Dispatch #2: The Exegesis
Way too may words on two-decade-old media.
As I wait for my students to turn in their final portfolios, I thought I’d write a newsletter. This entry is dedicated to my friend Molly who says she’s here “for the exegesis.” Tell you what: get yourself a friend who uses the word exegesis in a morning text exchange!
Well, Molly, you better pee and/or grab yourself a drink because this one is so long I segmented it into two parts…
I’m not sure why I decided to re-read The Corrections. Well, I sort of do. Patrick was reading Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novel, Purity, for the first time, and all I could recall from the book was a scene where the main character has to pee on a bus ride from (I think?) San Francisco to Santa Cruz. I loved how Franzen described having to pee really badly—the pain, the panic, the bargaining with one’s body. I think of it often. As he read, Patrick would refer to other elements of the book—he even went so far as to say, “Some of this book reminds me of your book!” (the one I’m still writing)—and it really freaked me out because I remember so little of Purity. It was as if I had never read it.
It made me wonder, How much of The Corrections do I remember? That book came out on September 1, 2001…that’s almost twenty years ago! (Is FSG planning some anniversary marketing push, I wonder?!) Perhaps because The Corrections was such a BIG book, I recalled more of it than I did Purity. I remembered how the opening section felt labored and overwritten; I remembered the younger brother Chip quite well, at least from the first part of the book—his life as a lit crit professor, his affair with his student, who is half-naked in her terrible leisure suit after they’ve slept together; I recalled, with dread, the patriarch Albert’s poop-related hallucinations. I could conjure the older brother Gary’s rage, and I had this feeling about the mother Enid’s longings. The sister, Denise, was the most vague. I remembered her as “the lesbian chef.”
I remembered the characters’ names because Patrick and I used to talk about which Lambert we were, like people do with the Beatles members or Sex and the City characters (more on that in a minute). Patrick is Gary—I mean, his worst self is Gary, but, yeah, he is so Gary.
I used to say I was Chip, with his desire to intellectualize his basest instincts, his judgmental perspective parading as a worthy critical gaze. When I read the book this time, though, I was not Chip. Chip was so frightened of his body! Chip was using books and ideas as a shield! Chip wore leather pants! This time, I wanted to be Denise because Denise has a skill I admire (cooking), and because I found her sections most compelling. Alas, I’m not like her; Denise does too much without knowing why she does it, and she doesn’t try to make up a reason for her bad behavior, which I totally do.
I am…Albert? The last time I read the book, I found his dementia glacially slow to read. This time around, I sensed a greater compassion at work, an attempt by Franzen to capture a brain, and thus, a worldview and ego, dissolving. It was sad and beautiful. I connected to Albert’s vulnerability.
Obviously, Franzen’s project is not for the reader to connect more strongly with one Lambert over another, but circa 2002 it made for decent dinner party conversation and when you re-read a book 20 years later, it’s instructive. How have I changed? Once I was a Chip and now, in the Covid era, I’m Albert, and maybe one day I’ll be Denise, well-dressed and making elevated sauerkraut and being mean to someone who’s in love with me. (Ha, yeah right. I’ll totally be Enid with her obsessions over Christmas.)
There was a lot about The Corrections that I didn’t remember. A few weeks after finishing it for the second time, I’ve already let go of so many of the intricacies of the plot: the connections between the drugs that Chip and Enid take, and how it relates to Albert’s patent, and Latvia, and blah blah blah. I’m such a plot hound in the moment but in the aftermath it’s just noise that grows increasingly muffled. As I tell my students (and myself), plot is what allows meaning to be made in a text, but once you’ve moved through a book, it’s the plot that falls away first. Character and feeling are what persist.
Franzen is so good at the meaty background passages, that novelistic summary you want to chew on and luxuriate in. I personally think he could have taken a red pen to some of the informational passages—about the railroad, for instance. Then again, I like a novelist who knows what he’s up to, and who wants his story to be stuffed with a brief history of Midwestern American industrial history, and wants four examples when one will do. For me, I am just not into information and excess in my fiction. I want descriptions of houses and flashbacks and consciousness, and I like it taut. But I respect that JFran is different.
More than anything, I think Franzen’s project is shame. People call this a family story, and it is, but it seems to me that the book uses family as a vehicle to talk about shame and how it evolves, grows, ossifies, festers. How it induces action (or inaction) in people. What lengths we’ll go to avoid it, or give it another name.
There are two phrases in Chip’s section that I love, and which represent a lesson I learned from Franzen.
In the scene, Chip has come down from a day or two (or three?) of drug-fueled sex with his (recent) student, Melissa, in a seedy motel. Sober and feeling awful, he is looking through Melissa’s things, searching for another tablet of Mexican A, a pill which had allowed him to forget that which always cloaks him: shame, of course. As he searches, that shame resurges:
The sweetness of her little socks, and the thought of the even littler socks of her all too proximate girlhood, and the image of a hopeful bright romantic sophomore packing clothes for a trip with her esteemed professor—each sentimental association added fuel to his shame, each image recalled him to the unfunny raw comedy of what he’d done to her. The jismic grunting butt-oink. The jiggling frantic nut-swing.
The jismic grunting butt-oink. The jiggling frantic nut-swing. These phrases! They are so embarrassing and disgusting—funny and tragic at once. I imagine Franzen writing them with a distressed glee. There is a freedom to these phrases, which so specifically describe how Chip imagines himself in the act of sex, how much he centers his own maleness, and how repulsive that maleness is to him: jismic, nut-swinging There are a few moments like this in The Corrections, where I felt like Franzen just did not give a fuck, and wrote so close to a character’s muddy consciousness that he got muddy, too, and freed himself and his characters, and his readers, to clomp around in that mud. It reminded me that my best writing comes when I just do not give a fuck and I let go.
In the end, I’m not sure I loved the book. Maybe I was too distracted by thoughts of how I’ve changed since last time I read it. Autobiography as reading.
Of course my own life back then is far more vivid than the book itself had been, and re-reading just brought it all back. The novel came out when I was a senior in college at Oberlin. September 11th happened less than two weeks after it was published. My professor, Dan Chaon, was a National Book Award finalist along with Franzen, and I remember a few conversations with him about it; I remember him describing the ceremony and fellow finalist Louise Erdrich, with her gaggle of kids. I can see myself in my cherry red clogs. I remember the baggy black pilly pants I’d wear to dance rehearsal. My bedroom with its tiny bed, and the stereo on the bookcase, and my black book of CDs on the floor. My yellow Spanish-English dictionary. I remember I used to find individual birth control pills all over the room; I’d remove them from the plastic pack, but would forget to take them. I remember reading Underworld by Don DeLillo eight times for my senior honors thesis, and I remember how I decided to quit that honors program, and how on the way back from the meeting with my advisor I bought myself a single white rose to celebrate the decision.
But I hadn’t read The Corrections yet. It was merely in the air. I didn’t read it until after I graduated. By then I was working at Book Soup full time. The memories of that era flood into me: the vinyl pillow of the breakroom, the Trader Joe’s burritos I’d heat up for lunch, the beautiful, roach-ridden apartment on Catalina that Patrick and I rented. We had a neighbor boy that hung outside on the porch that we called The Little Friend. We drank two buck Chuck on our nubby brown couch from St. Vincent’s. I felt like my life had just begun.
I was a Chip back then. Now I’m…? I’m myself, I suppose.
Here’s a more serious question: which Sex and the City character am I? Which Sex and The City character are you?
At the same time I began re-reading The Corrections, I began to re-make my way through that beloved HBO show, and so for a time I was living in the early-aughts, culturally speaking. I’ve watched Sex and the City before but I was never a super-fan who viewed it again and again, so I’ve been able to be surprised by a few details. As of this writing, I’m nearly done with season 3.
Because I’ve used all my brain power on Franzen, a list will have to suffice.
Here are a few thoughts:
Wow, the puns. And the voiceover tics, the “meanwhile, across town” and “I couldn’t help but wonder…” It’s really just…bad. So bad it’s good. Beyond the bad jokes and the stereotypes, though, you can see how influential it was, specifically for the female-centric shows that came after, from Girls to Broad City to Insecure.
I admire how Carrie’s voiceover switches from explicitly being lines from her column to being her inner voice, and how the narration seamlessly tosses itself between these two modes.
The women are always into psychopathic day traders. Whyyyy? These dudes smile like foxes and look like they’re going to murder you and chop you up the moment after they have sex with you—or before? Charlotte, especially, likes these guys, but all of them are attracted to money, and men who have money.
I am not attracted to any of the suitors except sometimes Steve. I love a short guy, always have, I can’t help it. Also his forearms: muscled, tan, hairy, vaguely simian. Aidan’s clothes and jewelry injure my soul and I cannot move past this fact. Big is just…ugh. No. Hot tip: do not date a man who has his own driver.
Sarah Jessica Parker, on the other hand, is so sexy. Her breasts are a national treasure. I mean, who among us mortals hasn’t wondered how someone that tiny has breasts that big and perfect? She is also just a great actress, in my opinion. She is Carrie, through and through.
I used to be a complete Miranda. Patrick is a self-professed Miranda, too. (“Hi, I’m a Miranda, married to a Miranda” is a sentence I want to write.) But while I continue to see myself reflected in Miranda’s feminism, drive, and no-nonsense realness, I don’t possess her pessimism. I’m currently vibing with Samantha this go-round. Not her vapid “men are like this, women are like this” binaries, but her acceptance of everyone’s kinks. I love her delight, and her willingness to choose pleasure every time. The first time Carrie cheats on Aidan with Big she tells Samantha because she knows Samantha won’t be outraged like Miranda or scandalized like Charlotte. Samantha loves her unconditionally. I want to be someone who says, “Oh honey….” like Samantha Jones does.
I’m fascinated by the idea that these women were our fin de siecle female archetypes. The smart lawyer, the uptight but romantic WASP, the fun loving slut, and Carrie as the fashionable everywoman. I couldn’t help but wonder, if they were to reboot this show now, with totally different characters/actresses, how would the archetypes shift? (See what I did there?)
Wow, the show is so white, and the people of color who do appear…well, the plots are just offensive. When the gang discusses single men in Manhattan it’s only a certain kind of single man they mean. Anyone who isn’t white and well off (Steve is an exception), is simply not visible to them. I keep thinking, Imagine all the guys they’re missing out on!
There is so much in the sexual realm that feels retrograde. The episode about Carrie’s bisexual boyfriend, for instance, or the time Charlotte is considering having anal sex, or when Charlotte is dating the guy who seems gay but isn’t. The whole series is predicated on men being men and women being women, hetero being hetero, yadda yadda, and it feels like a failure of humanity, imagination, and intimacy. It feels like a relic.
Remember when Carrie dates the politician, played by John Slattery? We find out that Carrie isn’t even registered to vote! What the fuck?! Almost as alien as her smoking cigarettes…and doing so inside. My god!
I always have to turn the show’s volume down so that the sex moan sounds don’t bring Ginger and Bean into the living room with a “What’s this?!”
Wow, this was really long. Apologies. Next time I’m going to write about something related to mothering. Or fashion. It’ll be pithy. Maybe not. Stay tuned!
(And for paid subscribers I will write something soonish about why I plan to go back to therapy—and it’s going to get personal! Pay up for that content, y’all.)
Thanks for reading.