Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jonathan Franzen is incredibly... likeable?

Last night, Fosco attended a reading at the delightful independent bookstore Bookshop Santa Cruz. While Fosco is not usually an author groupie, he would have hated to miss an appearance in his town of that most feared literary monster... The Kraken!

Oh wait, not the Kraken. But a creature just as fearful: Jonathan Franzen!

That's right, children: shudder! Your old Uncle Fosco was actually in the same room with the unpredictably cranky bad boy of contemporary fiction. The man who is unafraid to share his unfriendly opinions about the current state of the art. The man who is guilty of the metaphorical equivalent of shooting Oprah in the face. The man whose most recent book has been described by book review empress Michiko Kakutani as "an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed" (read the whole sharp-clawed review here).

Naturally, Fosco was excited to see what would happen at a Jonathan Franzen reading. Would he become enraged by a photographer's flash and maul the front row? Would he petulantly storm from the podium the first time an elderly woman coughed into her handkerchief? Would he try to one-up Norman Mailer by doing racist impressions of Michiko Kakutani? Ooooh, Fosco was tingling with excitement.

So were nearly 150 other Santa Cruz residents: book-loving lesbians, UCSC types, the lifelong learning elderly, and some homeless people. The room was packed and the crowd was salivating. Would our thirst for spectacle be satisfied?

Ummm. No. Because the old "evil" Jonathan Franzen has been replaced with a new "extremely likeable" model.

It turns out that Franzen is a regular in the area--he spends three and a half months a year in a cabin in nearby Boulder Creek. Because of this, he knows a lot of people in Santa Cruz. Apparently, he was only expecting his acquaintances to attend the reading, because he seemed genuinely surprised that the room was filled with "people I don't know personally" and he thanked us for coming, calling it "heartwarming."

About the new memoir, he was self-deprecating and humble, noting: "I don't know what to make of it and I'm trying not to apologize for it."

His reading was skillful and he came across as entirely genuine.

After he read, he offered to answer audience questions, which he did for an extended period of time (and quite good-naturedly). Some highlights from his answers:

  • He started summering near Santa Cruz several years ago, because he "saw the pelicans and I was sold."
  • He likes Santa Cruz because "something was bottled from the year I was in 8th or 9th grade and released in quantity here."
  • He considered much of the flap about The Corrections to be "humiliating."
  • His favorite local bird is the California towhee.
How can you not like this guy?

After the reading, he gamely signed books (even signing up to ten copies for some totally RUDE geeks). As he signed my book, we talked about the particular virtues of birding in Santa Cruz as opposed to birding in the Midwest. He was friendly, charming, and seemed to be enjoying the evening.

And now, Fosco is confused. If Jonathan Franzen isn't the monster we've been led to believe, what other conventional wisdom might be wrong?
Ahhh! The world crumbles!

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