I tried to read Jonathan Franzen’s latest story in the New Yorker, “Agreeable,” and I had to abandon it on the first page. I usually try to soldier through with the fiction, but he’s shameless in loading the deck for his protagonists, employing characterization that’s about as nuanced as a Snidely Whiplash appearance on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.

Take this bit about the protagonist’s mother:

Patty was aware that this was not her finest hour of sportsmanship. Something had come over her because her family was watching. In the family station wagon on the way home, her mother asked her, in an even more quavering voice than usual, if she had to be quite so . . . aggressive. If it was necessary to be, well, to be so aggressive. Would it have hurt Patty to share the ball a little with her teammates? Patty replied that she hadn’t been getting any balls in left field. And her mother said, “I don’t mind if you play sports, but only if it’s going to teach you coöperation and community-mindedness.” And Patty said, “So send me to a real camp where I won’t be the only good player! I can’t coöperate with people who can’t catch the ball!” And her mother said, “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?”

It’s immediately followed by:

Patty’s mother was a professional Democrat.

Ok Franzen, I see what you’re doing there.

And then there’s this about the dad:

Patty’s father, Ray, was a lawyer and amateur humorist whose repertory included fart jokes and mean parodies of his children’s teachers, neighbors, and friends. A torment he particularly enjoyed inflicting on Patty was mimicking the Barbadian, Eulalie, when she was just out of earshot, saying, “Stop de game now, stop de playin’,” in a louder and louder voice, until Patty ran from the dinner table in mortification and her siblings shrieked with excitement. Endless fun could also be had ridiculing Patty’s coach and mentor Sandy Mosher, whom Ray liked to call Saaaandra. He was constantly asking Patty whether Saaaandra had had any gentlemen callers lately or maybe, tee hee, tee hee, some gentlelady callers? Her siblings chorused, “Saaaandra, Saaaandra!” Other amusing methods of tormenting Patty were to hide the family dog, Elmo, and pretend that Elmo had been euthanized while Patty was at late basketball practice. Or tease Patty about certain factual errors she’d made many years earlier—ask her how the kangaroos in Austria were doing, or whether she’d seen the latest novel by the famous contemporary writer Louisa May Alcott, or whether she still thought funguses were part of the animal kingdom. “I saw one of Patty’s funguses chasing a truck the other day,” her father would say. “Look, look at me, this is how Patty’s fungus chases a truck.”

What kind of workable conflict or growth could come out of such a ham-handed set-up? It’s not even consistent–the dad is married to a Democratic apparatchik but makes clumsy gay jokes and racial impressions to torture his daughter?

Similar artlessness pervaded Franzen’s last New Yorker offering, “Good Neighbors.” I assume they’re part of the same novel; the latter has Patty (all grown up) and her husband commit early to a gentrifying Minnesota neighborhood only to be rewarded with a trollish free-marketeer son who spurns their lifestyle for the trashy girl next door.

Patty is similarly Job-like here, paying for moderate liberalism with page after page of rejection and wallowing. (Example: Her son moves out, somehow supporting himself with some penny-ante merantilism. He does come home from Christmas, opening his gifts before leaving again.)

I’ve liked Franzen’s essays for the New Yorker: his examination of birding; reflections on his Christian youth group; an appreciation for Peanuts. But his fiction has been clumsy and manipulative.

The New Yorker seemingly has right of first refusal for his fiction. Perhaps they should exercise it next time, giving the space to a new author who’s more agile and true to life.