Anyone familiar with the dustup surrounding Oprah Winfrey’s selection and rejection of Jonathan Franzen's novel, THE CORRECTIONS, in 2001 will recognize the prickliness of its author in this impressively diverse collection of essays and journalism, written mainly in the first decade of the 21st century. His is an incisive, wide-ranging intelligence, but it comes with a substantial dose of intellectual hauteur and more than a little petulance. In this generous selection of 22 pieces, there's something to inform or agitate just about everyone.
"In novels like THE CORRECTIONS and FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen has demonstrated he’s willing to confront in his fiction a few of the daunting questions of our time. FARTHER AWAY showcases that same questing, engaged mind, one unafraid to wrestle with some of the most perplexing mysteries of life and art."
Nowhere are those warring tendencies better displayed than in "I Just Called to Say I Love You." As he revealed in a recent condemnation of the “unspeakably irritating”world of Twitter, Franzen is anything but a fan of modern technology or the social media it has spawned. In this piece he protests that he's "not opposed to technological developments" like his BlackBerry, noise-canceling headphones or DVDs and HDTV, but he revels in those inventions chiefly for their effectiveness at "sparing me from the intrusion of other people's lives." But in the course of this essay’s 17 tightly-argued pages, he transports us from a cranky screed about people who end public cell phone conversations with the obligatory "Love you," to a poignant meditation on his father's reticence in sharing expressions of love.
Franzen revealed his passion for birdwatching in his 2011 commencement address at Kenyon College, the piece that opens the collection. He explains how, after abandoning an abstract, generalized concern for the environment that had caused him to become "angrier and more people-hating," the discovery of his interest in birds moved him from "not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it," thus giving him "no choice but to start worrying about the environment again." Two of the collection’s lengthier, journalistic pieces give him the opportunity to decry the depredations committed against the bird populations of Cyprus, Malta and Italy ("The Ugly Mediterranean") or to encourage the incipient efforts of Chinese bird lovers to preserve bird habitats against that country's onrushing industrialization ("The Chinese Puffin").
The title essay showcases Franzen's birdwatching avocation in a vivid piece of travel writing, combining an account of his trip to the rugged island of Masafuera off the coast of Chile --- there to seek a glimpse of one of the world's rarest songbirds, the rayadito --- with an edgy reminiscence about the author David Foster Wallace, a friend and occasional literary rival. He traveled with a container of Foster Wallace's ashes and struggles to understand what drove his friend to suicide in 2008. "He was sick, yes," Franzen writes, "and in a sense the story of my friendship with him is simply that I loved a person who was mentally ill." The collection also includes Franzen's remarks at Foster Wallace's memorial service, where he acknowledged "it's been such a great happiness and privilege and endlessly interesting challenge to be Dave's friend."
Fully equal to his absorption with birdwatching, Franzen is determined to rescue from obscurity worthy works of fiction, as he did in his 1996 Harper’s homage to Paula Fox's novel DESPERATE CHARACTERS (reprised here in an introduction he wrote for a new edition of the novel in 1998). Unfortunately, even Franzen's enthusiasm for a book like Christina Stead's THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN ("its prose ranges from good to fabulously good"), a novel that "operates at a pitch of psychological violence that makes REVOLUTIONARY ROAD look like Everybody Loves Raymond," may not stir many readers to pick it up.The same is true for Donald Antrim's THE HUNDRED BROTHERS ("possibly the strangest novel ever published by an American") or James Purdy's EUSTACE CHISHOLM AND THE WORKS, despite his assertion that the author is "one the most undervalued and underread writers in America."
Not all of Franzen's literary criticism focuses on such underappreciated works. There's a charmingly unconventional 2004 review of Alice Munro's "latest marvel of a book," RUNAWAY, persuasively making his case that Munro "has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America." In the essay "On Autobiographical Fiction," he tackles with zest the problem of readers’ persistent interest in finding how much of his fiction is based on his own life (not much, he asserts), one of the "four unpleasant questions" authors are asked at public readings. Franzen traces with no small amount of honesty the rugged path he had to travel as a writer, contending that "all serious writers struggle, to some extent, at some point in their lives, with the conflicting demands of good art and good personhood."
In novels like THE CORRECTIONS and FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen has demonstrated he’s willing to confront in his fiction a few of the daunting questions of our time. FARTHER AWAY showcases that same questing, engaged mind, one unafraid to wrestle with some of the most perplexing mysteries of life and art.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 4, 2012