain" in The New Yorker (the day before 9/11), is a testimonial to his own experience with a father with Alzheimer's. Franzen's fear of losing his street cred as a result of Oprah's Book Club is now ancient history.

Franzen has set out to write a Social Novel in a Tragic Realism style in the genre of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Whereas Sinclair revealed the horrific and unsanitary working conditions of the working class hidden from literate Americans, Franzen uses the same approach to reveal that the well educated classes who wallow in abundance harbor social ills just as severe as the downtrodden and that "successful" Americans are also diminished. Because the concerns seem trivial in relation to starvation, poverty, and violence (and maybe war) in the daily lives of the poor, the characters wallow in a world characterized by the character Gitanas Misevičius as "tragedy rewritten as farce" (p. 534). The Corrections confronts the banality and the vacuousness of the American dream. Compared to the Holocaust or Stalin's purges, tragedy on this small scale can only be relegated to farce. These tragedies are dealt with by adopting minor "corrections" based on many small epiphanies. Of course, Franzen has implicitly drawn comparisons between our personal lives and the stock market by using a term for a short-lived drop in stock prices.

Oddly enough, at 568 pages, the novel is a fast read, gratefully unladen with obscure references to the Western Canon (Amis and Bellow are much more dense and require much greater effort on the part of the reader, not to denigrate), although Tolstoy and Schopenhauer figure into the book explicitly joining numerous playful references to contemporary authors. There are brief references to literary theorists Michel Foucault (p. 48) and Walter Benjamin (p. 36). Franzen pokes fun by adopting a "pomo" trope in the playful use of parens (parentheses), like (The Mercer) Kitchen (see photo). The phrase "sexual (trans)act(ion)" befits the fatuity of Chip, literary theorist (p. 91). Also note the Swedish liqueur dubbed "Sp(breve)ogg" (p. 300).

The novel is replete with references to other authors who were influential to Franzen. The book's title echoes that of William Gaddis' novel The Recognitions. Other references include a slasher movie called Moody Fruit (p. 409)(Rick Moody); Chip's email domain (p. 431)(William Gaddis); a cruise ship passenger named Roth (p. 296)(Philip Roth); a city park with same name as college where Nabokov's Pnin taught - Waindell (p. 476); and a magician named Alain Gregarius (p. 486)(Alain de Botton).

Franzen's friend, David Foster Wallace (author of Infinite Jest) wrote a 90-page essay for Harper's (1995) entitled "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" about an all-expense-paid Caribbean cruise. He hated it. This undoubtedly had some impact on Franzen's The Sea chapter.

In fairness, intertextual references (a hallmark of postmodern novels) are de minimus in this tragic realism-style novel. One exception is the references to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (pp. 64, 268), specifically quotes from his famous essays On Pessimism (pp. 256, 258, 262, 268, 276) and On Women (pp. 266, 280). Here's a sample: "Woman pays the debt of life not by what she does, but by what she suffers; by her pains of childbearing and care for the child, and by submission to her husband, to whom she should be a patient and cheering companion" (p. 266) and "The people who make money are men, not women; and from this it follows that women are neither justified in having unconditional possession of it, nor fit persons to be entrusted with its administration" (p. 280). Franzen uses the ideas of Modernism and connects them with the father figure, Alfred, who lives by principles established by Schopenhauer, while Chip abides by those who followed Schopenhauer (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan). Mahanes (Library Fetish) opines that "the tension between the father and son, between Schopenhauer and the Post-Modern mix of theorists drives the narrative."

In Proustian fashion, all the characters are interconnected. The law firm where Chip works is the one that pays Alfred $5,000 (pp. 72, 88); Denise's lover's brother is in prison for assaulting the president of the company whose money makes her restaurant possible; the VCs (Wroths)who force Alfred into retirement have endowed buildings at the college that fires Chip (pp. 36, 152); a film director, Jerry Schwartz, supported by Denise's boss makes the only American film to open in Vilnius while Chip is there (pp. 408, 445); Khellye Withers, who murdered Sylvia Roth's daughter (Enid meets her on the cruise (p. 303)) is previewed on the radio news (p. 236) and then reappears in Al's hospital TV (p. 466). There must be more.

The novel is rich with detail that the rereader is more likely to pick up than the casual initiate. Salient observations (in no way comprehensive) chapter by chapter:

ST. JUDE: This brief opening chapter exposes the guerrilla (p. 7) warfare between Alfred and Enid Lambert, in the "gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude (p. 3), a mythic Midwestern idyll. "Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety" (p. 3). What anxiety ? Well, "The anxiety of coupons" (p. 4) - Enid collects coupons that are well past their "historical" expiration dates. Guerrilla actions ? How about "a Nordstrom bag surprised in broad daylight on the basement stairs, nearly precipitating a tumble..." (p. 7) - ooh, I can relate ! For his part Alfred, a train engineer, has odd habits (efficient ?) in the basement, his laird, like peeing in "Yuban coffee cans...Enid chose not to believe were filling up with her husband's urine" (p. 8, 465). We learn that his "life came to be lived underground" (p. 10) on the basis that his favorite blue leather chair was banished by Enid from the living room to the basement. As we learn later, Enid has total control in certain aspects: Enid knew that Alfred hated liver, but the meat was full of health-bringing iron, and whatever Alfred's shortcomings as a husband, no one could say he didn't play by the rules. The kitchen was her domain, and he never meddled" (p. 254). After all, Enid spelt backwards is "dine."

THE FAILURE: 38-year old Chip, is the family failure, obsessed with sex, is tenure track professor at a liberal arts college in Connecticut (p. 17), who loses job over sex escapade with student, Melissa. Chip is writing a screenplay of 'turgid academic theorizing" (p. 91), "The Academy Purple," which features (p. 26) Bill Quaintence, Mona (his student) and Hillaire (his wife). Obviously a parody on Monica Lewinsky: soon we hear the Clintonesque "I never had sexual relations with that woman" (p. 79) in his defense against his own student affair. At one point, the lovers stop off at Wesleyan (p. 55) to score some drugs, on the way to the Comfort Valley Lodge (p. 83), Franzen poking fun at the defranchised Comfort Inn. One of the campus buildings is Hillard Wroth Hall (p. 36)(Wroth a VC (pp. 69, 152) who is involved in M&A activities on his father's railroad). Chip has doctorate in field of "textual artifacts", a fancy name for Literary Theory. "Chip's problem was a loss in confidence. Gone were the days when he could afford to épater les bourgeois" (p. 19).

Chip, who now lives on 9th St. in NYC, is chasing girlfriend Julia to gain access to Eden Procuro, film producer. Chip's script "The Academy Purple" begins with long academic monologue, not unlike Franzen's novel itself ! "'My idea,' Chip said, 'was to have this 'hump' that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it's a classic modernist strategy" (p. 25). It's obvious that Chip is a clone of the author - note that he claims himself modernist, not post-modern.

Chip is happy to let Enid think he's working for Wall Street Journal, while he really works for arts rag Warren Street Journal. He works part time at legal firm Bragg Knuter & Speigh, which also represents Axon pharmaceuticals in bid to license Alfred's patented technology. The parents have come to New York to embark on a cruise. Chip has stolen a salmon in anticipation of his parents' arrival: he "took the salmon right up inside his leather jacket and underneath his sweater" (p. 94). Enid proposes that the family get together for one last Christmas in St. Jude. Chip meets Julia's husband, whom he was "cuckolding" (p. 90), Gitanas Misevičius, deposed deputy prime minister of Lithuania. Gitanas offers Chip a job designing website to defraud US investors.

THE MORE HE THOUGHT ABOUT IT, THE ANGRIER HE GOT: Gary is the oldest son, who hopelessly conforms to others' expectations. More than any sibling, Gary seeks approval from is father. Yet "his entire life was set up as a correction of his father's life" (p. 181). Franzen pushes the stock market lingo in describing Gary: "he estimated that his levels of Neurofactor 3 (i.e. serotonin: a very, very important factor) were posting seven-day or even thirty-day highs" (p. 139). He tries to negotiate a better deal with Axon, but is emasculated by the female CEO. Denise, his kid sister, accompanies Gary to Axon's pre-IPO presentation, where she learns that Corecktall (so named because it can correct criminal behavior), a product which falls under Alfred's patent claims, can be used to treat Parkinson's. Gary then tries to get in on Axon's IPO but is frustrated by his inability to purchase stock, another blow on his masculinity. Finally, he fails to convince his wife Caroline and 3 kids to go to St. Jude for Christmas.

There is a scene where Gary and his son visit the St. Jude Museum of Transport (p. 177). They enter the world of trains, now destined only for scrap yards and museums, the detritus of his father's vocation. One hundred pages later, Franzen refers to Alfred and Enid's marriage bed as the "museum of antique transports" (p. 276).

C.S. Lewis' children's book Narnia is introduced here (p. 141), with the hero Aslan, a furry lion. So the lamb-lion tension is invoked. This is made obvious in next chapter when Enid spells out her last name, but stops at "B": "Enid. Lambert. L-A-M-B-" (p. 317). The "parents were cowed by authority of all kinds" (p. 151), a rather lambish trait. Later the drug Aslan® is referred to as "leonine caplets" (p. 324). No doubt the urbanized offspring Gary, Chip, and Denise, are the lions pitted against their parents, the lambs.

AT SEA: This is Alfred's section, and follows the North Atlantic cruise. It is in this chapter that Enid discovers he is a devoted reader of Schopenhauer (p. 268). His mind recedes to the past when seeds of marital tension were sown. Enid wants Alfred to buy stock in a rival railroad that Midland Pacific is about to acquire. Enid gets very aggressive one night in bed (p. 279) and goes down on him (a first ?!) to coerce him to make the purchase, but he knows that it would be unethical under the guise of insider knowledge. To spite her, he tips off the neighbors, the Meisners, and they buy the stock and ultimately retire off their earnings.

Alfred learns to evade Enid by sleeping, which he refers as his "new lover" (p. 282): "There was no mess in their affair, no romantic osculation, no leakages or secretions, no shame. He could cheat on Enid in Enid's own bed" (pp. 282-283). One night on the boat he imagines himself under attack by turds (yes, feces - remember the Yuban cans ?). Enid pays a visit to the ship's Dr. Hibbard (like Mother Hubbard), and he gives her "mother's little helper" (as per the Rolling Stones song, btw Chip's favorite song is Wild Horses (p. 181)), namely Aslan® (p. 292)(not available in US, but available on high seas), which is similar to Ecstasy. Franzen takes issue with our self-medicated culture, aware of the greed of the pharmaceutical companies. For his part, Alfred falls overboard into "the wine dark sea" (p. ), an allusion to Homer's Odyssey.

There is a wonderful description of Alfred going overboard at chapter's end: "Discounting the minimal effects of wind drag at low velocities, something "plummeting" (a thing of value "plunging" in a "free fall") experienced an acceleration due to gravity at 32 feet per second squared, and, acceleration being the second-order derivative of distance, the analyst could integrate once over the distance the object had fallen (roughly 30 feet) to calculate its velocity (42 feet per second) as it passed the center of a window 8 feet tall, and assuming a 6-foot long object, and also assuming for simplicity's sake a constant velocity over the interval, derive a figure of approximately four-tenths of a second of full or partial visibility....if you happened to be gazing directly at the window in question....four-tenths of a second was more than enough time to identify the falling object as your husband of forty-seven years" (p. 338).

THE GENERATOR: This chapter begins with a digression into Robin Passafaro, daughter of "a family of troublemakers and true believers" (p. 341), members of the mob and Teamsters, particularly her adopted brother Billy. He is in prison for beating up the President of W- Corporation, a company which made Robin's husband, Brian, rich on a patented technology license, allowing him to indulge his every whim, including the desire to create a top restaurant which he will house in an old abandoned power plant. He hires Denise, the youngest Lambert, Philadelphia's hottest chef.

Denise's background is revealed including a teenage deflowering affair (p. 372) with one Don Armour (amour?), her father's employee, who ultimately blackmails Alfred with this information as a means to job security, forcing him into early retirement to avoid scandal, revealed at the end of the novel as the secret carved into the bench (pp. 524-525). Fast forward to present and the bisexual Denise is having torrid affair with Robin. Brian discovers the ruse and fires Denise. The phone rings - Gary informs her that Alfred has fallen overboard on the cruise (p. 429). Denise's life is in shambles, but this correction enables her to attend the Christmas celebration.

ONE LAST CHRISTMAS: Well, Enid "loves Christmas the way other people love sex" (p. 432). "Although Enid generally fell far short of fervor in her Christian beliefs, she was devout about [her] ornament[s]" (p. 471). All the individual corrections put the family members on a collision course. Alfred laments the fact that he didn't have the courage to let himself drown (p. 465). Enid spends the chapter withdrawing from Aslan®. Gary helps out with Alfred's needs including buying a shower stool in local medical aids store, he quips to checkout girl "You know what these stools would really be good for...would be to hang yourself. Don't you think ?" (p. 485). For her part, DEnise helps her mother with the cooking: "You forget how much restaurant there was in restaurant food and how much home was in homemade" (p. 515), great line.

Just before the whole Lithuania imbroglio falls apart, Gitanas comments on the political situation as "A tragedy rewritten as a farce" (p. 534). This comment underlies the book's theme. Chip manages to escape Vilnius with only a few dollars in his pocket, the last member to arrive at St. Jude. Alfred is hospitalized and asks Chip to help him end things, this is one correction he cannot make. Alfred asks "How to get out of this prison?" (p. 553) harking back to Schopenhauer's quote (p. 256). Of all the siblings, surprise, Chip has fared the best. Near the end of the chapter, Chip thinks "I'm the least unhappy person at this table" (p. 548), a reference to the opening page of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The final scene in the chapter is heartbreaking - Alfred wants to speak to Chip from deep inside, but can only muster a single word: "'Dad, Dad, Dad. What's wrong?' Alfred looked up at his son and into his eyes. He opened his mouth, but the only word he could produce was 'I--'
Chip imagines what words will come forth:
I have made mistakes--
I am alone--
I am wet--
I want to die--
I am sorry--
I did my best--
I love my children--
I need your help--
I want to die--"(p. 559).

THE CORRECTIONS: In this epilogue, Enid finds happiness unshackled from Alfred. Chip marries a sugar mama, Alfred's neurologist and finds freedom to write in the Midwest suburbs. Gary takes a bath on the Axon IPO. Denise moves to Brooklyn as a chef. And of course, Alfred dies.