It’s easy to imbue Medill’s Journalism Residency Program with all sorts of lavish importance. Wearing khakis and button-downs for ten weeks with no irony attached really forces the issue.
In a very obvious way, my quarter in New York City (at Bonnier Corp.’s masculine stalwart, Outdoor Life) has been functioning as a kind of trial run. And not just in the blandly professional sense. Spiritually, sort of, also — it’s a chance to confirm or deny the notion that this is where I belong. As such, I’ve amassed what I consider to be a pretty exhaustive resume of garden variety Big Apple activities, assuming perhaps that if I immerse myself blindly enough, life’s big questions will somehow be answered for me.
Which is all merely an elaborate preface to say that I gritted my teeth and let go of $25 for a New Yorker Festival fiction event Friday, October 16. Readings by David Bezmozgis and Jonathan Franzen. Of Bezmozgis’ work, I had almost zero familiarity, and looked forward to him with the pallorless indifference most people bestow upon U2’s opening acts, as something above all to be put up with, as a necessary precursor.
Because Franzen, of course, occupies a real special place. His 2001 opus, The Corrections, was one of those few super kinetic reading experiences for me (in a totally different way than David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was, a book which I read always with a sort of fierce giddiness, the only real variation from page to page being just exactly how far my jaw was from the floor). The Corrections was much more, I don’t know, fine-tuned or something. More sturdy. It had that emotional savagery too, which even as a teenager, compelled me to set the fat thing down at intervals and breathe mid-paragraph.
And he didn’t disappoint. He was hysterical. The material from his new (reportedly massive) novel is as buoyant and compelling as ever, and furthermore marked by his familiar undercurrent of tragedy which lends it, more than anything, that almost wraithish aspect of something yanked directly from the human soul. He read an extended clip from the second chapter. The first was featured in the New Yorker’s summer fiction issue.
After the readings and the author Q&As, I found myself just pacing around the space, more or less establishing a perimeter. (I have this problem where I go to readings and literary events lamely hoping that I’ll become friends with the authors. And that somehow this will happen without any active engagement on my part.)
So yes, I lurked on the fringes while people shook hands and proffered their stupid questions. These idiots — they think they’re supposed to drop big-time vocab words in the presence of published articulate people. The staff finally kicked us out because there was another reading immediately following.
Major point is, I was leafing through the festival schedule down the street maybe 15 minutes later when who should come briskly strolling by but Franzen himself. Impulsively, I shouted his name, and started jabbering like a fool about how he’s the greatest thing on earth. He’s kind of an odd fellow, Franzen, and he’s got these glasses which make his eyes seem really distantly enormous, like planets. Anyway, I think he got a kick out of my boyish enthusiasm and beckoned me to walk with him to the bar where he was meeting some old Swarthmore friends.
I made the dicey decision to bring up David Foster Wallace (I knew they had been close). Franzen called him as good a friend as he’d ever had. I told him that he and Wallace were sort of heroes of mine, being these groundbreaking authors from the Midwest. He asked me where I was from, and I was able to talk triumphantly about Cleveland for a bit which he loved, and said one of the reasons he didn’t have a totally positive experience at Swarthmore was that he always felt so innocently Midwestern. I told him I thought the literary landscape would be done a tremendous service if there were more voices like his around. He asked me my name. I told him. And we parted ways.
I’m aware that this likely seems pathetic, the fact that I was and remain still unthinkably energized by the encounter. Please make no mistake: I don’t count myself among the socially omnivorous, those who brush shoulders with the popular and posh and insist that the proximity somehow entitles them to a status upgrade. I’m in no way suggesting that having a brief conversation with a bestselling author makes me any more valuable or formidable, as a human.
What I am suggesting is that having a personal encounter with a personal hero can shake a man at his bedrock, at his core. Jonathan Franzen already has no recollection of me. Get that clear. Beyond any a shadow of a doubt, he’s plum forgotten I exist. But I’d been hopping around one of the world’s most populous, surely most dazzling, cities, cooped up in a pocket of Brooklyn that a million published authors call a motherland — a million. I’d been wordlessly fraternizing with the bearded and the bespectacled and the radically skirted, aspirants like me who graze in the pastures of used bookstores and artsy coffee shops, writing writing writing to some unknowable purpose, one which for the life of us we can’t identify but still provides that grasping sense of existential towardness.
And still, as a writer, I am unanchored. Hopelessly so. Toggling back and forth between two desolately insoluble fields — journalism and creative writing. Being able to chat one-on-one with one of the great authors of our time, even for a moment, is thrilling not only for what it signifies in the present, but also for what it might portend.
In short, that Jonathan Franzen — a man with a reputedly probing sense of character — for a few moments intuited my bona fides and engaged me in conversation, such that in three, five, seven, nine years, should I ever be so fortunate to publish anything he would conceivably read, he will see a name he once asked for and promptly remember nothing.
But then maybe a week later, he’ll be assaulted by a nagging half-image. Not a memory necessarily. Just some spectral association from something that happened a long time ago. And then perhaps three weeks after that, he’ll be having a cup of coffee when the weird ratchets and clicks of an entrenched neural reactor will describe a searing electric jolt.
And Jonathan Franzen will remember with sudden absolute clarity a windy evening in New York City back in 2009. Sam Allard, he’ll recall! He’s that crazy kid who wouldn’t shut up about Cleveland after the New Yorker festival. I wonder how the hell he’s doing.