Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jonathan Franzen, "Agreeable"

Jonathan Franzen’s “Agreeable” (TNY, May 31, 2010) has several things going for it. There are some good lines (“Paradise for Joyce [a Democrat] was an open space where poor children could go and do Arts at state expense”). There is plenty of humor in both descriptions and dialogue. For instance, when Patty feels ogled by her father’s junior partner, he is accused of “ocular pawing.” We also find Patty’s grandfather chasing down three-year-olds to force-feed them the amateur wine that adults “emptied into grass or bushes.” Furthermore, the subject of the story is forceful: Patty, a high school athlete, is raped at a party. The problem is that the rapist is the scion of a prominent family, the Posts. They contribute a lot of money to the Democrats, the party Patty’s mother works for. That, coupled with the circumstances (a condom was used, Patty didn’t scream), makes prosecution very difficult.

Despite its pluses, I find two main objections to the story (and an add-on). The first objection is the narrator, which often behaves more like the storyteller of a yarn than the narrators we are used to seeing in contemporary fiction. The voice is flippant, opinionated, and intrusive. The story could’ve survived without it. For instance, we hear of the virtues that would’ve attended Patty had she been half an inch taller; the thought experiment ends with this: “probably not, but it was interesting to think about.” Later, Patty thought that telling her coach about her rape would end uneventfully: “But, oh, how wrong she was.” Again, the story could live without those comments.

Here’s the add-on: the language is textured well, but sometimes it develops sores. A few adjectives feel out of place, even if they try to be true to some unidentified character. For instance: “It was from these wonderful coaches that Patty learned discipline.” Wonderful? Then there are the adverbs, which Jessica Page Morrell says “should be the last words hauled out of your writing toolbox” (Thanks, but…, p. 138)—there’s a good reason for that. The story uses some adverbs cleverly: Patty’s Jewish mother, who disliked being Jewish, married an “exceedingly Gentile” man. Exceedingly there is crafty. But take this example: “the girl crumpled up and screamed at the apparently horrible pain of being lightly touched by a glove.” Apparently could’ve been cut without asking any questions. And lightly touched could’ve been rewritten without the adverb or replaced by a verb that expresses a light touch without using an adverb, like tap or graze. (There’s the good reason so many adverbs can be scrapped.)

Finally, my second objection: the story carries excess baggage. It really starts when it says, “As far as actual sex goes.” That means two pages (2,293 words) are used setting the story up. That’s a short story in itself. Sure, we would miss great lines (judges and attorneys talked “[a]s if misery and disfigurement and jail time were all just a lower-class sideshow designed to perk up their otherwise boring day”). But the point here is to start focused and stay focused. Scattershot approaches tend to show a story out of control. “Agreeable” would’ve been a strong, well-told story if it had stuck to its strengths. It had several.

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