I mentioned in my introductory biographical paragraph that I am a Jonathan Franzen enthusiast, and that was probably an understatement.
I believe he is a true wordsmith who describes his characters with a nuanced flair that makes them both unique but also immediately recognizable. In his hands, mundane quotidian conversation between characters pulsates with emotion and meaning. He is a master craftsman that Time magazine called a “Great American Novelist,” and his photo graced its cover last year. Winner of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Foundation award, he read an excerpt from his latest novel “Freedom” at the Washington, D.C. National Cathedral Friday night. Normally I would have alerted Dagger Book Club readers about this literary event, but I found out about it very late, and there were only a handful of tickets left. Mine were in row YY, and it was the best I could do.
I was really excited about that night. It was my wedding anniversary and my husband went only as a gift to me, because he cannot stand Franzen’s work. We ate at our favorite French restaurant near the cathedral. When we arrived, we were so far back we were practically outside. I didn’t worry too much about that because I did not have to see Mr. Franzen, I just had to hear him. Also, they had those delightful little screens in the cathedral that remind one of the displays at Looney’s Pub, but they do serve a purpose for the poor souls in the back row.
Before Franzen was introduced, an usher asked us to move up front in the seats reserved for dignitaries. My husband declined and said that we were just fine where we were. Right. As we were situating ourselves in the improved seats, I could not believe the perfection of the night. I was actually congratulating myself, because my lack of complaint about the odious seats led fortune to smile upon me and led us to luck into not just good, but great seats. They wanted us in the “front row.”
One thing I like about Mr. Franzen is his apparent humility. Even though he is a household name to people who read books, he is likable, unassuming and seemed surprised to be in a venue like the Washington National Cathedral, which is stunning in its splendor. He even joked that perhaps something spiritual should be happening there, and we all laughed because everyone who has read his work knows that Mr. Franzen is an atheist.
Mr. Franzen started by reading from a chapter titled “Womanland.” It depicts the relationship of the 19-year-old Joey with his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s mom, and his own mother. Mr. Franzen is excellent at this kind of thing. Through phone conversations you can feel the awkwardness, embarrassment, loneliness and disappointment of each of these characters. You actually ache not only because you care about these characters but also because you have felt this pain at least sometime in your life. The poignant silences between characters say as much as the words themselves; Franzen is at his best at these moments of unspoken emotion.
After the reading Franzen answered questions from the audience. In response to a question about technique, he described the process behind his writing. First, he fleshes out a character, asking himself what does this character want and then, “the character begins to coalesce.” This is the way his plot unfolds, after “self-flagellating note-taking.” It took Franzen nine years to write this masterful book, and nine years for a masterpiece probably is worth every second. The author also confessed that he can have “oppressive shame” over some of his memories but, when the memories come out in his characters, maybe they are not so shameful. He stated that “Freedom” is about unregulated competition, that he believes competition is the “Heart of America” and in America we do not talk about “the lots and lots of losers,” just the winners.
For those who are interested, Mr. Franzen’s favorite modern writers are Alice Munroe, for her “fresh stories,” and Don DeLillo, for his “language.”
After the Q&A I stood in line to get my first editions signed and was able to exchange a couple of thoughts with Mr. Franzen. My husband would not stand in the line with me, but actually stood very close to Mr. Franzen as he signed. My husband said everyone came away from the signing as if they had received a wonderful gift.
So you would think that I would be elated, and I was. I love this guy but I also have a sense of propriety and appropriateness. I was suppressing a nagging feeling of guilt all evening. I don’t feel that I am especially prudish or sanctimonious, and I understand that the National Cathedral is used for civic activities as well as religious. But make no mistake, it is a church. A president, Woodrow Wilson, is buried within its walls, and most recently Ronald Reagan’s funeral service was conducted there. President Bush addressed the nation after 9/11 there, practically in the same spot where Franzen had his reading.
Mr. Franzen stood on the altar under a suspended crucifix and read about marathon sex between stoned teenagers, masturbation in detail, and oral sex. Inappropriate. I don’t blame Franzen; he was doing his job the way he does it at colleges and other venues. But, I do blame “The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III,” a title that encapsulates the importance of his position. As the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, he introduced Mr. Franzen, adding that he has read his work. Well, if he has read his work, then he would know that some of it is not appropriate for one of the highest Christian altars in our country. Maybe he should have checked what Mr. Franzen was going to read. As a steward of one of the most sacred places in our country, should he not have shown better judgment?