In my former life as a local sports reporter I often found myself at high school wrestling matches. There is a silver fox of a referee who was almost always at the matches, and I used to sit there scrutinizing the man from afar, wondering if it could possibly be the writer/wrestler John Irving. Of course it wasn’t him, but I have — at times in my life — been so smitten with the man that I couldn’t help but hope. So when I first heard about the CT Forum Book Club event featuring Irving — and some other people — and moderated by Colin McEnroe, I immediately called and got on the waiting list for tickets. Then I spent many long months waiting. This weekend, though, I finally headed over to the Bushnell.
Queer Theory and I headed to the CT Forum Book Club on different sides of the literary fence. I’ve been staunchly in the John Irving camp since I read A Prayer for Owen Meany between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. I have since read almost everything he’s written, except for that non-fiction nonsense about the movie biz. On the other hand, I have been completely incapable of finishing Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and have therefore not even considered reading Freedom. (I did once listen to the audio book of The Corrections.) For his part, Queer Theory has been unable to embrace Irving but was a fan of Franzen’s essays. Poor Azar Nafisi was caught in the middle of our authorial Cold War.
Lucky for Franzen, this event was hosted by Colin, whom I adore, and therefore I didn’t try and sneak in any rotten tomatoes to pelt the lauded author with. What’s my problem with Franzen, you may ask. Basically, I find him insufferable. There is something a little condescending about his books. The characters are depressed/depressing in a way that makes me want to shake them. Something about them say, to me, “Middle America, your lives suck. You should move to Manhattan where people are happy.” I guess, in short, I find him smug.
Irving’s novels, on the other hand, are filled with love for their quirky characters. I don’t think there has ever been an Irving book that didn’t make me wish it was longer — even the epic, rambling ones. I just love the characters so much. His books make even the quietest small towns fraught with peril and make us recognize that no life is insignificant. And Azar Nafisi does nothing better than to make her readers realize how lucky they are to even be allowed to read. Who doesn’t appreciate that?
Queer Theory and I sat through the first part of the Book Club in pretty rapt attention. Laughing at Nafisi’s charming wit, Irving’s stone-faced humor, and even at Franzen’s mugging, self-conscious jokes. I thought he might even win me over, at some point. Queer Theory had been mostly concerned with his hipster good looks, but not long before intermission he leaned over to me and said, “He is pretentious.”
While we ordered our beverages I interrogated our Queer friend. He didn’t like the way Franzen seemed to be looking for laughs, making faces at the camera/audience, and throwing out well-placed remarks of, as QT put it, “the WNYC variety.” I said, “There’s something very Brooklyn-hipster about him that I find off-putting.” But he was still much more engaging than I’d imagined him to be –– perhaps because he’s a media darling and is used to being in front of audiences and cameras. He stared out at the audience as he talked while the much more refined, old-time-New England Irving seemed to look at his hands while he spoke. Nafisi was sort of joyous and thoughtful — energetic in a heartfelt way. She asked almost as many questions of her fellow authors as Colin did. (In fact, she said she didn’t even really want to be on the panel with authors she liked because she didn’t like thinking about the author while she read.)
After the intermission, Colin asked audience questions which led to my favorite moment of the night. As Colin said, someone didn’t want to take any chances and had typed up his question on a card at home. The octagenarian — as the writer put it — wanted to know why there are no books about happy people, but only about dysfunctional, messed up families. This led to something of an Irving diatribe. He got very animated, going on and on about what it would be like if Hamlet had been just some college kid on Spring Break, or if King Lear’s daughters had all been as decent as Cordelia. I loved this.
There was also a discussion of favorite words, which sent Irving on a tangent about the NYT and its silly standards which led to phrases like “performing an act of urination” and the euphemism “homosexual slur” being used. He was talking about the power of words and the author’s ability to be explicit and truly explore the power of language — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Franzen, not surprisingly, had no problem with the NYT having its standards. (I was also surprised to find out that he lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and not in Brooklyn…Weird.)
In a question clearly influenced by Wally Lamb’s legendary love of music, Colin asked the authors how music plays into their works. This was where QT really turned against Franzen once and for all. (Also, the mention of Bright Eyes in Freedom cemented his annoying hipsterdom in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I like Bright Eyes as much as the next person, but not enough to bother writing about any of those soul-crushingly depressing, emo tunes.) After a rant about earbuds and the iPod, he finally said something like, “I don’t know why we ever thought music could be revolutionary.” Queer Theory, who once serenaded Bernadette Peters at the Bushnell and was allowed into her dressing room, was horrified by this statement. I think a remark like that could only be made by someone with no soul.
It’s not that I think Franzen is a bad writer, because obviously he’s not. I understand why so many people think he’s an important writer. But I also understand why Jack Kerouac was important to American literature, that doesn’t mean I don’t think his books are lazy and mysoginistic. I’m with Truman Capote on the Kerouac front. Considering how annoyed John Irving and Jonathan Franzen were by people who assume their books are always vaguely autobiographical, I should think they’d harbor ill feeling toward Kerouac who barely did more than change the names of the characters in his books.
Colin had a different take on the whole thing. But I think, in a way, he reinforced what I’d thought about Franzen — which is to say that he is watching and judging the most basic of human interactions in, maybe, not the most generous way.
In the end, I vowed to go out and read Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and even though I tried to pique his interest with Garp’s exploration of gender roles, Queer Theory probably won’t be reading Irving anytime soon — even though he came away quite smitten with the senior statesman of the panel. And despite our mutual dislike of Jonathan Franzen, we’ve vowed to finish reading The Corrections by July, and do a book club post about it.
So stay tuned.