The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.
“God had given her the imagination to weep for the sad strivers who booked the most el-cheapo “B” Deck inside staterooms on a luxury cruise ship; but a childhood without money had left her unable to stomach, herself, the $300 per person it cost to jump one category up; and so she wept for herself. She felt that she and Al were the only intelligent people of her generation who had managed not to become rich.” (p.333)
This was a fantastic novel that deftly balanced humor, existential depression and a real sense of how families work. The Lamberts are a family undone. Enid and Al, the mother and father, live in the town of St. Jude, located somewhere in the American Midwest-wasteland. Their children have left them and moved to bigger cities, becoming a fund manager, a high-class chef and a college professor. From the outside, one would think the two generations have little in common; when allowed access to the interior monologues and home lives, though, we see that the apples barely even bounced off the tree as they fell. Enid’s one fervent wish is to have her family home for Christmas, but who knows what’ll be left of each of the family members as the holiday rolls around.
As I said before, this book is masterfully done. Coming from the DeLillo-Pynchon postmodern school, this takes tropes like paranoia and searching for identity in the modern world and throws them into a setting that isn’t as alienating as is the norm. Jonathan Franzen melds the postmodern to a post-familial state, as each of the Lambert family members has very good reasons to get the hell out of St. Jude, and maybe only one possible reason to stay. I loved how each family member (in addition to Enid and Al, there’s sons Gary and Chip, and daughter Denise) shares very similar internal dialogues with anxiety and mental illness, but framed differently based on their own histories and points of view. Where Gary sees his brain chemicals as being like stocks traded in the marketplace, Denise’s anxiety about various infidelities manifests itself as the texture and flavours she works with every day writ large, as tongues that take the place of every surface.
The book also demonstrates, in harrowing detail, what it must be like to slide into dementia and Alzheimers, in the form of Al’s battle to stay alive and sane (or at least vaguely functioning). His war against an anthropomorphic “turd” that bedevils him at night is almost as good as, say, the epic tale of Byron the Bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow. The second-to-last sequence, the apocalyptic Christmas celebration, haunts me right now, as one of the most depressing things I’ve read in a while (and considering what I’ve been reading for fun this year, that’s saying something.)
Here’s what Time‘s Lacayo had to say about it: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1951793_1951939_1952267,00.html. I’d like to say more about the book, but I feel I’d ruin its pleasures by not letting you experience them on your own.
Total pages read since January 1st: 6002 pp.
Next up on the Resolution Project: Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939)