Jonathan Franzen appeared in L.A. at what must be close to the crest of a wave of a strange Franzen mania. His book Freedom, his first novel since 2001's celebrated, The Corrections, has twice been reviewed favorably by The New York Times. He was on the cover of Time. President Obama took Freedom with him on vacation. And now, in a perfect bookend, Oprah announced Freedom will be the first book club selection of her final season. In 2001, after she selected The Corrections, Franzen expressed discomfort at the whole Oprah thing, and he was disinvited.
Thursday night he read at the Aratani Japan-America Theater downtown. The book is a big, sprawling socio-comic thing that spans 30 years and three generations, but in the end is a tight and intimate love story about a family. We scribbled some notes after the event and give you 10 takeaways after the jump.
In no particular order….
1. Franzen remains a fierce partisan of the novel. He wrote an essay for Harper's in 1996 on the subject and remains a defender of what he called — this is a paraphrase — being alone and engaging with the work of art of another person. This being L.A., naturally Hollywood came up, with someone asking if he had trouble resisting writing “cinematically,” writing scenes in the expectation they would become movies. Not at all, he said, adding that he sought to write books that are “un-filmable.” (As he noted, he had to be careful to remain out of earshot of Scott Rudin, who has film rights to Freedom.)
2. The novel's advantage over film is the ability to play with point-of-view and the interior life of the characters in a way that's mostly impossible in film.
3. “Busy-ness” is the enemy. The blinking red light of the latest tweet or email or Facebook post. This is an offshoot of his defense of the novel — a defense of silence and stillness. (His book of essays is called, How to Be Alone.)
4. The book is not a political vehicle. Sure, politics are in the air of the book, and you get the sense that Franzen is a good liberal who likes to take a hot poker to certain liberal bromides. But while he welcomed people to interpret political meanings of the book however they like, it's not his true interest. His passion is for his invented characters and what happens to them.
5. The Corrections was satire, which Franzen defines as making fun of things you feel superior to. He said with that book he'd created cartoon versions of people he knew, including his parents. Freedom, while comedic, is not satire — by his definition — and the characters are more truly invented rather than borrowed from his life.
6. (Un)resolved mother issues. (That's less an observation from last night than from other recent interviews.)
7. His weeks during the nearly decade-long slog writing this book: Monday, not good; Tuesday, hopeful, enlivened with a good idea; Wednesday, productive, with some pages written; Thursday, the disheartening realization that the pages aren't any good; Friday, well, it's Friday, so you can drink heavily.
8. How he survived and kept working during his monastic life in Boston after graduating from Swarthmore, as he tried to be a writer: Cigarettes and an early quixotic marriage; stayed motivated by internalized parental pressure and pressure on himself due to shame because he told everyone he was going to be a writer and so if he failed it would have been humiliating.
9. Adulation, particularly from young women. Must be hard for Franzen not to be a complete jerk these days.
10. Meghan Daum, the L.A. writer who led the discussion with Franzen after his reading, mostly did a good job, and she's said to be a good writer in her own right. But her first question to Franzen was about population control vs. the instinct to have a family and this being what Freedom is “about.” She was referring to a main character in the novel whose political cause is population control. This was a bit odd. The population control thing seems as much as anything a comic vehicle, a retro '70s environmental cause given to the main character Walter. But certainly population control — set up in conflict with the desire to procreate — is by no means what the book is “about.” Franzen was clearly baffled by the question and had little to say in response. We don't mean to browbeat Daum here, except to bring it back to the beginning: Franzen is about the novel, being alone with another person's work of imagination. And that's a pretty cool thing.