Book Talk: When Franny Stands Up
In her raucous debut novel, Eden Robins takes us back to the Chicago comedy scene of the early ’50s, where women work magic through a microphone.
When Franny Stands Up
by Eden Robins
November 1, 2022
A caveat before I get to When Franny Stands Up, the debut fantasy novel by Chicago writer Eden Robins. Eden is a friend of mine. I met her something like twelve years ago, when I still lived in that windiest of cities. We were introduced by a mutual friend who brought a few of his favorite people together on a quick trip through town. It turned out Eden had attended the Clarion West Workshop a couple of years earlier. I’d gone to Clarion at Michigan State a couple-three decades earlier, so we had plenty to talk about.
About a year later, Eden and I started a small writers group, which evolved into one of the hubs of my working and social lives in Chicago. I read a lot of her work, I attended her wedding, met up with her and her husband in London during one of their many extended adventures across the globe. When I moved back to New York City, Eden took over my position as a co-host of the Tuesday Funk reading series and made it a far more inclusive institution than I had ever managed. I always admired the no-bullshit way she approached her interactions with the world.
As for her debut novel, When Franny Stands Up, I’m happy to report—no bullshit—that it is excellent. Set mostly in 1951, it tells the story of Franny Steinberg, a young Jewish woman who gets caught up in the distinctly unladylike world of standup comedy. If that description (not to mention the cover art) makes you think of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, friend, you’ve got another think coming.
Franny lives with her parents and older brother just outside of Chicago, in the nominally progressive suburb of Oak Park. The Irish Catholic neighbors treat the Steinbergs with a sort of amused, paternalistic tolerance, but not even the Steinbergs can be bothered to extend the hand of welcome to the Black family that has moved in across the street.
Franny is wrapped up in her own tsuris, to be sure. Her older brother Leon has not been the same since returning from the war, his public fits causing her endless frustration and embarrassment. She can’t seem to get on with her own life either, not since something happened to her at the hands of the handsome Finnegan boy from next door—something she can barely think about herself, let alone imagine explaining to anyone else. Everyone seems to have a nice young man they want to set her up with, but wiseass Franny can’t stomach the idea of settling down and starting a family.
On the eve of her friend Mary Kate’s wedding, fate conspires to bring Franny to the Blue Moon, a struggling comedy club in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood that caters to women only. Owned by the wife of infamous Mob boss Fingers Marcone, the Blue Moon was a gold mine during the war, when female comedians stepped into the void left by the enlistment of their male colleagues. It was also the birthplace of the Showstopper, a powerful magical experience that some comics can conjure for their audiences. Only women can create Showstoppers, and only women can feel them.
Franny’s awkward tendency to spout off and make a scene wherever she goes gets her and her friends tossed out of the club that night—and ruins Mary Kate’s wedding the next day. But something keeps drawing her back to the Blue Moon, where the gang backstage see something in her that her friends and family do not. Franny’s always been a funny girl with a big mouth, but maybe with a little work she can learn to turn her pain into jokes. And just maybe, if she learns how to conjure a Showstopper of her own, she can use those jokes to heal instead of hurt.
When Franny Stands Up is a novel with a keen awareness of trauma—the ways it colors our perceptions of ourselves and of the world, the ways it prevents people from truly understanding one another’s needs and motivations, and the ways its effects only multiply the longer it goes unaddressed. The most obvious example is Franny’s brother Leon, who suffers from what folks in the neighborhood call “combat fatigue,” which we today easily recognize as PTSD. But not all traumas are so visible. Most every character here has their own issues, and the way all those secret histories butt up and grate against each other drives much of the conflict.
The book is steeped in concepts that we have names for but the characters do not—toxic masculinity, rape culture, gender dysphoria. Watching Franny and the others feel their way around the edges of these ideas and come to some understanding of them, and of one another, is part of what makes the story so compelling.
That may sound heavy, but When Franny Stands Up is anything but. Sprightly, fast-moving, and bawdy, filled with a host of distinct and colorful characters, this novel wears its seriousness like summer linen, always there but never getting in the way of a good time. Along the way it touches on an astonishing range of topics—gender equality, power dynamics, family secrets, sexual politics, domestic violence, race relations, indigenous erasure, workplace safety, blockbusting, even the Holocaust—while remaining as funny, naughty and thought-provoking as a well-constructed comedy set. Careful readers will even catch a subtle plot point that turns on a trans-affirming question of identity. It’s a high-wire performance, pulled off with panache.
But even more so, this novel is a comic meditation on the artistic process, exploring both the responsibilities of an artist toward her audience and the limits of what that art can achieve. Franny’s struggle to build a tight five-minute set and to discover the nature of her own Showstopper quietly calls out not the value of comedy itself but the inherent violence of comedy as it is too often practiced. (Is it any accident that the acme of success in the field is to “slay” or “kill”?)
It’s also a reminder that the funniest work springs from the deepest wells. As a famous comedian tells Franny early on, “You can’t escape yourself when you’re up there, if that’s what you’re hoping. You don’t want to put in the work, you should walk out that door right now because you’re just wasting everyone’s time.”
Eden Robins has put in the work, I can tell you that, and When Franny Stands Up is more than worth your time. ∅