While I was on vacation with Randa back in August we celebrated her birthday a bit early, and announced what we were up to in a random Facebook status update, which received a good number of comments asking whether or not her birthday wasn’t still a few weeks hence. One commenter, omitting a crucial comma in her attempt to set the record straight, proclaimed, “It is people!”
Literary circles have been abuzz for the past month — pretty much since Franzen was the cover boy for Time in its August 23rd issue — with chatter, reviews, discussion, critique, and other pablum (this?) about Freedom. The New York Times Sunday Review proclaimed it “a masterpiece of American fiction,” while the Atlantic‘s B.R. Myers chided in his review’s subtitle, “Jonathan Franzen’s juvenile prose creates a world in which nothing important can happen” and summed it up by calling it “a 576-page monument to insignificance.” In addition to these mainstream reviews and the cover story in Time, Franzen has been featured on All Things Considered and he was interviewed in early September by Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.
I haven’t read it yet, and I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not I want to. Terri Gross’s interview made me not want to read it; for some reason that I can’t really explain, the idea of a 200 page “autobiography” at the beginning of the book, in which one of the main characters writes about her life in the third person, made my stomach turn. I’m not sure why, but it just doesn’t sound like good reading (this autobiography is, interestingly enough, what Sam Tanenhaus in the Times calls “the novel’s most ingenious device”). Talking to a good friend who had just finished it, however, made me change my mind and become excited about reading it. Then I read Myers’s review in the Atlantic, which made me not want to read it again. And then in an ironic twist, having read the glowing Times review, I wanted to read it even less. I read the Times review while sitting in the auditorium waiting for Franzen to take the podium, and I decided to reserve further judgment as long as possible; at the very least until he had finished speaking.
Franzen was immediately affable. For whatever reason, the minute he walked on stage I started liking him. The times I have heard him on the radio I did not like his voice. It grated — there was something off-putting about the hint of Midwestern twang and the sticky, sucking sounds that I can only describe vacuously as “mouth noises.” Seeing him in person, however, actually watching him read his own work, I was strangely attracted to him. He’s tall, has graying wavy hair, wonderfully nerd-chic glasses, nice jeans that fit him well. His shoes could be trouble, but I could not see them behind the podium.
I had read that people who interview him find him humble and gracious. I found him self-deprecating, funny, and [as they might say in Boston] wicked smart. During the Q&A, after going on for a while about the nuances of character development, how he lives with lots of notes and small observations about human behavior and people and life that he grafts onto characters who are making themselves known to him — an enterprise, he notes, that is simultaneously an exercise in self-reflection — he deadpanned: “So, there’s some practical advice for you.”
He read from the chapter in which Patty deals with her date rape; I don’t know where this is in the book precisely, but it must happen during the two hundred or so page “autobiography” section which, as I’ve said, is the one section that most makes me not want to read the book. He read from the same section that Tanenhaus mentions in his review, in which a teenage, athletic Patty chases down a girl on the softball field to tag her out and her mother, Joyce, remarks: “I don’t see the fun in defeating a person just for the sake of defeating them.” He read from that part.
Franzen was on the final night of a three week book tour; he made comments alluding to a very rough (contentious? vitriolic? unkind?) Q&A session the previous night in Philadelphia. He said that, after three weeks on the road reading, promoting, talking, fielding questions, he wanted to say: it’s just a novel, people! I suppose he could have meant it in a petulant, haughty sort of way, but that’s not how I took it. He just seemed tired.
Which is the main reason why I gave him a pass on what was a pretty lackluster performance during the Q&A. Most at fault were the questioners themselves. But even when he was lobbed a softball (“After three weeks on the road is there any question you haven’t been asked about the book that you would like to answer or, otherwise put, what would you like to tell us about the book that you haven’t had a chance to talk about yet?” In all, a very generous question) he failed to rise to the occasion and didn’t really give a very insightful or even interesting response — he rambled on a little bit about the sections dealing with overpopulation which, not having read the book, meant nothing to me.
When someone raised a question about the negative Atlantic review — asking whether or not he had canceled his subscription — he quipped: “The Atlantic canceled its subscription to fiction about three years ago.” About Myers he said that he would have felt like he had done something wrong if he had liked the book.
The problem with things like public readings is that, well, they’re public. I have a love-hate relationship with these types of events — I love hearing authors read and speak about their work (I’ve got tickets to hear Sarah Vowell in November!). But, really, people ruin everything. And yet, without them, there would be no readers of novels; there would be no characters in novels. Franzen spoke about misanthropy, remarking that you cannot be a misanthrope and a novelist. While he loves birds, it would be difficult to write a novel whose characters were all birds; and while it has been tried, the rabbits in Watership Down bear a striking resemblance to human beings.
We were in a large auditorium with cushioned seats the bottoms of which you have to pull down in order to sit in them. Standard fare for a large hall. The problem with these seats turned out to be the idiots who occupied them, the people who began vacating them ten minutes before the reading ended in order to rush out to the lobby to line up for the book signing. The seats made loud thwack sounds as they were released from beneath the ass flesh of these anxious assholes. As I’ve said, Franzen didn’t seem to be having a particularly inspired night. But, seriously? He wasn’t finished speaking. And yet with ten minutes left to go the auditorium thundered with the thwacks of retracting seats echoing through the hall, thwack [pause] thwack [pause] thwack, like the beginning of a giant piece of percussive performance art.
Even still, I’m coming around to this novel and, after all, I’m looking forward to reading it. Such a realization arose from several things, not the least of which was hearing Franzen read from it himself. But other things, as well: Tanenhaus’s idea that “the only way to freedom runs through the maze of the interior life.” Franzen’s sentiment that freedom “became something to write toward.” Or this quote from the Time magazine article, in which Frazen says that “`We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful’ […] `The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world'” (48).
One man stood before the mic and told Franzen a story about reading his book in a bar when someone next to him asked what the book was about. He asked how Franzen would have answered that question. “Freedom,” Franzen said, and we all laughed. And, having listened to him read from his book and talk about its characters and themes, having read the hype and suffered the audience and begun to get excited about one day reading it myself, I couldn’t help but imagine that another way to sum up what Freedom is about might also be: it is people.