Thursday, September 02, 2010

“J-Dog’’ launches book tour: Jonathan Franzen and Freedom at the Capitola Book Cafe

It’s hard to believe nine years have passed since I saw Jonathan Franzen read from The Corrections at the Book Café. He was so much more of a performer this time, and relaxed enough not to take offense when someone shouted out "Go, J-Dog" right when he approached the podium. There was a distinctly local flavor to the reading, his very first for this book tour and his only Bay Area book store appearance. His friend Claudia Sternbach introduced him by sharing a funny, rueful story about giving him some advice before The Corrections came out.

“I told him that my book had sold dozens of copies and it didn’t really change my life all that much.’’

Of course, The Corrections went on to sell three million copies, win a National Book Award for fiction and end up at the center of an Oprah’s Book Club kerfuffle. Last time around, Franzen seemed ill at ease with all that attention, and the reading was a little stiff. This time he claimed to be so nervous that he appealed to the audience for a way out:

“It’s a little bit like the NFL pre-season but the starter can’t come out after the first quarter. Should I even do the reading?’’

Of course, the willful Santa Cruz audience refused to let him wiggle out of it, and he delivered a reading so powerful that I wondered if the pre-amble was a put-on to mess with expectations. The reading itself seemed to use that rhetorical trick. I’m not going to put any spoilers in here, but I’ll just say that he read a long section from Freedom that started light --- with a funny, expository section leading to a scene of violence, followed by a betrayal. The satirical humor of the first section took on a corrosive edge by the time he was finished. The effect made me uncomfortable. It's hard to pull off a reading with that emotional range, especially considering he hadn't read publicly from the book at all this year.

Often, at bookstore Q and A sessions, at least one person in the audience asks an off-kilter question that makes you do a double-take. At a recent Gary Shteyngart reading, someone asked him something completely incomprehensible involving the trading and raising of sheep across international borders. You should have seen the look on his face. But this time all questions were on point. One person asked Franzen about his reported misgivings about the title.

Freedom is a good old word that’s kind of been misused for political purposes,’’ he said. “If you don’t have a question mark or scare quotes around it, it is an incredibly pompous seeming title. It seemed self important – and gave me something to write towards."

Someone asked him that old Q and A chestnut – do you have any words of advice for a young, struggling writer -- and he came up with a great answer.

“Be prepared for the struggle,’’ Franzen told him. “Read lots and lots of books. Good writing gets internalized. Sentences become less mysterious and daunting. Find someone who will be really, really hard on your prose while still loving the writer.’’

In closing, he was asked “What gives you the courage to commit to a premise, shut off the (inner) critic and begin writing. ‘’

He responded, “The critic is not shut off at the early stages. Right from the first page, it starts rejecting every attempt out of hand, with insults to the writer. Sometimes you can get that critic to shut up for 20 or 30 pages. One tries to be friendly with that critic. I’ve gone as far as I can with that metaphor.’’


Anonymous said...

Franzen is fortunate to receive such a comprehensive tribute from a truly skilled reviewer.

cactuseaters said...

Thank you anonymous. But quite frankly, I think the accompanying author's photo of Franzen looks too much like a bear.

I'll have to rework it a little bit.