Jonathan Franzen was in Seattle last night to kick off the SAL author series and promote his latest novel, Freedom. Seattle has the reputation of being a book-loving city, and Franzen was recently touted on the cover of Time Magazine as perhaps America's only living great novelist or some such hyperbole, so it wasn't surprising to see a nearly full house.
I always like to people spy at events like this - I try and come up with words that capture the crowd as a whole. This one was pretty gray, pretty dowdy on the whole, with an inordinate number of large groups of elderly women. I think it was a book club outing for many. I heard a woman behind me refuse a single one of six empty seats to someone (festival type seating, except for the big benefactors) and then realized she was saving it for her five book club mates. As an aside, I don't think that's right when it's festival seating and the crowd is near capacity. Unfortunately, at least one of the people in the book club was either hard of hearing or hard of listening. Repeatedly, she loudly asked the person sitting next to her what Jonathan Franzen had just said. In the row directly in front of me, a woman (who was with a man) worked on a quilt during the entire presentation. I don't know why, but this seems unacceptable in a way that discreetly knitting would not be. I wonder how she managed to get the quilt past security. She dropped her scissors a couple of times, as well as her thread. I don't think she was listening to the presentation at all.
The crowd started showing its love the second Franzen walked on stage. They laughed when he stopped to remove his coat. I'm not sure why that was funny, but apparently it was. They wanted to show how appreciative they were that he - a man who had made the cover of Time - had decided to grace little old Seattle with a visit.
He read his remarks, which didn't bother me in the least, though Walt was a bit disappointed. I thought he gave serious consideration to the 4 questions he had decided to answer, including the question of influence and of the autobiographical factor. I wasn't surprised to learn that he admires Kafka and I wasn't surprised to hear that he doesn't admire Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. I thought it was kind of brave of him to say this aloud, especially about Virginia Woolf. She is revered by feminists, after all. But her novels are nearly unreadable, I'm sorry to report. Her essays and journals are much more interesting to read.
I came across Franzen several years ago, when I was living in Paris and had a subscription to the New Yorker, a Christmas present from my mother. My mother would always give me checks that cost more to cash than they were worth, until I finally begged her to stop. So she got me a subscription. I read a Franzen short story (or was it an article) about his mother's illness and his father's dementia. It was intensely moving and grimly comic. I was hooked. I bought The Corrections, his massive novel about family life in the 90's, and devoured it. Then I forgot about him, until Time put him on the cover with that hyperbolic headline.
He has written a new novel, Freedom, and it is getting heavy promotion for a serious work of fiction. I think I'll check it out. Click on the title above for a link to the NY Times review of Freedom.
Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe, and Gore Vidal