On a humid September evening, in the astonishingly not-well-air-conditioned children’s section of a cozy San Francisco bookstore, I sat beside my girlfriend in a crowd of unabashedly pretentious literary folk, eagerly awaiting the arrival of my favorite author, Jonathan Franzen, who was to read from his new novel, Purity.
But here’s the thing: As he walked onto the stage (more of a small platform—fitting for the children’s section; an employee literally had to stack children’s books to raise the microphone to Franzen’s level), I realized that I sincerely did not want to be there. This wasn’t because of the unbearable temperature. This wasn’t because of the horn-rimmed glasses-wearing, moleskin notebook-carrying audience that I was slowly beginning to realize I was a part of.
It was because I was terrified of what he might say. Terrified of what I might say when I met him. Terrified that Franzen The Person and Franzen The Author were not compatible. Terrified that by meeting the man whose words I had fallen in love with I would somehow fall out of love.
See, three months prior to this event, I read my first Franzen novel, Freedom. It was nuts: how captivating his emotionally detached, ironic but loving, voice was; how he said so much about modern American life through the story of one, uninteresting Midwestern family; how accessible the narrative was—how unpretentious it was, how real it was.
I was hooked.
After Freedom, I went on to read The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City, How to Be Alone—everything I could get my hands on. I watched and listened to innumerable interviews. I found that Franzen had the unique ability to present a pure, honest image of himself when he spoke; he was unafraid to tell interviewers exactly how he felt (the source of most anti-Franzen criticism). I understood him more vividly than I understood myself.
But when I finally saw him, all of that disappeared in an instant. I felt anonymous.
“Hello,” he said, before clearing his throat and drinking from a glass of water—this, I assume, is standard protocol for any author at a book reading. He introduced himself, thanked the bookstore, and went on to comment on the heat: “Perhaps it’s more bearable down there where you’re all sitting.” (It was not.) I recognized his voice from the interviews—deep and round, with the slightest lisp, each sentence said as if he were losing his breath.
Franzen proceeded to read from a chapter of Purity entitled “[lelo9n8a0rd],” which takes the form of a document written in the first-person by a character in the novel, Tom. It chronicles Tom’s dysfunctional relationship with another character, Annabelle. The excerpt Franzen read primarily consists of comical dialogue between a recently divorced Tom and Annabelle as they hike through the secluded woods of New Jersey.
As he read, my discomfort slowly dissipated. He read the excerpt with endearing imperfection, stumbling at times. This was fitting, as Tom and Annabelle are flawed characters: Tom, at times gendered and chauvinistic; and Annabelle, later described by another character as “the kind of ‘feminist’ who gives feminism a bad name.”
Like his characters, Franzen was perfectly imperfect.
After his reading, he took questions. I didn’t ask any—still afraid that anything he or I said might shatter my love of his work. But when audience members asked him about his writing, he answered with such beautifully conversational honesty—a genuinely amused grin always on his face—that it was impossible not to dwell on his every word. (My girlfriend later described this phenomenon perfectly: “He makes you feel like you have an inside joke with him.”)
The book signing followed. And wow, if you’ve never participated in a book signing, it’s an immeasurably humiliating process. You’re only allowed to have your book signed if you bought it from the bookstore ($30) and are able to present your receipt to the staff, you’re called up one row at a time, and you’re forced to stand in a single-file line for what feels like hours. All of this only to spend thirty-seconds-max with the author.
My girlfriend and I only purchased one book, but the staff graciously allowed us to stand in line together (as a “package-deal”). When it was our turn to speak to Franzen and have our book signed, I froze.
I stood at his table and didn’t say a word, my girlfriend close beside me. He signed my book and looked up at us, slightly confused. “We’re a package deal,” I said.
“For now,” my girlfriend said, quietly, then laughed a little.
He stared at us and laughed for what felt like thirty seconds. He seemed so amused by our presence. I wasn’t sure if it was what my girlfriend had said, but he kept chuckling. Perhaps he thought our relationship to be doomed like Tom and Annabelle’s. It was uncomfortable but fun. I thanked him, told him it was a great reading, and left.
At the time, I hadn’t finished reading Purity. But now that I have, I think I understand Franzen’s amusement with our presence a little better. See, “[lelo9n8a0rd],” the chapter he read from, is the heart of the novel. It’s an exploration of absolute dysfunction in a relationship, a comical portrayal of the dire ramifications of Tom and Annabelle’s young love. But there’s another, more hopeful segment of the novel, in which Franzen writes about how Purity, the novel’s central character (who is the same age as my girlfriend and me), finds love—and in this love she discovers a blissful escape from the dysfunctions of modern America.
Perhaps Franzen was amused because he saw in us an escape from dysfunction, a certain kind of purity. Or perhaps this is wishful thinking.
Regardless, our interaction was purely imperfect. And I’m glad I met him.
— Jeremy Siegel, BFR Staff