"Two's Company" by Jonathan Franzen

New Yorker fiction -- May 23, 2005 issue

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I really dug this story for a few reasons. For one thing, it's short -- roughly seven New Yorker columns -- and the pace is careening, rollicking, the style relaxed and informal. It's almost a yarn, a little bit like some of Annie Proulx's stories, like a transcript of overhearing the author tell it as opposed to coming off as soberly crafted. My favorite kind of writing. And it's funny.

Pam and Paul, the "perfect couple," are vividly rendered (without much physical description). Here's a pair who married before they even got out of college and hit it big together as cowriters of an NBC sitcom that sounds a lot like That 70s Show. I like how the two pieces they are (mostly) separately writing now act as microcosms of their own relationship. Pam is working on a romantic comedy film about the perfect couple; Paul is having trouble with a pilot, based on "comic literary vignettes" from his high school notebooks, for a TV series about a high school couple whose parents die and who then have to run the family businesses in a big mansion. Rather like the 30-acre spread in the mountains that Pam and Paul have recently purchased after retiring from their hit show. Another "spread" is that of Pam's girth of late. Leading naturally to...

Paul's hankering after the young actress Tracy Gill -- which he consummates using her photo in the guesthouse bathroom, and whom he wants for unspoken but surely prurient reasons to cast in his pilot. Paul's desires are unwittingly cropping up in Pam's script, wherein the perfect couple, "Sam and Paula," are on vacation in Maui, and Paula suspects that Sam is interested in a dumb blonde bombshell named Kimbo who is also vacationing there, but he's really not interested in her -- misunderstandings abound, hilarity ensues, etc. "Why can't he be?" asks Paul when she lets him read the script. "Why can't she be like Paula, only younger?" That combined with Pam's hostile reactions ("Because she's a big-titted dolt" and "...because that wouldn't be funny. Apart from that one little problem, its total lack of funniness, it's a great idea.") are all the reader needs as a setup for the rest of the plot. The reader gets it that their creative endeavors are no longer fictional from here on, but a way to work through their problems without having to deal with each other.

Of course Paul brings things to a head with Tracy Gill -- immediately, which I appreciated as a reader. No lengthy subplots, no dinner parties where their tensions are further cranked up. Paul sets up a lunch with Tracy Gill, gets in his car, and meets her at Starbucks. The 20-year-old Tracy has brought her mother to this meeting, crushing Paul's plans and leading immediately to the crisis. The mother has four questions for Paul: "What exactly does the phrase 'pre-meeting meeting' mean?" "Where's your wife?" "Why aren't we meeting in your office?" And "Why did you not want Tracy's agent here?"

The crisis beats him home, for the mother has simply phoned Pam, who kicks Paul out. His typical male reframing is priceless: "You're splitting up with me because I had coffee with Tracy Gill and her mother?" I love how the karma kicks in, in which Paul has to sign away all rights to her movie, which goes on to gross $110 million, the first of a string of hit "comedies for an older female audience." Pam's "higher tolerance for cliche," which even he acknowledges as the source of most of their commmercial success together (even though he is the "funnier" writer), continues to be a source of success for her, while he, with "the whole nation" against him, moves to New York. "You could see him at a certain type of party, standing near open windows, wearing black, smoking cigarettes, and hoping to talk about his favorite subject, which was the badness of his ex-wife's films."

Pam's working out of her marital issues through her film script is based on her erroneous belief that she and Paul actually are the perfect couple. She is oblivious to the turmoil gurgling within him. This innocence, ending up handsomely rewarded, stands in stark contrast to Paul, who in his attempt to escape the confines of his co-writer-wife reaches back to high school for his material, a period when he was more purely himself, the only time in his life when he was apart from Pam.

It's tempting to speculate that Pam and Paul (and the possibly unconscious and revealing gender-bent Sam and Paula) represent the two Jonathan Franzens that appeared to coexist at that certain cultural moment we're all thinking of, and if it's true, it makes the story even more interesting. The author's very public and awkwardly handled brush with mainstream popular bestsellerdom could conceivably, had he gone that way, which he wouldn't have, led toward more of a Pam-esque career. The narrowly avoided Oprahfication and commercial pigeon-holing can be seen as the equivalent of turning out "comedies for an older female audience." And the dark-clad writer standing around at New York parties needs no interpretation. Is this story a kind of hashing through of that what-if instant in Franzen's life, when his previously serious literary image was briefly and bizarrely eclipsed by the what-the-fuck-is-going-on influence of a TV show book club? It's certainly fun to think that.

The only thing that nagged me during the enjoyable seven minutes it took to read the story is the vague sense that the author was not being compassionate to his characters. This also bothered me with The Corrections, which I thought was brilliant and hilarious for about 80 pages but whose finish line I ended up limping across with a grudge. It's a fine line between biting satire and being dismissive and sadistic toward your creations. A few times I thought, "He's making fun of these people, he's too distant and cold toward them." However, by the end, for whatever internal reason, I decided I didn't much care, and that the tale worked for me as entertainment anyway. Is it "literary" or autobiographically symbolic or merely frivolous and fun? Who knows. Maybe you can tell me.


the plunge said...
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the plunge said...

"Maybe" I can tell you? My friend, you're too funny.

I feel that while its depth of emotion may not have Tolstoyvian (made-up adj) scope, it definitely qualifies as literary, if for no other reason than that it deftly portrays the erosion of love and marriage in an ego-fraught relationship.

I think the story is even more sardonic than you're giving it credit for. You say you think Pam believes that their relationship is perfect? Poppycock, amigo. She's as sick of this dead relationship as he is. Evidence both her reactions to his suggestions (e.g. "Apart from it's total lack of funniness, it's a great idea") and her lack of interest in his participation in the writing of her fantasy--would a real partner give so little a shit about what her partner thought?

Don't think so. Hollywood has sundered this marriage, the same one that it had, ironically, held together previously for PR purposes.
By the time he went to lunch with the young actress, it was already hanging by a thread.

I'm trying to read it as an allegory for the dangers of selling out, but it ends up seeming more like yet another cynical Franzonian look at marriage. Not to say it's all a cliche--I think it's pretty good, actually--just that it's not at all surprising in the context of his oovra.

His choice to end with the trope of the solitary cigarette smoking clad-in-black writer was disappointing. It made the main guy into a bitter misanthrope and robbed him of his individuality. I felt sorry for him up to that point, but if it's true that he really was nothing without her, then shit, how can I care about a weakling like that? Franzonius should've ended on a less viciously (and clichedly) cynical note.

Still, it was a clever idea.

Grendel said...

Hmmm. I see your point about Pam possibly not being as into the marriage as I read it at first. But it seems to me most of the evidence still points the other way. We have things like "...she wasn't engineered for doubt." She also "...was laughing out loud while writing her pages. These pages concerned a slightly neurotic but charming couple..." She also says, "The thing we know best is the romance of marriage" as she excitedly describes her "straight up celebration of monogamy" in which "you're rooting for the marriage from the very first frame." When Paul questions Sam's character, she says that Sam is thinking, "Am I less of a man for being monogamous? Because the idea here is that it's hard, it's comically awkward, to still be so in love with his wife after all these years..." Sounds to me ike she hasn't a clue. I still think she was buying into the marriage -- in a blase, numb way, for sure -- right up until the phone rang.

the plunge said...

Yes, I see now that the truth is somewhere in between. She has a conception of the marriage which is superimposed upon--and "congruent" (but tellingly, not equivalent)to-- reality. Making you think that if she was not consciously sick of her marriage, she was at least divorced from the reality of it--as a person "not engineered for doubt" might easily be. The ease with which she ends things with Paul suggests to me that he's outlived his usefulness to her, and the fact that, for her, a perfect marriage has become the stuff of entertaining fiction is a none-too-subtle hint as well.

There's little to make you think that the marriage is a solid or happy one from either person's perspective. Ideal marriage is a "comically awkward" proposition, she says? Doesn't that mean it's something to laugh at--a joke? She is cannibalizing her own relationship--her own husband--for her satire.

According to her fantasy, the character has only "convinced" herself that she's losing her looks, and it's just a series of comic "misunderstandings", and not reality, that make her think her husband is chasing a buxom babe.

Even if she hasn't admitted to herself that the marriage is over, she certainly knows at some level.

the plunge said...

One other thing--is Two's Company actually a satire? I think that's one of the more hilarious bits in the story--to him it would have to be, in a way: an ironic inversion of reality. But to her it's a non-ironic inversion of it.

And the fact that it sells as a non-ironic (in)version is itself a huge irony, since to him her whole idea is a total farce!

binky said...
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Patry Francis said...

I found your blog while searching for a link to this story, which I also wrote about today. Since I didn't find what I was looking for, I linked to you. Enjoyed your take on the story--even though it's totally different from mine.