Books

State of the sinful union

Two authors take the pulse of Uncle Sam

John Bemrose October 29 2001
Books

State of the sinful union

Two authors take the pulse of Uncle Sam

John Bemrose October 29 2001

State of the sinful union

Books

Two authors take the pulse of Uncle Sam

JOHN BEMROSE

First, there was free trade, and now we’ve joined our American neighbours on a military adventure, the results of which no one can safely predict. We’ve tied ourselves increasingly to the fate of the great republic to the south, but our familiarity with Americans is often superficial, gleaned mainly from their entertainment industry and the odd holiday. For some deeper insights into the workings of the American mind, better to turn to that old-fashioned artifact, the book. The adventures of the mad Captain Ahab—the protagonist of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby Dick, which chronicles the pursuit of a great white whale—may well have more to say about where the U.S. is headed in the long run than the latest bulletin from CNN. So, too, with that country’s best contemporary writers, figures such as Richard Ford, whose most recent collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins (Knopf, $34.95), dissects the vexed heart of the middle class. Or Jonathan Franzen, whose muchpraised, hugely popular satire The Corrections (HarperFlamingoCanada, $39.95) takes deadly aim at everything that currendy constitutes success in America.

Franzens book, in fact, makes the perfect rebuttal to anyone who claims Americans are incapable of self-criticism. He portrays a United States headlocked by its own greed, where unprecedented levels of personal wealth have produced a large but spiritually bankrupt privileged class. Yet he also captures America’s strong suit: a titanic energy wedded to an optimism capable of endless self-renewal. It’s the dissonance between these rwo things—the entrapping, siren spell of new wealth, and the perennial struggle to fight free to a better tomorrow—that generates the book’s magic, including its explosive humour. The Corrections is the smartest, funniest satire in years.

Like Walt Whitman’s poems, Franzens vast comedy seems powered by an energy that rises from an entire society. Yet despite

its multitudes of characters and milieus, it’s mainly the story of a single uppermiddle-class family, the Lamberts. As the novel opens, the aging parents are still living in the family home in the fictional midwestern town of St. Jude. The cantankerous Alfred, who is losing his faculties to Parkinson’s, is in perpetual battle with his wife, Enid, who is determined to get him out of his favourite chair and into the sort of happy activities she sees other retired couples enjoying. The kids, meanwhile, have fled for the moneymines of the East Coast. Gary, the eldest, has gotten rich as a portfolio manager, but suffers a perpetual cold bath of disrespect from his pampered wife and children. Chip, his college-teacher brother, beds one of his students and promptly gets fired. Suddenly poor, he tries to steal a salmon steak from an upscale New York deli by hiding it in his trousers. Like his sister, Denise, who loses her job as a highend chef, he begins to glimpse a terrible truth: the shame of being poor in a society that exalts wealth above all else is almost more debilitating than poverty itself.

The novel parodies the public face of America, with its relentless habit of cheerfulness. That whole attitude is encapsulated in the monomaniacally upbeat ship’s doctor Enid meets during a luxury cruise. He prescribes a mood-altering pill called Aslan, named for the Christ-like lion in the Narnia tales. The drug masks all guilt and shame—the secret burden of virtually every character in the book. The Corrections is a morality tale that reveals another, unofficial America, where loneliness and strangeness are the truth behind the smile. That old ghost of American life, puritanism, stalks afresh here, albeit in weird new forms. In a country where the pursuit of happiness is virtually a religion, Gary monitors the state of his soul with all the fervour of a pilgrim father. He’s not looking for sin, in the old sense, but for any evidence he might be (shame of shames) depressed.

Meanwhile, Alfred’s nightmares take the reader deep into the shady flip side of Americas democratic inclusiveness. His mind addled by drugs and dementia, the old man thinks he’s being attacked by one of his own turds, which taunts him for his secret fear and hatred of people who are unlike him.

Alfred, it seems, can’t stand foreigners of any kind. And he’s disgusted by women with their “trail of Kleenexes and Tampaxes everywhere they go,” not to mention “fairies with their doctor’s office lubricants, and your Mediterraneans with their whiskers and their garlic.” In fact, the only people Alfred approves of are upper-middleclass northern European men. Alfred’s a caricature, perhaps, but exaggeration is the soul of satire. Franzen has propelled a dart into the heart of North American power structures, where attitudes like Alfred’s are arguably more common than we’d like to believe.

The Corrections—the title carries a moral overtone, and refers to every possible meaning of the word, from stock market corrections to the penal kind—does have its shortcomings. Although it compellingly maps the secret suffering of its main characters, its frenzied scenes are rarely as good at conveying the experience of that pain to the reader. For a more intimate and finely tuned exploration of human dilemmas, better to turn to the superb, gendy melancholy stories in Ford’s

A Multitude of Sins. Illicit liaisons are the mainspring of most of these tales. In fact, like Updike, Ford appears to treat the extramarital affair as such a normal event, it appears as virtually a rite of passage for any mature man and woman. Guilt still happens, though, as well as self-betrayal— which often proves as poisonous as the betrayal as others.

Take the story “Quality Time,” in which a journalist lies about what he actually feels in order to appear the man his lover requires. Or “Charity,” in which an ex-policeman makes impossibly big demands on his wife in order that she will refuse them—and so give him an excuse to leave her. These are tortuous situations, involving an exploration of the inner state of the characters—something Ford manages as deftly as any American writer since Henry James. And yet, to say that Ford’s subject is duplicity is to miss his full achievement. Many of his characters manifest their own kind of integrity and courage in painful situations, such as the narrator in the splendid “Calling,” who recalls his youth as the son of a selfish, abandoning father. That story showcases Ford’s ability to write a great dramatic scene. Re-creating a father-and-son duck-hunting advenmre near New Orleans, Ford delineates the misty morning, the terror of the ducks and the psychological tensions among his human subjects with a thrilling, revelatory exactness.

Ford can make mistakes, such as the too-abrupt, melodramatic ending of “Under the Radar.” But he gives a unique perspective on the United States. A Mississippian by birth, an outsider by temperament, he reveals a private America that is sadder and in many ways wiser than the bright, brassy America on public view. Of course, like Franzen, he also conveys insights that finally take his work beyond what is simply “American.” The true state of the union may be found in Ford and Franzen, but so is the secret temper of our times. This is hardly surprising: the best writers have always appealed beyond their own societies. In making American experience so universally accessible, these two authors remind us of the deep well of ordinary, complicated humanness that lies beyond the stereotypes we too often mistake for the real thing. EH]