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Friday, November 2
“People are coming in, they’re asking, ‘Give me a canary, I don’t care if it’s male or female. But I want one,’” Mr. Brooks said. That seemed to make him even madder. “The female doesn’t sing. So that’s an indication to us that they’re buying them for you-know-what.”
It was...okay. As I mentioned earlier, the sections that concentrate on character are far superior to those that seek to offer jazzy, satiric social commentary. In particular, each and every time that Franzen comes back to Alfred, the family patriarch, who is deteriorating physically and mentally because of Parkinson's, he comes up with gold, painfully mined. Franzen's father died of Alzheimer's, and his sympathy and intimate knowledge of the pain of such a degenerative disease is evident.
There's some nice writing throughout, and one extended passage is especially good: it describes an evening in the family's early history in which Enid, the mother, prepares a horrendous meal of liver, rutabegas, and beet greens in revenge for her husband's mistreatment - specifically is behavior before and after an extended business trip. Neglect, in a word, is what she feels.
But the focus of the passage is Chip, the younger son, who hates to eat anyway, and, confronted with this meal, is faced with nothing less than a plate of disaster:
Some days were ghastly from the outset; the breakfast oatmeal was studded with chunks of date like chopped-up cockroach; bluish swirls of inhomogeniety in his milk; a doctor’s appointment after breakfast. Other days, like this one, did not reveal their full ghastliness till they were nearly over.
...and later, after eaten a bite or two of what he could bear, the rest of the meal still awaited:
His eyes went around and around his plate, but he had not been provident and there was nothing on the plate but woe
It's an excellent scene, expressing in concrete terms what collateral damage children bear as their parents battle.
The book is full of lines that convey a reality in just the right words - not too much, not too little. The daughter, as a teen, bears a great humiliation to work with her every day:
By the end of a day, her face and neck hurt from holding back tears…
And finally, there's this passage that describes what's going on in the head of Alfred, the patriarch, as he tumbles into the sea (to find out why, I guess you'll just have to read the book.):
He was remembering the nights he’d sat upstairs with one or both of his boys or with the girl in the crook of his arm, their damp bath-smelling heads hard against his ribs as he read aloud to them from Black Beauty or The Chronicles of Narnia. How his voice alone, its palpable resonance, had made them drowsy. These were evenings, and there were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, when nothing traumatic enough to leave a scar had befallen the nuclear unit. Evenings of plain vanilla closeness in his black leather chair; sweet evenings of doubt between the nights of bleak certainty. They came to him now, these forgotten counterexamples, because in the end, when you were falling into water, there was no solid thing to reach for but your children.
There are lots of things I like about this book - the precise descriptive language, Franzen's varied arguments (through the characters' experiences) against the medicalization of human emotion and personality (see my Percy comment below - one of the main differences between the two is that Franzen doesn't seem to have a clear alternative to the human-as-merely-a-fixable-machine paradigm. Percy was combatting the obliteration of the soul. Franzen doesn't have anything so solid to hang onto in his critique), and some of the truths about the strains of family.
But there's just way too much of that gabby, precious cultural critique stuff going on, and it's distracting. It's hard for me to describe these things, but in the end, even with pages and pages devoted to each character, they still, in the end, seem rather flat - authentic, rich humanity doesn't come through here, as it does, say, with Richard Russo. Now that would be an interesting article - comparing two big fat novels that say important stuff that both came out in 2001 - The Corrections and Empire Falls by Russo. Very interesting......
THOMAS MORE, counselor of law and patron of statesmen, merry martyr and most human of saints:
PRAY that, for the glory of GOD and in the pursuit of His justice, I may
be able in argument, accurate in analysis, keen in study, correct in
conclusion, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries,
trustworthy with confidences, courageous in court. Sit with me at my
desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library
and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point,lose my soul.
PRAY that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship
and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in
adversity, patience in pain -- their good servant, and God's first.
I once worked at a Catholic high school of which the principal had his strengths and weaknesses. His major strength was that he was fully aware of his weaknesses, and perfectly willing to hire colleagues and support staff who compensated for those weaknesses. Ever since, that's been and important critereon for my judgment of leadership, and one which led me to be far more comfortable with the prospect of W., who has that same self-understanding, as our president rather than the arrogant know-it-all named Al.
This principal's weakness was that he was not too swift. Intellectually, that is - whatever that means. He just didn't know a lot. Once, at the school's Mass for All Saints' Day, he stood up before Mass and offered some thoughts on the day's feast: that it was good to gather here to pray for the dead, and that he hoped we would all pray for his own mother, who had passed away earlier in the year.
Well, that's nice, and true as far is goes, too....but it was All Saints' Day, which he clearly had confused with All Souls' Day. Even a lot of the kids caught it, and that sure doesn't help the cause of education when your educational leader doesn't have his facts straight.
But today is All Souls' Day, and so we pray.
We pray for all those who have died. This year, our prayers will be particularly mindful of:
The 6,000. Or 3,000 - or whatever the final number will turn out to be, any one of them as tragic as the other.
My own mother who passed away seven months ago. It's still hard for me to believe that she's gone, and I'm especially sorry that she's missing Joseph and all of his baby adventures. We'll go to Mass tonight and pray for her.
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