New Yorker, Reviews

Agreeable – Jonathan Franzen

Agreeable” by Jonathan Franzen starts out slow and never rises above a plodding pace.  The overall shape of the story reads like a personal essay by an undergraduate.  Not in terms of prose, but in terms of subject matter and where the story ends up.

The story begins:

If Patty hadn’t been an atheist, she might have thanked the good Lord for school athletic programs, because they basically saved her life and gave her a chance to realize herself as a person. She was especially grateful to Sandra Mosher at North Chappaqua Middle School, Elaine Carver and Jane Nagel at Horace Greeley High School, and Ernie and Rose Salvatore at the Gettysburg Girls Basketball Camp. It was from these wonderful coaches that Patty learned discipline, patience, focus, teamwork, and the ideals of good sportsmanship that helped make up for her morbid competitiveness and low self-esteem.

Here’s our central argument or point.  Sports and coaches saved Patty’s life.  Are you interested?  Want to know what Patty was saved from? Before we get to that point, Franzen, feels the need to outline how overlooked Patty is by her family.  Her dad is a pro-bono attorney who comes from money, her mom is an out of touch “professional democrat” interested in helping the poor and attending fundraisers, and her younger siblings are all smarter than she.  The pages are dry reading as all this is fed to the reader.  To provide a greater context, we see how misogyny is relatively accepted in Patty’s extended family and their social circle.

At this point, we have our introduction/hook, we have context, what’s the next step?  One third of the way in we have our problem: Patty is raped.  Not only is she raped, but raped by the son of an important, wealthy family.  Can you see where this going?  The rest of the story is about how everyone (except those coaches referenced in the beginning) have failed her.  What happens next is plain editorializing. Franzen tells us what happened.

As a senior, instead of being publicly humiliated Patty became a real player, not just a talent. She all but resided in the field house. She got a three-game basketball suspension for putting a shoulder in the back of a New Rochelle forward who’d elbowed one of her teammates, and she still broke every school record she’d set the previous year, plus nearly broke the scoring record. Augmenting her reliable perimeter shooting was a growing taste for driving to the basket. She was no longer on speaking terms with physical pain.

It goes on about Patty’s mother’s candidacy, and a fundraiser at the other family’s house.  If Franzen is trying to leave a lasting image of the photo op as an image that stays with the reader, it fails.

When the candidate’s family stood for the obligatory family photo, no grief was given to Patty for absenting herself. Her look of bitterness would not have helped Joyce’s cause.

All we are left with is editorialized distance.  Patty’s family is referred to as the “candidate’s family” and further telling of her not being wanted.  As a whole, the story takes a long time to get moving, and once it does move, it takes the reader to a perfectly predictable and forgettable place.  While it’s unfortunate that Patty has experienced rape and isolation from her family, as a reader it’s difficult to be invested in Patty as a character.  While the story may be titled Agreeable, a better title could be Forgettable.