By Salman RushdieRandom House, 272 pages, $24.95
By Elizabeth CoxRandom House, 240 pages, $19.95
By Robert GilpinPrinceton University Press, 416 pages, $59.50/$18.95
By Margot LiveseyHenry Holt, 223 pages, $23.00
By Carole JahmeSoho Press, 416 pages, $25.00
By Jonathan FranzenFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $25.00
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $25.00
Since The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen's amazing debut way back in 1988, American fiction has seen a host of smart-guy writers, some of whom have garnered that dubious laurel, literary celebrity. Franzen, who may be the most rewarding of the lot, last surfaced in 1992, with Strong Motion, another daring performance, but since then he has published only essays and excerpts, whetting readers' appetites for this, his long-awaited third novel.
The Corrections follows the tribulations of the Lambert family, from the stolid midwestern city of St. Jude. The children have long since grown and fled to the hipper East Coast, leaving Enid to tend Alfred, whose health, like their relationship, is declining precipitately. Enid's dream is to have one last perfect Christmas together as a family—after she and Alfred take their dream cruise. The action opens with a stop in Manhattan to see Chip, their middle child, an ex-professor dropped by his college after a humiliating affair with a student. Pushing forty, Chip has never lost the attitude of the too cool grad student whose view of the world comes from the French poststructuralists. He has pinned his hopes to a screenplay that is nothing more than a thinly veiled version of his own downfall. He's an unmitigated failure, dead broke, yet he retains—through a combination of denial and pride—a desperate, last-ditch optimism. As his parents arrive, his girlfriend is in the process of leaving him, delivering her long-suppressed opinion that his screenplay, just sent to his producer, is flat-out bad. Chip understands that she's right and heads off to rescue his screenplay before it's too late, frantically coming up with the corrections that will save it.
Despite a complex and involved plot, the driving force of the book is that simplest, most intricate of engines, the unhappy family. Deep down these are insecure people, often miserable (sometimes buoyed, it must be said, only by the author's virtuosity and humor), and much of the drama springs from what they feel they need to hide from one another. Some of the guiltiest laughs come when these secrets are revealed in worst-case confrontations or loopy coincidences.
Franzen's dialogue between family members contains a barely restrained violence, comfortable chat suddenly turning barbed. In straight narration his powers of language are astonishing. Here's Alfred trying to lower himself onto a chaise longue in Chip's apartment: "He'd realized only recently that at the center of the act of sitting down was a loss of control, a blind backwards free fall. His excellent blue chair in St. Jude was like a first baseman's glove that gently gathered in whatever body was flung its way, at whatever glancing angle, with whatever violence; it had big helpful ursine arms to support him while he performed the crucial blind pivot."
As the Lamberts go their own ways (and they do, if only to escape one another), Franzen casts a wide net, pulling in the principles of metallurgy, quotations from Schopenhauer, railroading, the rivalry between Sweden and Norway, The Chronicles of Narnia, the short-lived rock band Mission of Burma—a whole goofy stew. But as in any great satire of attitudes, the frozen component parts of the book don't convey the power of the living whole. Franzen is a wizard, endlessly inventive in his thematic connections and scene setting. He can run riffs on Lacan or the post-Cold War instability of the Baltic states, yet isn't above the pleasures of slapstick and low jokes (the names of some supporting characters are Pynchonesque bonbons: Fenton Creel, Dale Driblett, Eden Procuro). The Corrections is a wide-open performance showcasing the full range of his skills and his eclectic intelligence.
Because of the book's preoccupation with the individual caught in complex social and political systems, comparisons with Don DeLillo's White Noise are unavoidable, and perhaps also with William Gaddis's work or with Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge in their more domestic moments. But ultimately The Corrections, with its emphasis on sibling rivalry, the break between generations, and the clash between pious bourgeois respectability and the slippery mores of this new and alien America, recalls no novel so much as John Cheever's The Wapshot Scandal. The Corrections is just as funny and sad and smart as that masterpiece, and Franzen, like Cheever, reminds us of the timelessness of human folly.
Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution
by Carole Jahme
Soho Press, 416 pages, $25.00
Modern primatology could be regarded as the scientific offspring of one man's sex drive. Beginning in 1954, Carole Jahme writes, the paleontologist Louis Leakey began recruiting unproven young women for field research under his sponsorship, in part because he believed in their innate ability to observe primates in nature without fatigue or prejudice and in part because he wanted to seduce them. Jane Goodall, his first famous "ape lady," was so "appalled" by his romantic overtures in 1958 that Leakey, crestfallen, turned to her mother, and pursued a lasting affair with her instead. As grossly insensitive as he was lascivious, he advised the newly wed Biruté Galdikas to get a clitoridectomy before she journeyed with her husband to Borneo in 1971 to study wild orangutans. She'd then be uninterested in sex, her aging mentor reasoned, and thus unlikely to get pregnant and abandon her research.
Jahme considers in panoramic detail the burgeoning of female primatologists in the past forty years, surveying the lives and work of Goodall, Galdikas, Dian Fossey, and scads of others. Never sentimental, she insightfully intertwines the personal with the professional. These women's outré sacrifices would seem to rival their scientific accomplishments. Galdikas, for instance, rescued and rehabilitated orphan orangutans in Kalimantan. The first, Sugito, slept with her each night and drenched her with his urine, "his strong fingers gouging her skin." The author's feminist perspective is less ironically detached (and less enriching) than was Donna Haraway's in Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989). Also, she is annoyingly chary of footnotes. Still, Jahme, an English primatologist, reveals much that is fascinating, from the controversial theories of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on the evolutionary significance of the female orgasm, based on her study of langur monkeys, to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's research on the linguistic talents of chimpanzees and bonobos. According to Jahme, 90 percent of primate sanctuaries are now supervised by women, and the listings in the World Directory of Primatologists are 62 percent female. She shows us how Leakey and his women disciples are, in a way, a self-designated and self-generating species—one formed by a man as well as by "his" feminists.
Eva Moves the Furniture
by Margot Livesey
Henry Holt, 223 pages, $23.00
In most ways Eva McEwen, the protagonist of this perfectly structured novel, is strikingly normal. Born in 1920 in a country town in Scotland, she is raised in a happy household, enjoys the usual attachments and suffers the usual loneliness, learns nursing during World War II, gains and loses love, marries and has a daughter of her own. But owing to her mother's death just after Eva was born, there is in Eva's mind "confusion between two categories commonly held to be opposites: the living and the dead." Like living friends, her ghostly companions, a woman and a little girl, are sometimes selfish and inconvenient, but though at one point it costs her a great deal to hold on to them, she cannot bring herself to let them go, and ultimately they repay her loyalty in spades.