The May 31 New Yorker has a short story by Jonathan Franzen called “Agreeable” that made me break my usual “no reading New Yorker fiction” rule. I’m not sure why. The beginning reads like a Good Housekeeping or Redbook article. On second thought, maybe that’s why I kept reading. There was something about those articles. They had a certain style and work ethic that kept a 1950s aesthetic well into the 1990s. Look, those articles seemed to be saying, we’re not retro, and we’re not ironic, but there are some things you should know.
Back to “Agreeable. ” Maybe because the main character is a 17-year-old girl (uh oh) who plays sports, the story pulled me in and kept a hold on me. I had to set it down because this weekend we moved our daughter to her first apartment and I was moving boxes and furniture all day Saturday, but the story kept tugging at me and when I got home I finished it first thing. And it’s one of those I’ll keep thinking about and even re-read, but there were a few things that felt off, which only goes to show, we’re human, even Jonathan Franzen, and therefore cannot be expected to write perfect stories.
So if Jonathan Franzen were in my writers group, this is what I would tell him. The mother acted consistently throughout the story, but the father changed up, and I wasn’t sure why we weren’t given a transition. Both parents are jerks, and the m0ther is amusingly so–Franzen nails her self-absorption and her panic and ultimate failure with some telling dialog (better than telling; I think he was probably grinning like a fool when he was writing it because he knew how good it was). The father is a straight up asshole, but the problem is, he turns into a devious asshole at the crucial point of the book. We’ve been given no indication that he was ever a devious asshole to begin with, so it was a jarring shift. I would have liked to see either more deviousness to foreshadow or more straight dickishness at the crisis point.
If Jonathan Franzen were in my writers group, I might ask him to emphasize just a teeny bit more the main character’s emotional state upon realizing that she got shafted by the parental lottery. Not a lot, not even more than thinking, hmm, maybe she needs to feel something here. Sometimes, and I don’t know how it happens, but an author doesn’t even have to write the words to get the point across. It’s just the way the words are lined up or something, to convey the undercurrent.
Anyway, a lot of this is nitpicking because after all, the story succeeds as written. But it’s what I would have said, if Jonathan Franzen were in my writer’s group.
Great going, Jonathan! Really nice! I bet this one will sell to a pro market. Definitely start at the top with this one.