Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The New Yorker: "Good Neighbors" by Jonathan Franzen

The Franzen story is the main event in the Summer Fiction issue, and it’s typical, breathless Franzen, filled with wonderful long sentences and lists of details. It’s an entertaining story, if not a great one.

Walter and Patty are early gentrifiers in a rough neighborhood of St. Paul, where they raise their children Jessica and Joey. Patty is a little too good to be true—which causes resentment among the neighbors—and Walter is nearly invisible. But cracks appear in the façade when their son, who has always resisted their authority, begins to sleep with the daughter of a neighbor Patty considers inferior. Indeed, Joel is too young, but there doesn’t seem to be anything Walter and Patty can do about. In fact, when the boy turns 16, he moves in with the neighbors, and Patty’s clash with them escalates. And escalates. And escalates.

Unlike a lot of New Yorker stories lately, this one has a fairly classic structure with its rising tension, climax, and denouement. And while I enjoyed most of it, the resolution, I thought, felt flat: Walter and Patty move away. That’s it? After all the marvelous details and the convoluted characterizations, I wanted more.

June 8 & 15, 2009: “Good Neighbors” by Jonathan Franzen

3 comments:

Paul Epstein said...

Haven't read the story but...

The following sentence structure that you used always confuses me:

"It’s an entertaining story, if not a great one."

It's clear that the "if not great" modifies the "entertaining" description. But it's unclear to me in which direction the modification goes. Does the "if not great" tag enhance or detract from the "entertaining" adjective?

In other words, does this mean "There's no way I'd say it's great, but it is at least entertaining"?

Or does it mean "It may be a great story but even if it's not great, it is at least entertaining"?

In context, it's actually quite clear you intend the first meaning. But I think the second meaning is sometimes intended when others use this structure.

This confuses me, but yes, I'm probably the only one.

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Perhaps the usage of "if" to mean "although" is colloquial, but that's how I meant it.

So, with your comment in mind, I looked it up in Garner's Modern American Usage, my primary source for such things. Here's what he has to say (and, as a result, I'm going to try to avoid the usage in the future):

"if not is often an ambiguous phrase to be avoided. It may mean either (1) "but not; though not"; or (2) "maybe even." . . . Sense 1 is confusing if, as is quite likely, the reader first thinks of the phrase in terms of the more common sense 2. It would be clearer to substitute though for if."

Thanks. Sorry for the ambiguity.

Mary Akers said...

I had the same disappointment with the ending. What a marvelous story up to that point, though. I admire how Franzen conveys such spot-on depictions of his characters' inner minds. (Now that's a confusing sentence structure!)