by Aimee Levitt
All hail the Mighty Franzen, who finally returned to his hometown last night, just days after his anointment by Oprah. After that and hitting the cover of Time, his Pulitzer/National Book Award and future world domination seem assured. And yet, despite all that, St. Louis, the town where he was raised and nurtured, still scares the shit out of him. "There are unremarkable childhood traumas brought up by being here," he confessed to the standing-room-only crowd at Christ Church Cathedral.
But then, who among us would not be petrified to face an entire cathedral full of our parents' friends who remember us when we were young and stupid and prone to doing embarrassing things? Jonathan Franzen is just like us! Well, except that most of us only face an entire cathedral of our parents' friends on the occasion of religious services, and we imagine that most of them are sitting in judgment of our lack of progress in Life instead of basking in the reflected glory of knowing someone who has been on the cover of Time.
Anyway. The front rows of the cathedral were occupied almost exclusively by Webster Grovians who remembered the young Franzen, including his fifth-grade teacher, Helen Niblack. "He was my smartest student," Miss Niblack declared. "He was friendly. Everyone liked Jonathan." When pressed, though, she admitted she once sent Franzen and another boy to the principal's office for debating too vigorously during a spelling bee. (Franzen himself memorialized the incident in his essay collection The Discomfort Zone.)
Also in attendance were Peter and Char Burks, Franzen's former next door neighbors, and their daughter Susan George, who used to play Monopoly with the future Great American Novelist after school.
Char Burks had a shocking revelation about Frazen's youth. "He hated peas," she said. "One time he was having dinner with the neighbors on the other side and he had a few peas on his plate. He said, 'Hmmm, what to do...face-to-face with the enemy.'"
Diana Benanti, the Riverfront Times club editor, was charmed by this story. "I hate peas, too!" she cried. Benanti had fallen in love with Franzen while reading The Corrections and swore she would use the opportunity presented by the reading and book signing to propose marriage.
Michael Kinman, provost of the cathedral, also saw the Franzen reading as an opportunity. Twenty minutes before the reading was scheduled to begin, he invited the audience to take a tour of the cathedral and take pictures. "No one would dare steal your seat in a church!" he declared. This must have been reassuring to the members of the audience who had managed to get chairs. Many more ended up standing or sitting on the floor. (Kinman later invited the audience to visit the cathedral whenever they needed a place to be quiet. "Except Sundays. Sundays are fun here.")
Franzen himself, when he emerged (looking just like his author photo, which Benanti insists is beautiful) seemed unnerved by the size of the audience and the glowing introduction by Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books, one of the evening's sponsors. (The other was the St. Louis Public Library.) "I'm reading from my new book, Freedom," he announced, in case someone hadn't bothered to read the signs posted on the front door of the cathedral. "It's not possible to live up to that introduction, but I'm going to read anyway."
The section he chose to read from, near the middle of the book, concerned the twisted relationship between a college freshman, his hometown girlfriend and her mother. It also started at the exact spot where a certain correspondent had left off reading during lunch hour. This was extremely gratifying. In addition, of course, to getting to hear the Great American Novel read aloud by its author.
We pause to add to the chorus of adulation. Freedom is good! It deserves all the praise it's getting! It's even funny! Franzen is a great writer! It's a fact of nature, like that the sky is blue and that the Rams suck. (Whether he is indeed beautiful is still up for debate.)
The question-and-answer period seemed to be a greater trial for Franzen. The cathedral was un-air-conditioned and the night was warm. ("I'm not quite bathed in sweat," he said. "It's more like a sponge bath.") The first question -- "How do you do it?" -- made him mime tearing out his hair in agony. Then came the inevitable and yet still wince-inducing publicity/Oprah question, which he tried to answer as graciously as possible: "What's not to like about having your face on the cover of Time?" (He also defended his now-famous discomfort with the Internet book trailer, but who can really blame him for that?)
He gently explained to a younger reader who was curious about the wealth of contemporary references in his work that in the context he used it, the word "facebook" actually meant the photo books colleges used to give out to all the freshmen so they could scope out their classmates. Less gently, he told another reader that he reads his dialogue aloud as he writes and "if it sounds wrong, I change it."
Many of the questions were about Franzen's artistic process, but he was most expansive when someone asked him why he didn't write more about Jessica Berglund, one of Freedom's minor characters. "Jessica is far too happy to be interesting to a novelist," he said. "I don't write books very often and I don't get many chances to reach a reader" -- though it could be argued that each copy of Freedom sold is a chance to reach a reader -- "and you have to maximize the dramatic potential of a novel. There was a fair amount of potential in the signing period, but, sadly, none was fulfilled. While the signing table was getting set up, Franzen retreated to the back of the altar where he sat cross-legged and ate a few bites of a tuna sandwich from Schnuck's Culinaria before he was summoned back to the table. An electric fan was brought in to help with the heat. Miss Niblack was first in line. She was a lucky woman and, as time crawled by without the line appearing to get any shorter, much envied.
Franzen received no gifts. No one started an argument like the one that had gotten him sent to the principal's office so many years ago. Occasionally he reached across the table to hug a Webster Grovian who had known him in his youth. Benanti waited. She observed that Franzen was not wearing a ring. She wondered if his fingers were slender enough to be able to wear one of her rings.
At long last, she reached the front of the line. Franzen observed that the cover of her paperback copy of The Corrections was falling off. "It's my favorite book!" she replied. "Which do you like better, this one or Freedom?"
"Freedom," Franzen answered affably, as he scribbled his name across the title page. "It was harder."
Her moment in the Presence was running out. It was time. "Will you marry me?" she blurted.
Franzen appeared only slightly taken aback. He laughed, but not meanly. "No can do. Sorry." He almost seemed flattered.
Which inspired logical follow-up question that we never got to ask: "Does this happen often?"
There. We can't possibly top that. He was here. He rejected a proposal from one of our writers. What more is there to say? Unless someone decides to rename our city St. Franzen or one of its suburbs Franzen Groves. (Who the hell was that Webster anyway?) So we end this Franzen frenzy with one last observation from a member of the audience: "'Franzen' would make a really good swear word."
Thank you and good night.