James Franco’s Face: A Subjective Account of the New Yorker Festival

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Friday October 16, the New Yorker opened its annual weekend festival of readings, conversations, art tours and musical performances. This is my account of the events I attended, which included among others a talk with Malcolm Gladwell, readings by George Saunders, Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Franzen, a musical performance by Neko Case and a conversation with James Franco. FRIDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2009 7:00pm – Mary Gaitskill and T. Coraghessan Boyle (Angel Orensanz Foundation) The church floor creaked. “Shut the fuck up,” said Mary Gaitskill. The walking man stopped and looked up. Mary Gaitskill was reading from “Don’t Cry,” a short story about a widow who travels to Ethiopia to adopt a baby. It felt like a seance–the candle-lit chandeliers, the vaulted ceilings. I got up. I’d be missing T.C. Boyle, I knew. But I couldn’t concentrate. Jonathan Franzen was at Cedar Lake Theater and probably at that moment crowning the new reigning stupidest person in New York City. 7:40pm – Taxicab “Izzit like film festival?” said the taxicab driver. His eyes looked at me in the rearview. “Sort of.” I said. My hair was blowing around and drops of rain got through the cracked window. “But you watch people read into a microphone.” I realized we were on the West Side Highway instead of tenth avenue. “Too much traffic on tenth?” I said. “Enough is enough, yeah?” he said. 7:50pm – David Bezmozgis and Jonathan Franzen (Cedar Lake Theatre) “Joyce never denied the rape but called it a ‘misfortune.’” – Jonathan Franzen “The world would see a boy who had gone to Exeter, Princeton,” said Jonathan Franzen, “and was smart enough to use a condom.” He was reading an excerpt from a new novel when I walked in. David Bezmozgis had already read. I leaned against the wall. The loft was large and modern: steel, dark wood and light. There were black chairs on the floor and  a wedge of steel bleachers behind them. Jonathan Franzen looked so bright and alone on the black stage under the large open ceiling, which with its wood cross beams and triangle-arch looked like an upturned ship’s hull. Jonathan Franzen was in black jeans and a dark shirt. One hand was in his pocket. He rocked gently on his feet. I could not see him saying about a book reviewer that she is “the stupidest person in New York City.” He seemed calm and fatherly. “Justice had a shape and a weight and a texture,” he said. “Top-tiered student athlete,” he said. “Did you tell Mr. Post I’m a virgin,” he said. Both hands were in his pockets and his elbows were pointed out and he rocked up onto his toes and balanced there for a moment before releasing himself back solidly on his feet. “Joyce never denied the rape but called it a ‘misfortune.’” Q&A Jonathan Franzen shielded his eyes from the light with his hand like he was at the New England coast looking for a far-off boat. He looked to the left. He looked to the right. Left. Right. The first question was for Jonathan Franzen. The questioner had read Jonathan Franzen’s introduction to Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters and asked, “Are there any other works that you would…ah…just as passionately want the public to know about?” The second question was also for Jonathan Franzen. It was something to the effect of “Why is verbal communication between characters in your novels not very effective?” After it was clarified what the man meant by “effective,” Jonathan Franzen said, “I’m afraid it might be nothing more than a tick on my part.” The audience was silent. Jonathan Franzen was silent. The moderator and David Bezmozgis both were silent. Carefully, Jonathan Franzen started to speak. He said something about “people cutting across purposes.” He said he had been talking to his friend the writer Clancy Martin who had “an interesting argument that all human nature is about self-deception.” I had read this in an interview of Clancy Martin. “I’m so beset with it myself,” he said. “How to get self-deception across…is an interesting formal problem…. There are words in the air that are not being heard.” A woman with a German accent asked the third question. She said the Corrections was the American Buddenbrooks. She pronounced the first syllable “boo.” She asked if there was a connection between him [Jonathan Franzen] and some German writers. Jonathan Franzen said he was a German major in college and this taught him how to be “a writer and a human being.” He said he couldn’t stand the Magic Mountain because “[Thomas] Mann had my number.” He hadn’t read Buddenbrooks (he also pronounced the first syllable “boo”) until after the Corrections. The next person said, “This is also for Mr. Franzen. How does one survive his or her family?” Jonathan Franzen responded. The moderator asked David Bezmozgis: How did you feel about leaving the Bermans behind?” [referring to the Jewish Latvian family in Bezmozgis's story collection Natasha]. David Bezmozgis said, “I was very happy to leave the Bermans behind.” Jonathan Franzen and David Bezmozgis talked to each other. It was exciting, like everyone in the room had been relieved of some unarticulated dilemma. They talked about the difference between novels and stories. Jonathan Franzen said, “There is a great moment of Absalom Absalom…” The next questioner said, “So this is framed for Jonathan Franzen.” The question had to do with a rumor that he gathered his mental powers through “sensory deprivation.” Jonathan Franzen said the only deprivation he could use was “wireless-age deprivation.” The next statement was about how he enforced that deprivation. It went something like this, “I had to tug the plug off of one, sawed it off and glued it into the ethernet.” The next question was posed by a young woman who said, “This is a slightly more personal question for Mr. Franzen.” Her voice sounded personal. She was currently a student at Swarthmore College and knowing he went there too, she wanted to know what was his favorite place at Swarthmore. “The pool room in Tarble,” he said, meaning the Tarble Pavillion, a student center. His voice did not sound personal. “I felt so innocent and MidWestern,” he said. The moderator asked David Bezmozgis if he had a favorite “Californian spot.” “The parking lot,” said David Bezmozgis, “where I met my wife.” Jonathan Franzen walked off stage right and was met with people he didn’t know who asked him questions. David Bezmozgis walked off stage left and hugged a woman in a red coat. Women in red dresses holding baskets passed out individually wrapped Lu Little Schoolboy cookies. Jonathan Franzen stood alone and put on his leather jacket. He walked through the empty loft and by the bleachers. He pushed the door to the men’s room and when it opened he shook his head and exhaled. He walked briskly out the front door.


Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. She is the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Unsaid, The Believer, Everyday Genius, Guernica, elimae, and Esquire.com. She blogs at The Astonishing Egg and is The Rumpus New York Editor. More from this author →