Make This Not True

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Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux
George Saunders, Oneonta, New York, November 2012

Late in Jonathan Franzen’s recent, fourth novel, Freedom, Patty Berglund, six years estranged from her husband Walter after her affair with Walter’s best friend, takes an unusual path to reconciliation. On a wintry October night, Patty arrives unannounced from her home in Brooklyn at Walter’s distant, frozen, monastic, northern Minnesota door. Sitting down on his front step, she refuses to engage with him. Walter yells; Walter storms; loglike, Patty sits. Walter demands that she leave. Patty’s reply, in full, is “No.”

Not dressed for the frosty night, Patty sits, minutes passing, temperature dropping. Incredulous, Walter tramps off behind his house where he fulminates until “the bite in the air became…more serious [and] he began to worry about Patty.” He returns to find her “tipped over, less tightly balled up, her head in the grass…ominously, no longer shivering.” So Walter acts. Berating her all the while (“This is so fucking stupid of you…you can die when it’s thirty degrees out”), he carries her inside, deposits her on the couch, covers her in blankets, turns up the furnace, and tries, unsuccessfully, to make her drink hot water (“she blew it right back onto the upholstery [making] vague noises of resistance”). Touching her (“fingers icy, her arms and shoulders cold”), Walter understands that desperate measures will be necessary:

She fell asleep while he took off his clothes, and she woke up only a little as he peeled back the blankets and took off her jacket and struggled to remove her pants and then lay down with her, wearing only his underpants, and arranged the blankets on top of them. “OK, so stay awake, right?” he said, pressing as much of his surface as he could against her marmoreally cold skin. “What would be particularly stupid of you right now would be to lose consciousness. Right?”
“Mm-m,” she said.
He hugged her and lightly rubbed her, cursing her constantly, cursing the position she’d put him in. For a long time she didn’t get any warmer, kept falling asleep and barely waking up, but finally something clicked on inside her, and she began to shiver and clutch him. He kept rubbing and hugging, and then, all at once, her eyes were wide open and she was looking into him.

It is an unvarnishedly romantic scene: Patty, who has come in hopes of bridging, at last, the distance her affair imposed years earlier, goads Walter, through a pose of submission that becomes a show of commitment, into relying on nothing more than his human heat to save her, them.

It works.

In October 2011, a year after Freedom appeared, The New Yorker published “Tenth of December,” a long story by George Saunders after which his new, fourth collection of short fiction and seventh book is named. The story and the collection it closes seem to have Franzen’s novel in mind, most …

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