A sweaty-palmed night with Jonathan Franzen

The acclaimed author, fresh off the release of his latest novel, 'Freedom,' kicks off the new Seattle Arts & Lectures season.

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The acclaimed author, fresh off the release of his latest novel, 'Freedom,' kicks off the new Seattle Arts & Lectures season.

Jonathan Franzen seems to know Seattle pretty well.  Here's some circumstantial evidence:

First, look to the second page of his new book, Freedom, where he's introducing his main character, Patty. She's a young mother living in a gentrifying neighborhood of St. Paul, but surely this is Madrona – or, better yet, Columbia City. Or White Center.

Patty is pushing a stroller: "…ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers…" One of her quandaries in life: "how to determine whether a pubic school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it."

And so much more:

There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood?  … Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning?

Any Seattleite with a sense of humor will see us in this passage. Just as, in reading The Corrections, the novel that put Franzen on the national book-tour map, so many of us around the country felt we were seeing our own dysfunctional families, and some of us even reacted almost possessively when another guy claimed the Lamberts as his own.

It would have been interesting to hear Franzen read the Patty characterization during his appearance before a nearly-full Benaroya Hall audience Tuesday night (Sept. 14), if for no other reason than to see if enough of us do, in fact, possess a self-examining sense of humor.

Unfortunately, though, Franzen didn't do any reading during his 90-minute presentation, which kicked off the new Seattle Arts & Lectures season. And that gets to another indication he knows this city.

After lumbering to his lecturn lugging a very heavy-laden shoulder bag, then awkwardly shedding his blazer and tossing it on the floor with his bag, Franzen opened with a line that was at once apologetic and droll (classic Franzen, of course):

"I'm on a book tour, but this is not really a stop on it," he explained. "I'm not supposed to read from the book. I'm here to give a talk." So, he said, he had pulled out an old speech he delivered in Germany, and adapted it to "the sophisticated and intellectually demanding audience here in Seattle. I hope you like it."

Some laughter from the audience – a mix of the real and nervous kinds. Was Franzen making fun of us, or being deferential? Either way, it seemed, he gets us. This guy is weird, but god I love him.

The rest of the night proceeded with a very writerly/craft-y talk (by his own admission) that explained how his own self-exploration and transformation inform his writing. In laying that out, he often got so personal that his confessions made my palms sweat. This was the very definition of too close for comfort, even from my upper-balcony, back-row seat.

"By my mid-30s," he said, "I was ashamed of almost everything I'd done in my life." He reeled off a list too fast to capture it all but including marrying too young (21), focusing too singularly on himself during part of that marriage, moral detours as the marriage was dissolving, and his own conflicted feelings about his overly judgmental mother.

This came by way of his explaining that after each novel he's written he's had to go through some kind of metamorphosis to write the next. "You have to become a different person to write the next book," he said. "The person you were already wrote the best book he had in him."

Franzen entertained about a half-hour of audience questions: His Swedish father was raised Lutheran, but atheism runs deep in his roots; Glenn Beck is "not an attractive figure in our cultural landscape"; blogging isn't his favorite form of writing but at least engages young people and "keeps typing in the culture."

And then, somewhat abruptly, he said he was pretty much done. He finished with a line about the decline of the printed novel, spit out something about Seattle companies "rolling out technologies" that contribute to that endangerment, then quickly added:

"That was not a dig at Seattle. I love Seattle."

More nervous laughter. But then Franzen revealed a little about his Seattle connections, mentioning a relative in the audience by name and saying how much he enjoys visiting his family here.

This was not a light evening, but a sometimes dark and often awkward one broken with moments of humor. Still, it was thought-provoking. Insightful. And more than a little voyeuristic.

In other words, it was a lot like reading a Jonathan Franzen novel.


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