An Evening With Jonathan Franzen
I never know what to expect when I see Jonathan Franzen, but I know I won’t be bored. He didn’t let me down when he dropped in last week to give a lecture as part of the Portland Arts & Lectures series presented by Literary Arts. The author of Freedom and The Corrections was funny, of course, erudite, that goes without saying, and harshly critical of certain mainstays of our culture that rub him the wrong way. He reminded me of Mae West’s famous quote, “When I’m good, I’m very, very good, and when I’m bad, I’m better.” Franzen was bad, and the crowd loved him.
Since authors in the series are asked not to read from their current work, Franzen merely mentioned his most recent book of essays Farther Away. Then he launched into a 50-minute discussion of the work of Austrian writer Karl Kraus. And yes, I had to Google him after I got home. He is best known as a satirist and, if I understood correctly, Franzen’s next book will be Kraus-centric.
Interspersed throughout his rather complicated reading peppered with footnotes, Franzen managed to work in his extreme disdain for social media, the ridiculousness of all things Apple-related including the commercial featuring John Hodgman and Justin Long, and the wish that people would stop buying their books from Amazon.
Do you ever get the overwhelming urge to yell at an author during a reading? Sometimes I want so badly to break the church-like atmosphere of quiet that hangs like a bell jar over the audience, I can barely contain myself. Apparently there are others who feel the same. After Franzen mentioned yet again his dislike for Amazon, a woman with less impulse control than myself broke the evening’s respectful silence when she yelled loudly into the hallowed Schnitzer Concert Hall that she had bought her copy of Freedom on Amazon. Take that, Franzen! He was unflapped though, and sweetly suggested readers could shop at Barnes & Noble – he does. That got the ball rolling, and someone else shouted “indie’s,” and then, “Powell’s!” And then everyone slipped back under the bell jar.
Franzen was refreshingly sensitive to whether the audience was enjoying the complex piece he was reading, at times checking in with them to underline a point, apologize for obfuscation, or simply to go the “aw shucks” route.
At the end, audience members submitted questions for Franzen that were posed by Literary Arts Director Andrew Proctor. Here are a few things we learned:
When asked about his relationship with his friend, the late David Foster Wallace, Franzen said it was:
“A strong nuclear force situation.” And, “We competed in a loving way that allowed each of us to develop our strengths.”
Do you eschew your Midwestern roots?
“I’m deformed for better or worse.”
Are you going back to experimental fiction or will you stick with social realism?
“The new book is 80% footnotes.”
Local poet Zachary Schomburg, author of Fjords vol. 1., opened the evening by reading three poems. He was fantastic!
Black Ocean, 2012