Alexandra Lange | Essays

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I don’t usually read the short stories in The New Yorker because I don’t really like short stories except those of Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro. Even writers I do like can be cloying in short story form and I often have the sense that I have just ruined my reading of their next novel by previewing it in the magazine. So I always receive the Summer Fiction Issue with a certain amount of dread: it is a double issue, so nothing in the mail next Tuesday and it is mostly short stories. The latest was no exception to that sinking feeling. I may be outing myself for shallowness here, but I don’t really know who Bruno Schulz is, I struggled through Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, and I am not interested in the Book of Genesis, even in comic form. But there was a short story by Jonathan Franzen, and I loved The Corrections (while thinking he was way too snobby about Oprah).

Good Neighbors is delightful. It may be a 300 page novel compressed into five New Yorker spreads, but that just concentrates the delicious schadenfreude evoked by the downfall of Patty Berglund. Franzen knows that you know a Patty, the best mom on the block, with the cute kids, homemade cookies and the answer to every domestic worry. She covers up her perfection with hyperbole and exaggeration, but you know that she knows she’s won. His story is set in St. Paul in what I would guess to be the early 1980s, before the Twin Cities had Target, and before the minivan (Volvos figure prominently). The Berglunds are gentrifiers, preservationists and early worriers about toxins. So despite its faintly historic setting, Patty’s fall could be taking place on any block in brownstone Brooklyn, or Jamaica Plain, or whatever neighborhood in Cleveland the young couples are buying in these days. In a season of books about bad dads and worse mothers (all self-labeled, mind you) Good Neighbors is a cautionary tale, saying to all of us worried about sugar and lead, original woodwork and wild fish, that sometimes it is important to focus less on what’s coming in to your home and more on the individuals already inside.

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