Monday, January 18, 2010

Short Story Monday: "Good Neighbors" by Jonathan Franzen

Do you remember Jonathan Franzen, the Oprah book club debacle, and The Corrections? I sure do. It turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2001 and, if I took the time to compose an actual list, it would be one of my favorites of the decade, too. Since then, I've been eagerly anticipating a new novel from Franzen, and occasionally reading his essays.

Last week I found "Good Neighbors", a short story published in The New Yorker last June. There's been some buzz recently that Franzen's new novel, with a working title Freedom, will appear late this year; this sketch is rumored to figure into it.

Like The Corrections, "Good Neighbors" is, at its heart, a tale of suburban dystopia. It opens:

"Walter and Patty Berglund were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill - the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier."

At that time,
"the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, or how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousing a drunk from your lawn furniture... There were also more contemporary questions like: What about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts O.K. politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries?..."

Patty, one of the few stay-at-home moms, is the ultimate neighborhood resource. She is "famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else." Patty remembers everyone's birthdays, often showing up at the door with a plate of cookies or "some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning."

However, there are some mysteries in Patty's past. Walter seems practically a non-entity. Problems arise with their beloved son, who eventually moves in with the neighbors. There's even more trouble when the single mom next door's boyfriend, "a goateed young backhoe operator" named Blake, moves in, cuts down the trees, and builds an addition (referred to as "the hangar") in Patty's clear view.

The reader gleans much information from conversations (that occur mostly while doing dishes) between Seth and Merrie Paulsen, another neighborhood couple. The Berglund's gradual decline is chronicled.

"...the emotions prevailing among the Ramsey Hill gentry were pity for Walter, anxiety about Patty's psychological health, and an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude at how normal their own children were - how happy to accept parental largesse, how innocently demanding of help with their homework or their college applications, how compliant in phoning in their after-school whereabouts, how divulging of their little day-to-day bruisings, how reassuringly predictable in their run-ins with sex and pot and alcohol. The ache emanating from the Berglunds' house was sui generis."
As the Berglunds spend less and less time at home, neighbors gradually lose interest. Two weeks after 9/11, a for sale sign appears in the front lawn and Walter and Patty make their way through the neighborhood saying their farewells. The story concludes with a final,very telling conversation between the Paulsens.

I love Franzen's writing style, his keen insight and slightly sarcastic humor. When his next novel finally does appear, I'll be there buying a hardcover copy the day it is released. You can read "Good Neighbors" on The New Yorker website.

Visit John at The Book Mine Set for more Short Story Monday posts.


  1. I loved The Corrections. A friend of ours tried to read it, then gave up and passed it to me. I was blown away! DESPITE the fact it was an Oprah pick. I didn't know he wrote short stories!

  2. Thanks for posting about his coming book as I was one who really enjoyed The Corrections. Thanks Joanne

  3. What an interesting story... I tried to read Corrections but couldn't get into it at the time. I may have to try that book again!

  4. I haven't heard of The Corrections till now. But I'm going to check it out along with the links you've given Sounds interesting!

  5. I admit I don't know of this author, either but I am intrigued by the samples you have given us here. Thank you

  6. I too have wanted to read Franzen more since the whole Oprah mess, but haven't been able to squeeze him into the old tbr pile. A short story might just be the trick.

  7. I loved The Corrections too, although it certainly was a polarizing book. I saw this piece in the New Yorker and wondered how Franzen got to know St. Paul (I live nearby) so well.

  8. Sandy - Franzen has at least a couple collections of essays, but this is the only story I've seen. I think it's going to figure into his new book.

    Diane - I'll be keeping an eye out for any information on his new book - can't wait!

    Staci - I think The Corrections was a pretty polarizing book... at least it was in my book club. Some loved it and others just couldn't get into it at all.

    Kals - Definitely look this one up. It was big news here when Oprah chose it as one of her selections and then Franzen backed out at the last minute.

    Care - I think he's an fantastic writer... does a great job with characters, relationships, and a bit of sarcasm, too.

    John - The story may be around 10 pages... not too long, plus you get a hint about his new novel.

    Amy - My book club was pretty divided on this book, but fell into the 'love it' category. I was wondering how Franzen got to know St. Paul (although I have no idea if what he writes is accurate)... will have to do a little research.

  9. I've listened to franzen talk about two New Yorker humorists in the magazines' fiction podcast. He sounds like a really smart writer :)

  10. You keep finding such interesting sounding shorts JoAnn. I will be printing this one off to read.

    This was mine:

  11. Mark David - In an interview I heard (NPR?), Franzen came across as a very intelligent, thoughtful man. I was impressed.

    Teddy Rose - I seem to rotate between The New Yorker, classics, and a few collections I own.... but still keep learning about great stories from other SSM participants!

  12. Do you know, I hated The Corrections. It struck me as shallow superficial and completely without empathy, except for the parts written from the father's point of view. They were unbearably sad, and the best parts of the book. Later I read in The New Yorker that Franzen's father had suffered from Alzheimer's, and I thought, there it is. If you can write like that, why don't you?
    Perhaps it is time to give him another go...

  13. What an excellent write-up, JoAnn. I don't think he's for me, but you sure did a great job!

  14. DS - You know, about half my book group really disliked The Corrections, too! The part about the father just broke my heart, and I knew it had to be something Franzen had first-hand experience with. I think he's got a real talent for writing, but see how it may come off as uncaring and sarcastic. I'm really looking forward to his new novel.

    Nan - Thank you, Nan, and I know Franzen is not for everyone... just ask half my book club!

  15. I liked 'The Corrections' a lot and enjoyed this extract too. But 'Freedom' left me a bit disappointed.

    My post on it

  16. Words Beyond Borders - I think it's interesting that you liked The Corrections and not Freedom. A split opinion on his books is rare - most people seem to either love or hate Franzen! Thanks for visiting.


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