At the podium, I turned to welcome him and saw that he was crossing the stage still hanging on to his leather briefcase, which suggested either a charming geekiness or a spy headed to a drop. ...From an acting point of view, the idea of having a canned spontaneous performance is kind of fascinating. Indeed, for someone to talks to huge numbers of people each year, many of whom are yearning for some idea of "what he's like" I would think that it would be almost inevitable that one would, out of defense, adopt a fictional version of oneself, a character, which would be one's primary public face in such situations. This fellow has simply picked one which presents features that he likes: the appearance of being awkward, spontaneous, and a bit self deprecating.
Franzen admitted upfront that this would be a recycled talk, one that he hadn't looked at since giving it at a conference in Germany a year ago. Would the audience, which consisted largely of students, be charmed by this slacker admission? In fact, a prim article appeared later that week in the college paper, gently reminding the reader of the Tenets of Public Speaking, the first of which was: Be prepared. If you are invited to speak in front of any group -- from your local Girl Scout troop to a huge convention -- consider it an honor. The article seemed to fault him, not for giving the same talk again, but for not having readied it.
Then he began reading, and the tempo, unlike his own conversational rhythm, was very, very fast. His sentences were elegant and complex and they were difficult to grasp upon first hearing, even without the added velocity. I tried to telepathically urge him to slow down, but I saw that, for all his formidable intellect, for all his "awkward," as the students called it, he was enjoying himself. He enjoyed being onstage. He enjoyed the hair-trigger laughter he got every time he critiqued one of his own sentences or acknowledged a passage that only made sense in Germany.
The students later discovered that Franzen's talk was already circulating on YouTube; he'd given a portion of it last fall at the National Book Festival. Instead of Germany, Franzen had begun by saying that he hadn't looked at the talk since he'd given it in Seattle. He used the same kind of comic asides, pausing after a given sentence to announce that it would be rewritten. Or he'd say "good evening" and then correct it to "good morning," in order to bring the audience into the joke of the recycled talk. I thought of something Anna Deavere Smith had written: "Public figures are so expert at ... performance that they have a greater gift than actors for making what they have said before seem as though they are saying it for the first time." The students pointed to this clip as evidence that they'd been had, and their mortification morphed into indignation. They began to speak of Franzen as if he were a freshman friendship that they were so over.
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