New Yorker fiction -- May 23, 2005 issue
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.