Week one: comedy

How bad can things get? Thirtysomething Chip Lambert has lost his academic job after a sexual misdemeanour (and because he helped the student he was sleeping with write her essay) and is living in New York on dwindling funds and his hopes for his dismal film script. Having sold his once-expensive books of literary theory for a derisory sum, he finds himself in a food store for “the super-gentry of SoHo and Tribeca”, where the midsize piece of wild salmon he has selected has just been priced at $78.40 (2001 rates). Bending to tie his laces he slips the “beautiful paper-wrapped filet” under his sweater, which he tucks into his trousers. But before he can leave the store he meets Doug, the husband of the producer who has promised to read his script, wheeling a shopping cart with his child and “a four-figure avalanche of shellfish, cheeses, meats, and caviars”. As Chip is forced into ingratiating conversation, he and we realise that the line-caught Norwegian salmon is soaking through its wrapping, “his body heat melting the fats that had given the filet a degree of rigidity”.

Doug wants to discuss the nature of personality. But as they talk, we can feel that deliquescing fish. “The salmon-paper was sweat-bonded to Chip’s skin and tearing open at the bottom. This was not the ideal time to be providing Doug with the intellectual companionship he seemed to crave.” As Doug lectures him about the biotechnology of brain alteration, we are aware of the salmon “spreading down into Chip’s underpants like a wide, warm slug”. In this situation, reflects Chip, with all that lukewarm fish in his pants, “a new brain looked like just the ticket”. A would-be sophisticate, Chip acknowledges for a moment his utter ineptitude; to laugh at him is a kind of sympathy.

Nobody much laughs in The Corrections, except the reader. The novel has rightly been praised for the range and confidence of its sympathies. And seeing an event from a certain character’s point of view is usually what makes it funny. The third section of the novel is narrated from the point of view of Chip’s affluent elder brother, Gary, and comes to a crisis one evening after his disastrous attempt at a barbecue. Gary, drunk on surreptitious martinis, dripping blood from his hand which he has cut while trying to trim a hedge, furious with his wife for her insistence that he is “clinically depressed” (and because she has confided in their sons that this is the case), has sneaked to the kitchen liquor cabinet. His wounded hand wrapped in towels, he is raising the vodka bottle to down its remnants, when “his gaze drifted over the top of the cabinet door and he saw the camera”. We recall, as Gary suddenly does, that 100 pages earlier his son Caleb has successfully campaigned to be bought electronic surveillance equipment – his latest electronic fad. “The camera was the size of a deck of cards . . . It had a purplish gleam in its eye.” Gary crosses the kitchen. “The camera swept thirty degrees to follow him”. We laugh at him because we know how he feels.

The novel’s comedy is sometimes seen from the outside. Aged Alfred Lambert’s fall (or is it jump?) from the upper deck of a cruise ship off the coast of Maine replays the dark sight gags of a body falling past a window. Alfred’s wife Enid is in the ship’s ballroom listening, along with other monied pensioners, to a lecture on financial investment from a smooth-talking broker. She is relieved to have escaped the company of her demented husband for a little while. The narrator interrupts her reverie to provide a calculation of how long a 6ft falling body would take to cross a window space 8ft tall. Four-tenths of a second seems to be a sound mathematical approximation. And four-tenths of a second is “more than enough time to identify the falling object as your husband of forty-seven years; to notice he was wearing the awful black raincoat which had lost its shape”. This is Bergsonian comedy – the human made mechanical – and would seem cruel, if it were not that we have inhabited Alfred’s scrambled thoughts for much of the voyage. The moment of filmic absurdity has been earned (how natural the one human feeling that attaches to the frozen moment: Enid’s horror that her husband is wearing that coat).

Comedy is coupled to self-delusion, and is sharpest at the moment it collapses. Chip Lambert only sees the hopes for his absurd film script through the same eyes as the reader when he notices that the paper the film producer has given to her daughter for her crayoning (“ivory coloured” with “text on its reverse”) is indeed that very script. Late on in the novel, Chip is trying to exit post-communist Lithuania as some kind of coup is taking place. He is in a 4×4 with his friend Gitanas, a discredited former politician, when they are forced off the road in the middle of nowhere by a couple of Jeeps. Armed, uniformed men pour out. “Police in ski masks,” Chip said. “I’m struggling to put a positive construction on this.” As disasters unfold, this is just the struggle to which each member of the Lambert family is comically committed.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London.

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