Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Jonathan Franzen and Anne Beattie: The Crotches of Others

Filed under: The Catbird Seat: Friends & Guests   Tagged: , , , ,

Continuous reports from the 2007 New Yorker Festival, by the Emdashes staff and special guest correspondents.

The magic began late, in a frigid warehouse of folding chairs. My guest and I had been gazing for several moments at the cheery yellow New Yorker projection when Jonathan Franzen lurched out, accosted a chair, and bullied himself into a seated posture. Under the guise of switching off my cell phone, I nabbed a shadowy but unmistakable pic of the one-man discomfort zone.


Far from the chap zipped into a bulky brown tuxedo at a Poets & Writers party a few years prior, Franzen 2.0 was sleek and Queer-Eyed in a well-cut grey suit jacket, pressed white shirt, and whiskered dark jeans. Why was I gazing at that section of the Franzen anatomy, you ask? Why, simply because I grew up during the Girbaud era and have never quite kicked the habit of allowing my eyes to graze the crotches of others for that small horizontal tag. Only this and nothing more.

The anemic moderator gave us an unsourced (I suspect Brian Greene) overview of string theory and the microgeometry that hides the other nine dimensions from our sight, comparing the microgeometric force to an Ann Beattie story. Ann Beattie herself loped up to the Lucite podium and introduced “Skeletons,” a “Halloween story.” Like a good 65 percent of her audience, her person was lanky and aquiline, hair a slight frizz. The story began with a lengthy description of an outfit no one should wear: sweatpants and a Chinese jacket. There was someone named Garret and someone named Kyle, and Linda, who was engaged to one of them. The odd fellow out was a Mormon, and his identification as such constituted the great humor of the story, according to the audience, who expulsed their first collective chuckle when the landlady of the story printed “Mormon” at the top of his telephone messages. Somewhere in the microgeometry of the story, Linda was a child again, in a skeleton outfit, leading some boys forward with a pumpkin flashlight; not much later, she was appearing in a ghostlike vision to the Mormon (heh heh heh) at a gas station, just before a crash. Feeling thoroughly tripped up by the many strings, N’Sync-style, I gave up and allowed Ann Beattie’s level alto to lull me into a passive fugue. Only the tetchy observation, to my guest, that characters should never be English majors or in therapy, roused me. Jonathan Franzen’s presence crackled nearby, gulping and grasping for water and replacing the glass.

After a flurry of academic applause for Ann Beattie, the moderator ambled up for a bizarrely tepid praise session of Le Franz. He joked, unsuccessfully, that our chap was an “up-and-comer” who wrote “mammoth undertakings,” and extolled him further as a “guest star on the Simpsons.” No string theory or geometries, micro- or macro. During his introduction, Franzen himself appeared to be folding himself into his torso, and had the air of an unengaged student. Putting off his approach until the last second, he finally hauled himself into the air, only to bend a second time to retrieve his glass of water, which was stowed modestly under his chair.

Several copious throat clears preceded a tousled, boyish, “Hi.” A greyed wing of Franzen fleece fell rakishly over one eye as he grinned frightfully and paid tribute to Ann Beattie’s work as “effortless, heartbreaking, and humane.” His cadence grew easier as he warned that his next story would be 32 minutes long and “unpleasant.” Centering on the relations between a detestable couple named Betsy and Jim, the trademark Franzen forked tongue delivered some splendid one-liners. In the moment, something was delightful about the sentence, “She had never spent a day with someone she disliked as intensely as her husband,” and the observation that Betsy and Jim are “each obliged to the other for overlooking so much.” Titters accompanied observations about how the indolent couple declines to participate in the battles for the best prep schools and allows their children to consume soft drinks. “Perfect characters for the New Yorker crowd,” observed my guest. The story swelled with the adipose tissue of an empty nest, an affair (Jim’s), and Franzen’s own nettled compassion for the characters. I revised my previous decree against characters in therapy when Franzen narrated Betsy’s visit to a therapist named Frank Clasper (here I pictured a salesman of the overly sincere variety). From Dr. Clasper emerges the pithy, Protestant observation about why Betsy’s brainy, acerbic older sister was preferred over Betsy, the pretty one: good looks are a symbol of social injustice and unmerited privilege; brains are something one works at. Resentful of being forced to talk, and wary after finding white dog hairs in her dog-less apartment, Betsy eschews the incisive clasp of the Dr. for a human “vending machine” of psychopharmaceuticals. On her way home from a visit to the vending machine, Betsy sees a Jack Russell terrier (aha, white hairs!) gazing intently into a bookstore window. She follows his gaze to the broad back of her pinstriped husband, standing in the fiction section (!) and clasped at the armpit by a younger version of herself. Enraged, she spits upon the dog, twice, and returns home, waiting to confront her husband. Franzen earned a hearty round of New Yorkerian guffaws for his observation that Jim laughs at Betsy as he does “at Democrats.”

At the finish, Franzen’s pleasant ease dropped from him like a pair of sweaty gym shorts. During his descent from the stage, I noticed a tender but insistent belly pushing out the pressed front of his button-down. Adipose tissue aside, he regained his chair as if he had been tasered and began to hunch actively.

The Q&A were full of the typical inquiries—who inspired you? What’s a typical writing day for you? An elfin sycophant with a handlebar mustache skipped whimsically to the mic and inquired of both Beattie and Franzen what they felt was their best work. Beattie replied that she was largely unable to judge and was never entirely happy; Franzen quipped that “‘like’ was not a verb that had [his] work as predicate.” His best work, he said, involved the rare moments when he said something sincere, that he still believed, and didn’t sound stupid soon after it was written. His tone suggested that the quantity of such somethings were not tremendous.

One sycophant, who purred that he was a “huge” fan of “The Corrections,” informed Franzen that he had a “pretty good idea” of why he used the name Aslan for the drug in that same, being also a “huge” fan of Narnia. At this point, Le Franz needed only an air sickness bag to bring his posture to full fruition, but he responded with a cordial invitation to the Narnian to interpret the reference, assuring him he could probably do a much better job than Franz himself. The sycophant deferred for a nanosecond before prattling that Aslan was a Jesus figure in Lewis’s “Chronicles,” and that Franzen had probably been making the point that the psychiatric drug was the messiah of the 21st century. He grinned, proud as a graduate reading his thesis to Mom. Franzen looked mildly tickled, and answered that even if that was what he meant, he would never admit it in public. The sycophant was seated, no doubt still feeling clever.

The requisite question about technique: what were the more difficult points for each? Beattie answered seriously that dialogue was easy, but transition and exposition were still challenging. With time, she added, she had developed a more innate sense of how to move through a story, rather than basing every story on its predecessor. Franzen approached the question with typical self-deprecating drollery, professing an unwareness, for the first five years of his writing career, that anyone would actually read what he wrote, which resulted in copious pages of writing that “only their father would love.” He described one afternoon where he saw the light and began slashing pages “in big chunks.” Aslan, the “six different layers of symbol and allusion,” and the “great, colorful, metaphorical, two-page paragraphs fell away.”

Outside the venue, a waxed black limo (license plate: MUSICP) waited, a “Franzen” sign taped to the window under the driver’s nose. I did not, for the record, jump into the back seat like a Motley Crüe groupie.

—Tiffany De Vos


T.M. De Vos writes more than sad poems about snow and war? Egad!

Friedrich J. RumpelstiltskinOctober 06, 2007

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree