Living with Franzen

This is a story about two writers. A story, in other words, of envy.

I met the man at an artists' colony, and I liked him from the first story I heard him tell, which was about how he'd once been jilted by a blind date, after which he went right out and bought himself some new clothes. He was working on his third book when I met him, but he had no particular interest in talking shop. He read the paper and watched sports on television. He was handsome in a shy, arrogant way, dressed safely but deliberately in his white shirts and black jeans.

He was, I soon learned, struggling.

There may be women out there who do not love this beyond all else in a man, but I'm not one of them.

He played pool after dinner in the barn-like common room of the colony, and I would watch him through the window of the phone-booth door as I made my nightly call to my parents across the country in California. My father, who was eighty-one and not in good health, had recently fallen. He had damaged his back and shoulder, but he was reluctant to go to the doctor, and my mother was becoming frantic with worry and exhaustion. The anticipation of those ten-minute phone calls—during which I did nothing but listen, and even that not very well—dominated my days.

The booth itself was tiny, barely big enough for its folding chair, shelf, and payphone. The air felt pre-breathed and thick with the molecules of other people's long-distance calls, of their quarrels and appeasements. A small, squat window was positioned at eye level if you were sitting down, and through it, while my parents' distress poured into my ear, I could see a slice of the man, a helping from his waist to the middle of his thighs, as he played pool. I watched him set his legs, wiggling them into place. As my mother spoke in the tense, coded voice that signalled that my father was in the room with her, I focused on the cue sliding forward and back across his body like a bow. As long as I kept my eye trained on that cue, I told myself, I would not get sucked through the tiny holes of the receiver.

One afternoon, on the threshold of the building in which we both had bedrooms, I ran into the man and, partly in a bid to keep him talking, told him about my parents and my uncertainty about what I should be doing to help them. His own father had died after a long illness, he told me, so he had some idea what I was going through.

Just then a staff member came by and complimented him on one of his novels, neither of which I'd heard of—a fact that helped to equalize the discrepancy between his two published books and my none.

We both watched her walk away again, awkwardness rushing in to fill the space she left behind. He looked back at me. 'You have to do your work,' he said. 'That's your first responsibility.'

He meant, of course, my writing, and he spoke with a confidence I had never managed to feel about those hours of daydreaming at my desk, stringing together decorative little sentences to describe small, made-up events. Work to me always meant a job you were paid to do, necessary labour that someone else depended on.

He may have been struggling, but he knew what his work was. That was the first thing I envied about him.
Envy is an essay by Kathryn Chetkovich, Jonathan Franzen's girlfriend, about living with a writer. Was published on Granta Magazine. You can follow it - and you must do it! - down here.


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