The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)

Imagine with me, if you will, a carnival. I'm thinking here of the small town carnival; the traveling amusements that volunteer fire departments use to raise money, especially where they've been prohibited from using Las Vegas Nights and bingo. At these sorts of events, electric cords criss-cross straw-covered fields, building a web with the booths, making them sparkling nodules where carnival-goers are ensnared. Sometimes, money changes hands; but, more often, it is merely little paper tickets, torn in turn into bits and scattered hither and yon.

The carnival we are imagining together, you and I, is a lonely place, though there could be a couple hundred fellow celebrants. Between the clumps of ring-tossers and dart-throwers, I wander alone through astonishingly empty spaces, voids in the activity matrix. I walk through constantly changing umbrae and penumbras, forcing transitions by movement, but also experiencing transition brought upon by the manic flickering lights.

I am lost in the smell of popcorn when I am nearly knocked flat by a man exiting the Tilt-A-Whirl.  The man pauses to help me to my feet.  When I help him pick up his book -- even in my imaginary carnivals, people are obsessed with books -- I notice the greenish tinge to his face.  In addition to the unnatural verdiginous cast to his complexion, he is also having trouble with balance.  When I read the title of his book, I understand why.

"Oh," I tell him. "So you've been readingThe Corrections, I see. No wonder you're feeling a little dizzy and disoriented. All those changes in point of view are bound to get to your stomach --"

The man crinkles his forehead with a small shake and draws a deep breath to reply, but his expression quickly is replaced by panic. He puts his hand to his mouth and runs behind a booth.  We'll try not to imagine the sounds he made there. Poor chap.

I shake my head and walk a little farther down the carnival's midway. I stop at a food vendor; perhaps I can get a bottle of water. There is a girl at the head of the line who suddenly bursts into tears. As I rush to hand her a handkerchief, I accidentally knock her book from her hands.  She, too, has been reading The Corrections

"They...they..." she snuffles as I return her book.

"Take a deep breath?" I suggest.  She tries, but has little success with so much blocking her air passages.  Finally, she shudders, then starts again.  "They're all out," she says.  I look at the vendor and he confirms with a nod.

"I see," I say.  "You've gotten a taste for the corn dog from that description of the mother's Christmas, and you just can't get your fill..."

But she just runs off into the darkness.  I buy a bottle of water, but I find it's warm and merely purified -- not spring.  I toss the bottle aside and wander off.  In a cold corner of the carnival, I find a small crowd.  Their attention is riveted to a stage.  As far as I can tell for certain, every member of the crowd is clutching a copy of The Corrections.

On the stage, the sideshow geek is preparing his routine.  He is sitting upon a high stool; he wears an oversized Red Lobster bib.

"My mother taught me this," he says and reaches into a box on his right.  The crowd wishes quietly that it could see his whole family do their thing on the stage tonight.  The geek holds a chicken in his hands.  The chicken is not happy to be in the geek's grasp.  It clucks and scratches and ejects feathers, with no real effect. 

I must turn my head.  I have to turn my head.  I know I cannot watch.  But it takes time and effort to turn away.  Finally, with a horrible wrench, I fling myself around.

In the process, I bump into the Tilt-A-Whirl rider who, as he looks over my shoulder at the stage, turns green again and puts his hands to his mouth.

"It's true," I tell him as I pick up his book again.  "Carnivals can be fun, but they often leave you feeling queasy and a little sad."

0 thoughtful messages from friendly readers: