I’ve been surprised this week by how little fanfare has been made over Jonathan Franzen’s latest book, Farther Away. Are people still suffering from Freedom overload? Are his fiction offerings the only things people are rabid for? Was his most recent essay on Edith Wharton the last straw? Are people just Franzened out? Who knows. All I know is that I pre-ordered the book over a month ago in anticipation, and it was so worth the wait.
Spanning the years from 1998 through 2011, the book offers a collection of twenty-one essays and speeches. I immediately recognized the first essay, “Pain Won’t Kill You,” which was his 2011 commencement address to Kenyan College graduates. Another one I recognized was “The Greatest Family Ever Storied,” which was originally published in The New York Times in 2010 (and whose title, coincidentally, I spent forever trying to recall about a month ago).
Many of the essays are on themes that fans of Franzen are now long familiar with: birding, environmentalism, and technology. But while these three recurring themes do permeate Farther Away, readers also get to see the more personal side of Franzen. The book is also filled with essays about some of Franzen’s favorite books (and least favorite books: apparently, the man really has it in for American Pastoral).
Those who have read The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History are already privy to some details of his private life, such as the pain of his divorce and the relationship with his family. He opens up a little more in Farther Away in essays like “On Autobiographical Fiction,” which was originally a lecture. I loved this essay, as he addressed some of the more annoying questions that novelists are constantly asked, beginning with “Who are your influences?” and ending with “Is your fiction autobiographical?” It’s a fantastic essay (and honestly not as obnoxious as that last line makes it sound).