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Jonathan Franzen

"Good Neighbors"

June 8 & 15, 2009


Quintilian believed that the perfection of art is to conceal art, but few of his contemporaries had taken college courses in close reading. Jonathan Franzen's stunning and droll short story, "Good Neighbors," inverts the maxim, making no secret of the artistry with which the story's five sections are laid out. He writes with simplicity, but not because he's a simplifier. It's rather that he knows that his readers will be deconstructing his story on the fly, that they will see him at his magic and he is too interested in his story to make difficulties. He knows that readers will be aware of the nonlinear nature of his introduction to the neighborhood undergoing gentrification, of his way of handing out snapshots. They're not out of order, but they don't trace development. True, children make their appearance gradually, just as they do in family scrapbooks. But they are never really children never the innocents of fond imagination. They are complete characters from the start, just like their parents. There is a slight touch of Rod Serling's dry-martini realism in Mr Franzen's manner of doing this.

The other feature of Mr Franzen's writing that may put off some readers is his generosity with detail. His details do not relate to material objects; only rarely does Mr Franzen paint pictures, and when he does, it is usually to comic effect, to illuminate the anxieties of the house-proud. Rather, he zooms in on the bric-a-brac of his characters' minds. He takes pains to tell us not only what his characters think but how they think it. He decants the flavor of their thoughts. 

There were also more contemporary questions, like: What about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did you [Volvo] 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning. Had anybody in the history of St Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have hat problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labelled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?

To write minimally about suburban life is an act of hostility, a demonstration of contempt for the miscellaneous everyday questions that, in the context-flattening stress of paying a lot of attention to children, seem equally pressing to beleaguered adults. Mr Franzen is one of our sharpest critic (or judges) of suburban life, and "Good Neighbors" proffers superb testimony. But Mr Franzen does not hate suburban life. Unlike the minimalist, he harbors no wish that the suburbs simply didn't exist. Rather, he gives us a gracefully composed list of "concerns," the satire of which will be felt most keenly by those who have shouldered them. There is a kind of nostalgia running through Mr Franzen's fiction (which is often set in the recent past), as if to ask, "can you believe we wore our hair like that?" Every generation has its own list of questions; today's young parents would object to the carbon footprint of milk delivered in glass bottles. The intimacy in Mr Franzen's story stems from his surgical skill at pinpointing the footnotes in currency at a given moment.

The litany of "contemporary questions" is the flourish that establishes Patty Berglund as a central figure in the story. Patty has the answers to all the questions; she is a phenomenon of domestic organization. She remembers birthdays &c. (She is not political?) She also looks on the bright side of things: the worst that she can say of her neighbors' behavior is that it is "weird." But alongside Patty's quotidian reliability it would be quite wrong to say, "beneath it" there is something about her life that is very weird.

It was known that Patty had grown up in the East, in a suburb of New York City, and had received one of the first women's full scholarships to play basketball at Minnesota, where, in her sophomore year, according to a plaque on the wall of Walter's home office, she'd made second-team All-American. One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots. Whole seasons passed without her setting foot outside St Paul, and it wasn't even clear that anybody from the East, not even her parents, had ever come out to visit. If you inquired point-blank about the parents, she would answer that the two of them did a lot of good things for a lot of people, her dad had a law practice in White Plains, her mom was a politician, yeah, a New York state assemblywoman. Then she would nod emphatically and say, "Yeah, so, that's what they do," as if the topic had been exhausted.

"Walter and Patty Berglund were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill..." So begins "Good Neighbors." But as the columns about Patty scroll by, we wonder where Walter is. We're meant to, not because Mr Franzen has a surprise in store for us but because he does not have the leading role that the first sentence might suggest, and there's a point to that fact. Until late into the story, Walter Berglundex appears indirectly, in stories recounted by Patty, stories in which he gradually becomes "Wal-ter":

...and I'm sitting there thinking, Wal-ter, Wal-ter, don't get into it, but Walter can't help it he has to try to prove to Joey that in fact Joey really loves dessert.

Waiting for Walter to appear, wondering what he'll be like, we might not notice that, for all that we're getting to know about Patty, we don't know her at all. We see nothing from her point of view. All we see is her affable neighborliness, which begins to look like armor of a sort. Meanwhile, an illusion of spaciousness spreads over the story, beneath the frequent mention of "neighbors." In fact, however, only two of the other households in Ramsey Hill are visited with specificity: those of Merrie and Seth Paulsen and of Carol Monaghan. Carol lives in the house between the Paulsens and the Berglunds. The only point of view from within the story is that of the Paulsens whose comments on the Berglunds usually accompany their after-dinner clean-ups. As regards Patty Berglund, Merrie Paulsen is uncharitable on principle.

Merrie, who was ten years older than Patty and looked every year of it, had formerly been active with the SDS in Madison and was now very active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau. When Seth, at a dinner party, mentioned Patty for the third or fourth time, Merried went nouveau red in the face and declared that there was no larger consciousness, no solidarity, no political substance, no fungible structure, no true communitarianism in Patty Berglund's supposed neighborliness, it was all just regressive housewifely bullshit, and, frankly, in Merrie's opinion, if you were to scratch below the nicey-nice surface you might be surprised to find something rather hard and selfish and competitive and Reaganite in Patty; it was obvious that the only things that mattered to her were her children and her house not her neighbors, not the poor, not her country, not her parents, not even her own husband.

Just when Walter ought to appear, his place is taken by Joey, his obviously stronger son. Joey is Patty's darling and preferred child, about whom she loves to complain. We hear Patty talk about Joey, with what Merrie Paulsen calls "backhanded brags." The sequence of these stories builds to Patty's report of a dinner-table fight between Walter and Joey in which her intervention subverts Walter's exercise of authority. On this ambiguous note, the first section of the story ends.

From now on, the story will be about Joey's break from his parents, and the time-frame becomes increasingly linear as the tension between parents and child becomes more insupportable. To put it more analytically, the story demonstrates that Patty is ill-equipped, ultimately, for her project of living intelligently in a neighborhood that requires intelligence. As matters that she deemed unimportant when she was a "pioneer" obtrude, her project  is upended by the ongoingness of life, by the fact that children grow up and out, and she does not know how to restore equilibrium.

The first two paragraphs of the story's second section introduce Connie Monaghan, the girl next door who moons over Joey. Mr Franzen is at his wry best describing how Carol, Connie's mother, came to occupy the house between the Berglunds and the Paulsens, but the sad consequence of Carol's story is that Connie is not an altogether wanted child. So we are not surprised to find Connie trailing a boy who's loaded with initiative. The third paragraph, however, begins with a shock, at which we flinch, as if in recognition that a line has been crossed that will always bar Patty.

When exactly Connie and Joey started fucking wasn't known. Seth Paulsen, without evidence, simply to upset people, enjoyed opining that Joey had been eleven and Connie twelve. Seth's speculation centered on the privacy afforded by a tree fort that Walter had helped Joey build in an ancient crab apple in the vacant lot. By the time Joey finished eighth grade, his name was turning up in the neighbors' boys replies to strenuously casual parental inquiries about the sexual behavior of their schoolmates... But nobody eer saw them actually hanging out by themselves until the following winter, when the two of them went into business together.

Business! Having given us very little time swallow the, er, precocious sexuality, Mr Franzen reveals the young couple to be active in an even more adult activity.

As the story exchanges the shelter-magazine appreciation of Patty's domestic virtuosity for the grittier chronology of her son's adolescence,  Patty ceases to be worldly and begins to look out-of-touch. For all Patty's practical knowledge about optimizing life on Ramsey Hill, there is a refusal to know the world beyond it. That Patty doesn't work is never explained or excused: Walter doesn't have the kind of job that makes Patty's domestic leisure seem particularly affordable. The sense that something went amiss in Patty's past something other than her  basketball injury becomes a conviction, although this secret is never explained. It can't be, for Mr Franzen has thrown an opaque shroud over the Berglunds' private life. We know no more than neighbors usually do. But Merrie Paulsen captures the nature of Patty's life at the moment when it begins to crack.

"The whole thing is so Reaganite-regeressive," Merrie said. "She thought she could live in her own little bubble, make her own little world. Her own little doll house."

The aptness of this judgment becomes increasingly unchallengeable. And yet isn't a bubble the only sustainable environment for a gentrifier? Isn't important for a pioneer to focus intently on what needs to be done, at the risk of developing tunnel vision? To go where you don't belong, where, arguably, you are not wanted, requires a thick hide, a certain insensitivity, whether willed or natural. (And we suspect that Patty's is willed.) You arm yourself with a lot of useful information (the modern equivalent of the proper gear), and hope for the best.

In the third section, Patty finds a new project: rehabilitating another house, this one situated on an upstate pond, inherited by Walter from his mother. The pond is too small to be named on maps, and when Joey christens it "Nameless Lake" Patty enthusiastically embraces the usage. Back at home, Carol Monaghan finds a live-in boyfriend, an urban redneck by the name of Blake. Blake delivers the visible blows against Patty's Ramsey Hill project when he tears up Carol's backyard, and, in the fourth section, builds what Patty, openly critical at last, calls "the hangar." The invisible, deadlier blow is wielded by Joey, who once again astonishes us, this time by moving out of his parents' house and into Carol Monaghan's.

The final section of "Good Neighbors" begins:

The move was a stunning act of sedition and a dagger to Patty's heart the beginning of the end of her life in Ramsey Hill. Joey had spent July and August in Montana, working on the high-country ranch of one of Walter's major Nature Conservancy donors, and had returned with broad, manly shoulders and two new inches in height. Walter, who didn't ordinarily brag, had vouchsafed to the Paulsens, at a picnic in August, that the donor had called him up to say how "blown away" he was by Joey's fearlessness and tirelessness in throwing calves and dipping sheep. Patty, however, at the same picnic, was already vacant-eyed with pain. In June, she'd again taken him up to Nameless Lake to help her improve the property, and the only neighbor who'd seen them there described a terrible afternoon of watching mother and son lacerate each other over and over, airing it all in plain sight, Joey mocking Patty's mannerisms and finally calling her "stupid" to her face, at which Patty had cried out, "Ha-ha-ha! Stupid! God, Joey! Your maturity just never ceases to amaze me! Calling your mother stupid in front of other people! That's just so attractive in a person! What a big, tough, independent man you are!"

Then we have Carol Monaghan's account of the scene at the Berglund's when Walter tried to forbid his son to live in her house. It is not the dramatic climax of the story, but something even better: a fiesta for Mr Franzen's mimic ear. A modern Ruth Draper would have a field day with this material.

As comports with the empathetic comedy that informs "Good Neighbors" throughout, the story does not end badly for the Berglunds. They move on from Ramsey Hill, just as they moved in at the beginning.

In February, the two Berglunds went door to door along the street one final time, taking leave with polite wishes for each of them, Patty saying little but looking strangely youthful again, like the girl who'd pushed her stroller down the street before the neighborhood was even a neighborhood.

"It's a wonder," Set Paulsen remarked to Merrie afterward, "that the two of them are even still together."

Merrie shook her head. "I don't think they've figured out how to live."

Maybe not. But "Good Neighbors" leaves no doubt unvaporized that Jonathan Franzen long ago figured out how to write. This story is a masterpiece.

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