…by Jonathan Franzen.
Meet the Lamberts. An American family originally from St. Jude in the mid-West of the country. Alfred and Enid Lambert, the former a retired engineer suffering from Parkinson’s disease and the latter a home-maker wanting to enjoy life after all these years, are the only two still living in St. Jude. Their adult children have long since moved out and started lives of their own. There’s Gary, the oldest who lives in Philadelphia with his wife Caroline and three children Aaron, Caleb and Jonah. On the surface, he is a successful portfolio-manager, living in the suburbs with a beautiful wife, wearing elegant suits and seeing to it that all the children have their own mobile phones and access to the latest technology. However, contrary to the signs, he refuses to admit he may be clinically depressed. Then there is Chip, the middle child, living in New York who recently lost his job as a college professor for having a relationship with a student. He is currently working on a screenplay and hopes to make it big through the same. And his mother thinks he writes for Wall Street Journal. Which he does not. Finally, the youngest is Denise. A successful chef in Philadelphia. On the surface, Denise is perfect — good looking, successful, earning a great deal of money. But behind that facade, she is battling with guilt and relationship troubles. We look at the ups and downs the Lamberts experience. The fears, the sorrows, the guilt, the sadness, the trivialness and the relationships of this one family. And through this family, the novel makes a comment on every other American family and America in general.
Despite being a massive 550 plus page novel, it is an easy and enticing read. The characters are brilliantly developed — each with their own quirks and faults and pluses — to the point where they remind you of people you may know. For instance, Enid with her backhanded compliments to her children could be a mother you have known. Alfred with his aloofness and need for privacy and patriarchal manner could be anyone’s father. Gary with his know-it-all attitude and need to feel superior is akin to many people today. Chip with his wayward ways and cynicism and love for the bottle and art is all to familiar. And Denise, trying to please, and yet, having guilt to last a life time, is reminiscent of family or friends. The novel is also about the decline of the economic boom of the late nineties thanks to the technological advances. In some ways, it also makes a comment on the negative aspects of technology such as what can happen to children exposed to the likes of video games and computers. And sadly, in real life, we are seeing even worse today. Finally, it also makes a coment on mental health and medication and how easily people pop a pill. Is mental health just something made up by the commercialised economy?
Here are some quotes from the book that I adored:
“I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed,” Chip said. “I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind ‘diseased’. A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroys the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental ‘health’ is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you are buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.” [p. 31]
Once when Gary had wondered aloud if giving Caleb so many gadgets might be stunting his imagination, Caroline had all but accused him of slandering his son. Among her favorite parenting books was The Technological Imagination: What Today’s Children Have to Teach Their Parents in which Nancy Claymore, Ph.D, contrasting the “tired paradigm” of Gifted Child as Socially Isolated Genius with the “wired paradigm” of Gifted Child as Creatively Connected Consumer, argued that electronic toys would soon be so cheap and widespread that a child’s imagination would no longer be exercised in crayon drawings and made up stories but in the synthesis and exploitation of existing technologies — an idea that Gary found both persuasive and depressing.
Those and so many more excerpts are a brilliant insight and almost a prediction of the world we live in today. Franzen novel was published back in 2001. You could be forgiven in thinking it only came out recently. The world is a scary place. But we can all make our corrections. A thoroughly enjoyable read and highly recommended. It made me laugh, it made me sad and it made me nod my head in agreement. I rate it a 5.
Until next time,