Saturday, May 29, 2010

The New Yorker: "Agreeable" by Jonathan Franzen

A year ago, The New Yorker published a story by Jonathan Franzen called "Good Neighbors," which I discussed here. I rather liked the story, and even thought it had a good story structure. It turns out, though, that that story was an excerpt from Franzen's new novel, Freedom, which comes out in September.

The reason I looked into that old story and the novel is that I suspected this new story, "Agreeable," might be an excerpt. It begins with a lot of exposition, as if the author needs to fill the reader in on what happened before the beginning of the chunk of the story that he wants to have fun with. And the ending of the story also seems somewhat weak, as if anticipating a greater resolution of the conflict that we'd expect in a novel.

And, indeed, there is a connection. This new "story" provides the background about Patty, the suburban wife we meet in the excerpt from last year. But unlike last year's story, this one doesn't stand well on its own.

As an excerpt, it's okay, I suppose. As a story, I don't much like it. There's the early exposition, and then there's the somewhat familiar date rape in which the victim is left to deal with her problem without parental support. Here, Patty is raped by the son of a wealthy connection to Patty's parents, and so they convince her to drop the matter. It's almost unbelievable that parents would do that, but Franzen has created characters for whom it's credible. In the aftermath of their weakness, Patty becomes stronger--in an angry, aggressive way. But we don't really see who she becomes or what her parents' decision has done to her.

For that, you have to look back a year, to the earlier "excerpt"--or forward a couple of months to the novel.

May 31, 2010: "Agreeable" by Jonathan Franzen

13 comments:

Paul said...

My opinion couldn't be more different. I think this is by far the strongest story in the New Yorker this year.

As to the starts-with-exposition part of the story structure, I think that works perfectly here. It reminds me (with regards to that structural element) of Cheever's The Wrysons which begins with a long paragraph of exposition about the Wrysons' background before starting the cakes/bomb plot.

The resolution at the ending seems perfect. Her being left out of the photograph symbolises her complete (and mutual) separation from her parents. That aspect reminds me of a story by my former teacher, Laura Furman, "For Scale". This might be available by googling (or it might not).

Date rape is covered frequently in US fiction, of course, but this is surely because such incidents also happen with tragic frequency. It reflects well on writers who are prepared to take up such challenging and poignant material.

In my mind, what makes the story outstanding are the nuances in the behaviours and personalities, and in the fact that this account seems strange and yet totally credible.

With regard to nuance, Joyce is on one hand shocked, but on the other, eager to drop the matter. The father is on the one hand, very angry, but on the other, coldly calculating on what the consequences of various courses of action might be.
The father is, on the one hand, seemingly unloving, but perhaps this is just intended as playful teasing.

With all the ambiguities and richness that make up American middle-class life, this story gives a totally believable account of an all-to-frequent American tragedy.

Paul Epstein

hschinske said...

Unfortunately, I find it *entirely* believable that parents would do that -- having heard far too many stories much like this in real life.

Clifford Garstang said...

Okay, yes, believable. Maybe I should have said "almost incomprehensible"--and then there's the fact that we absolutely do believe that THESE parents would behave this way.

Also, in the context of the novel, it's very helpful. In the earlier "story," it isn't clear why Patty is estranged from her family. This is why, and I don't blame her.

King said...

"Agreeable" is a competent story, but that's all that can be said for it. It's so understated that the characters come across as pods. A flaw, I suspect, in Franzen's personality.
Where's the anger? The outrage? The emotion?
Everything is repressed-- as are the actions of Patty and her parents. Wow, Patty didn't include herself in the family photo. Drama.
The story is coming from, about, and for this society's upper class.
Therein lies the problem.
Stories by and about pods don't engage the American public.
As long as such are representative of the American short story, the American story will remain, popularly and artistically, in the doldrums.

Clifford Garstang said...

"Agreeable" is NOT a short story. It's an excerpt from a novel, and is basically, apparently, the backstory of a main character. Properly understood, it isn't representative of anything.

F. Escobar said...

Since TNY's fiction slot is often allotted to short stories (and many read them with the expectation that they are--or behave as--short stories), I think it's fair to judge "Agreeable" as a short story. If you do, there are pluses: the humor, some descriptions, some good lines. There are things in the language to smooth over, too, but it's generally effective. The subject, despite being treated often in fiction, seems fresh and convincing.

Then again, the story could've been told much more efficiently. The long prologue (2,293 words--a short story in itself) is expendable for a story the size of "Agreeable." I would've been happy to see "Agreeable" begin with "As far as actual sex goes," which is when the action really starts. Do that, and I think we'd have a fairly strong standalone.

Paul said...

F Escobar,

I disagree because the story needs background before the main action.

Would you also say that Cheever should have begun The Wrysons with "Irene's oddness centered on a dream." because that is where that story's action starts?

I think it would be great to discuss this type of issue with Cliff in the class he teaches (which I'm sure I would benefit from taking, but am too lazy to commit to.)

Paul Epstein

F. Escobar said...

Paul: In fact, I would advise such a thing to Cheever--if he were trying to publish that story today, and not in 1958. Today's readers tend to be less patient with that sort of thing, which was not true of readers several decades ago, not to mention the readers of stories like, I don't know, Guy de Maupassant's.

I agree that background is useful, but I would bear in mind two things when applying that idea to "Agreeable." First, Franzen could have perfectly slipped the necessary background into the action itself, weaving it into the appropriate places. Second, that even Franzen he refused to do such a thing, the amount of context is inordinate. The word count is huge: 2,293 words. I didn't say this facetiously the first time around: that really is the extension of many short stories today.

Indeed, a classroom setting would be a more suitable environment for this conversation. I'll take my leave by saying that, even though I see it differently, I completely respect your appreciation of the story.

Paul said...

Cliff,

What's your take on the actual novel, Freedom?

Every review I've read is either extremely negative or glowing.

Paul

Clifford Garstang said...

Paul, Haven't read the novel yet--it's sitting on my desk but it's huge, so . . .

I've only seen one really negative review, and that was by the B.R. Meyers, the fellow who is known to hypercritical in a very narrow way (he wrote A Reader' Manifesto) and I don't take him very seriously.

F. Escobar said...

Sorry to intrude, but I do agree with Cliff that Myers's review (available here) was viciously caustic. His whole theory about the unsavable decadence of American literature was at stake, so he took pains to gut the most media-friendly of American authors. At least that was my impression. The virtues of the extract called "Agreeable" (and there were virtues) became unrecognizable after Myers bludgeoned them. I think he ran a word search for the word "fuck" and wrote his review around that. In any case, I look forward to Cliff's comments on Freedom.

Paul said...

F. Escobar,

I can't imagine anyone would say you're "intruding".

Cliff,

I consider this review to be very negative:
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n19/james-lever/so-long-lalitha

Its effect on me was certainly negative. I was pretty much about to buy it and read it but Lever deterred me.

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Paul,
Hadn't seen that one, but it doesn't seem to be entirely negative. The worst he has to say is that the book is disappointing.