I'm just a girl, standing in front of a culture, asking for one tiny favor: Can we expend as much intellectual energy as we generally expend on every marquee premium cable show on Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen? Is that too much to ask, that we CONVERGE around this book and obsessively cover it from every possible angle? Can we hyperfocus on specific plot points in exactly the same way we ran items in at least five separate outlets about the scene in The White Lotus where Lukas Gage got his ass eaten? Can we bring to this masterful and fun novel ONE TENTH of the firepower that we expended on recapping The Queen's Gambit, which I think we can now all agree was, apart from Marielle Heller's amazing performance and the set design, BARELY just-okay?
It's a no. I know it's a no. But I'm going to persevere anyway and I'm just saying, you are welcome to join me.
Last night was the Crossroads launch event, which took place on Crowdcast via Franzen's local, Bookshop Santa Cruz. A charming and heroic staffer did the introduction, and the rest of it was just Jonathan "presenting" his book and then answering some audience Qs. Unfortunately but somewhat hilariously, the event was plagued throughout by technical difficulties -- nb, Crowdcast is, apparently, not compatible with Firefox. These difficulties lent the proceedings a shambolic charm, and also provided an interesting window into Jonathan's psyche. I know, it's not as though we were lacking those, but it was unusual to be witnessing one LIVE. We are probably never more ourselves than when our microphone isn't working during a live virtual event attended by (maybe? who knows) hundreds or even thousands of people.
I mentioned this my friend Gideon this morning on our way to preschool dropoff and he said that he imagined there would have been an FSG employee on hand to make sure this exact scenario didn't happen. But I love that there wasn't one. I am so over book publishing's myriad structural dysfunctions. I know in my heart that authors are often the least interesting, least trustworthy authorities on their own creations. But I still love publishing sometimes for exactly the same reasons I'm so frustrated with it. I love it when no one can get their act together to be polished and professional and spout sound bites. And if there is anyone alive who is a poster boy for being non-media-trainable, it has to be our man J Franz.
I didn't take notes and the event started at 10pm EST, so this is all paraphrased and from slightly sleepy memory. But here were the highlights:
As you can see in the photo above, Franzen was using a headset mic but holding it in various wacky ways owing to the hideous reverb it was producing. He read the first Perry chapter (in which a painfully brilliant dare we say DFWesque stoner teen thinks about the nature of what we call the "soul" as he prepares to dispose of his stash of weed and quaaludes in order to be more virtuous and get his little brother a good Xmas present) and then, eyes on the clock, was relieved to find that there wasn't much time left to "present" the book. He was determined to keep the event to a tight hour, because he didn't want to keep us from the rest of our evening (clearly the actual reason was that he hates doing this shit, but also loves it, but hates it more.)
In response to an audience q he described his process, which we've already heard about a lot times and which to Franzen is The Only Way to write novels. To be fair it is clearly the only way to write HIS novels. He gets up early every day, 7 days a week, and sits in a dark room with a 13 year old Dell laptop and writes for hours. Sometimes it is "painful" but the pain "goes away after an hour or two." To him, this is the only way to keep the "flywheels" that constantly produce fiction in the subconscious in their constant motion. Also, he often has ideas in the shower. He described rinsing the soap from his hair and we all had to think about him taking a shower, and as he spoke he realized this and wanted to stop talking about his specific shower experiences but by then it was too late.
The Neapolitan novels were a big inspiration when he felt like Crossroads was too "small" because it was just about five people. He also namechecked Rachel Kushner and a handful of other people I am sorry to admit that I forget.
The early pandemic lockdown -- and look, he knows this is a privileged position to be in! -- was a boon to him, productivity-wise. Not that he doesn't like seeing friends!
At the end he apologized for the tech difficulties but clarified that they were not his fault. He knows people are going to think they were his fault but, he protested, they really were not. (Unclear whose fault they were. The makers of Crowdcast, perhaps.)
I plan to attend more Crossroads events, so watch this space for more of the recaps that the culture craves!! (Or would be craving, if it knew what was good for it!!!!)
In last week's subscriber-only email, I solicited questions from readers and received several great ones which I had hoped to address in this issue. However, Crossroads is at the center of the discourse we're all riveted to, so it had to take precedence today. Those questions will be answered in next week's free email, even if Jonathan Franzen's Crossroads tour demands to be addressed again.
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