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Jonathan Franzen


May 31, 2010

The episode from Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's forthcoming novel that appears in this week's New Yorker, under the title "Agreeable," almost stands alone as a work of short fiction. It is certainly a very powerful excerpt, but it is also, palpably, a bit of compressed personal background designed, primarily, to enrich our understanding of a character whom we are going to get to know better, at a later age, and in a larger fiction. How can we tell?

Like the excerpt from The Corrections (published as "The End of the Line") that was published in the magazine about ten years ago, "Agreeable" pivots on a girl's first sexual encounter. But where the earlier piece focused on Denise Lambert's semi-seduction of Don Armour, the heroine of "Agreeable" awakens not so much to her sexuality as to her disconnection from her family. In fact she does not awaken to her sexuality, because her deflowering is a rape. If "Agreeable" were truly a story about the teenaged Patty Emerson, the following passage would doubtless require considerable amplification.  

As far as actual sex goes, Patty's first experience of it was being raped at a party when she was seventeen by a board-school senior named Ethan Post. Ethan didn't do any sports except golf, but he had six inches of height and fifty pounds on Patty and provided discouraging perspectives on female muscle strength as compared with men's. Whhat he did to Patty didn't strike her as a gray-area sort of rape. When she started fighting, she fought hard, if not well, and only for so long, because she was drunk for one of the first times ever. She'd been feeling so wonderfully free! Very probably, in the vast swimming pool at Kim McCloskey's, on a beautiful warm May night, Patty had given Ethan a mistaken impression. She was far too agreeable even when she wasn't drunk. In the pool, she must have been giddy with agreeability. Altogether, there was much to blame herself for. Her notions of romance were like Gilligan's Island: "as primitive as can be." They fell somewhere between Snow White and Nancy Drew. And Ethan undeniably had the arrogant look that attracted her at that point in time. He resembled the love interest for a girls' novel with sailboats on the cover. After he raped Patty, he said he was sorry "it" had been rougher than he'd meant "it" to be, he was sorry about that.

The story isn't about the rape. It's about how useless Patty's family is to her attempt to figure out how she feels about it. Initially, she buries it. But when her softball coach spies  her bruises in the locker room, urges her to contact the police and insists on notifying her mother, Joyce, it becomes necessary for Patty to settle on an interpretation of the rape.

And yet the feeling of injustice itself turned out to be strangely physical. Even realer, in a way, than her hurting, smelling, sweating body. Injustice had a shape, and a weight, and a temperature, and a texture, and a very bad taste.

This physical response, so tenderly evoked, and so without a parallel in the account of the actual rape, reflects the complication that Patty's parents bring to the matter. That is what "Agreeable" is about: we're being told why the novel's heroine has no contact with family back East. On the surface, this moneyed, well-connected couple is unwilling to bring an inflammatory charge against the son of even more moneyed and better-connected friends. Their worldliness is not unsound; it is indeed very likely that, as the father says, a charge of rape will wind up doing far more harm to Patty than to Ethan. But behind the good advice is a terrible detachment. We're told right at the start that Patty is the older sister of three siblings all of whom do a much better job of meeting their parents' expectations. (As a natural athlete a jock Patty is assumed to be less intelligent than her brother and sisters, because, after all, how else can her interest in sports be explained?) Although personally agreeable, Patty is utterly competitive on the field. Her ambitious mother a New York State Assemblywoman at the end is myopic or hypocritical enough to argue thus against sending Patty to a superlative sports camp:

"I'm not sure it's a good idea to be encouraging so much aggression and competition. I guess I'm not a sports fan, but I don't see the fun in defeating people just for the sake of defeating them. Wouldn't it be much more fun to all work together?"

Mr Franzen's portraits of Patty's parents the father comes off no better almost read like Freudian case studies in the psychology of the Tea Partiers. When Joyce assures Patty that her father "loves her more than anything," Patty flinches. 

Joyce could hardly have made a statement that Patty more fervently longed to believe was true. Wished, with her whole being, were true. Didn't her Dad tease her and ridicule her in ways that would have been simply cruel if he didn't secretly love her more than anything? But she was seventeen now and not actually dumb. She knew that you could love somebody more than anything and still not love that person all that much, if you were busy with other things.

"Agreeable" is a great read, and it promises great things about the novel from which it has been taken. I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to read it. But I'm not best pleased to read it in the place of a short story.

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