I have this thing about White Male Authors. Sometimes their white male existential angst bothers me, and sometimes it’s not present enough in the writing to be noticed. It’s sort of like playing Russian Roulette, though. You never know when some weird sexual encounter, an act of bizarre masturbation, or mansplaining is going to arise. So, to help me work through some incredible shade I need to throw, I’ve recruited a guest star who knows how to throw incredible shade, whether it’s brushing off that dirt or tweeting opponents into the dust.
[Seriously, SO MUCH SHADE AND IT GIVES ME LIFE]
The novel itself focuses on the Lambert family from the 1950s to 2001, pre-9/11. The father, Alfred, is slowly deteriorating from Parkinson’s disease and suffering some wicked hallucinations (including those of talking feces, which made Jonathan Safran Foer’s pre-adolescent forays in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seem downright tame, TRUST ME).
The mother, Enid, is your stereotypical Kansas housewife, who cuts coupons and wants the latest tchotchke. She’s determined to live a little and have some fun on a couple’s cruise that she and Alfred are taking, and she wants the family home for “one last Christmas.” The oldest son, Gary, is successful and ruthless, his success undermined by the cat-and-mouse game of control he’s playing with his manipulative wife, Caroline. Then we have our protagonist, Chip, who is the saddest sack White Male Protagonist on the planet. Chip fell into his female student’s vagina trap and got fired from his tenure-track position
(NEVER SLEEP WITH A STUDENT, CHIPPERS. FIRST RULE OF ACADEMIC FIGHT CLUB). Then, while sleeping with his literary agent on the merit of his good looks (we’re told this, if memory serves), he fiddles around with a screenplay that no one actually wants. Hint: it’s a Bill-and-Hillary-Clinton-scandal.Whee! Then, Chip gets persuaded to join a Ponzi scheme in Lithuania. Whee! Then, we have daughter Denise, whose success in the kitchen is only matched by her long history in the bedroom. Apparently, when Denise lost her virginity, she gushed so much blood that her (much older married) sexual partner was bloodied afterwards, and so were the sheets. As I noted in a Goodreads status, if you gush that much blood, TAKE HER TO THE HOSPITAL. See: Bell Jar, The.
These subplots all converge on that one.last.Christmas.
There were genuinely interesting points made about consumer society, greed, and the nature of capitalism. Since my doctoral research touched on that, I’m a sucker for the domestic novel set after the 1980s, because that’s still so fascinating to me. But the plot is kind of unfocused and messy. I think Franzen could have chopped about 200 pages, and I would not have been upset. I ultimately gave this book a three-star rating, because the cultural criticism was genuinely interesting, and there were parts reminiscent of DeLillo’s White Noise or Ellis’s American Psycho in showing how capitalism has completely poisoned the American family. But the weird sexual stuff is so stereotypical. I think my rating might have been generous.
Hillary is not impressed.