Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cringeworthy (part 3 of 3)

What is it about writing so powerful that it evokes a physical reaction from the reader?  Beyond cringing, the best and most memorable writing made me exhibit other physical effects that I began classifying in my previous entry and will conclude here:

Plaatsvervangende schaamte

The above mouthful is actually wonderful Dutch term that means literally "place-replacing shame." It's an intense feeling of embarrassment for someone else, usually someone who has no idea how shameful or embarrassing they're behaving. It normally occurrs during 16 and PregnantJersey Shore or any talent show variation of Britain's Got Talent or Voice of Holland, symptoms include: shifting in one's seat, groaning, covering one's eyes, or covering the ears then squeezing the eyes shut and shouting "la-la-la-la-la!" at full volume until the sensation subsides.

The talent shows require lots of work to bring to our screens - including casting calls and pre-auditions before they even get to the screen. And the thing is, what takes a cast of shameless individuals and a television production crew months to achieve, Jonathan Franzen is able to accomplish with a few pages of prose.

In many ways, Franzen is the most subtle entry on my Cringeworthy list: no psychopaths, no drug abuse (well, maybe a little), and no alternate universes - just a well-developed character, who has rock bottom. The most cringeworthy example is found in The Corrections, where the character not only hits rock bottom, but he falls through the floor to continue his ignominious plunge. That character Chip Lambert, the middle child of a fractured Midwestern family. The family is dealing no tonly their own individual troubles, but the rapidly declining health of the family patriarch/bully that brings them altogether for one last Christmas.

While each character in The Corrections has his or her own unique set of troubles, it's Chip's that's the most capricious and outrageous of the bunch. We meet him in New York City, tenuously hanging onto his identity as a "alternative" writer type. It's an identity that firmly rejects his Midwestern past and consequently - his parents. This is not his first attempt at such self actualization. He was already a middling professor of literature at a liberal private college - until he realized he wouldn't get tenure, and decided the best way to deal with it was to take some MDMA and have sex with (and eventually obsess over) one of his students.

Chip escapes to New York City to remake himself, but when we first meet him, this latest iteration of a life is also unravelling: he's flailing over a movie script (which you can sense is even more middling than his not-so-mad skillz as a college docent), his girlfriend is dumping his ass, and the aforementioned ass is flat broke. As if that's not bad enough, his annoying parents are visiting him. He's got to feed and entertain them and never ever let them know that he's not successful. So he goes to Whole Foods filling a basket full of groceries he can't afford. He ends up stuffing a prime piece of salmon down his pants. It's ice cold and he's got to get the fuck out of there, but now he's stuck chatting to the husband of of the woman who can potentially make-or-break his film script. The guy still thinks Chip is cool, so Chip is forced to humor him while the fish starts melting down his crotch...

It was at this point I threw the book down, squeezed my eyes shut and started shouting "la-la-la-la-la!" I can deal with rock bottom, but I can't deal with people who don't realize they're at rock bottom and continue digging - a key theme in the book. Chip Lambert expends so much energy keeping up his various facades, that he has to wait until he's broke, jobless, and jacket-less on a country road in Latvia before he begins reflecting and redeeming himself. It's no surprise that this literary novel has garnered so much recognition. Franzen doesn't need fantastical devices or outlandish settings to make me twist and turn in my seat: "real life" and the real world are clearly outrageous enough.

- Chris

1 comment:

  1. Chris, this was a brilliant series. I really enjoyed reading it. My most cringe-filled reading was of Bernard Malamud's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. While others found it humorous, I was filled with shame and horror as the character's actions spun out of control. But just hearing about the frozen salmon thawing in Franzen's character's pants was enough to make me hide in a corner.