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).
But Franzen is known for being a tad dour, a fact he readily acknowledges with self-deprecating humor. In one of my absolute favorite essays in the collection, “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” he complains about…drumroll please…people announcing “I love you” at the end of cell phone calls. Or, more precisely:
…the habit, uncommon ten years ago, now ubiquitous, of ending cell-phone conversations by braying the words “LOVE YOU!” Or, even more oppressive and grating: “I LOVE YOU!” It makes me want to go and live in China, where I don’t understand the language.
The essay had me laughing nonstop, as loud cell phone conversations are on my personal top five list of most horrible things ever. (Granted, while I can’t imagine living without my cell phone, I’ll admit I hardly use it to, like, actually talk to people. I suspect Franzen has the same relationship with his beloved BlackBerry. Also: get off our lawn.) But while the essay begins on a funny — albeit curmudgeonly — note, it quickly morphs into a beautiful exploration of private conversations, the power of spoken phrases, and September 11. It ends with an ode to his father, a stoic man who never verbalized his love for his family, but clearly communicated that love through other channels. I was in awe of how seamlessly he weaved all of it together.
Another essay where he brings together multiple subjects is the title essay, “Farther Away.” This is the one that will probably have people talking the most, as he reveals some intensely personal feelings about the death of David Foster Wallace (the two were close friends and had known each other about twenty years). Although the book also includes his eulogy from Wallace’s funeral, “Father Away,” written in 2011, proves to be the most revealing.
“Farther Away” begins with Franzen going to an isolated island to do some bird watching and be alone in nature. He takes along Robinson Crusoe is sets off in search of a rare bird species, planning to eschew most modern conveniences, read the book, and write about the solitary experiences. He also plans to spread some of Wallace’s ashes on the island, imagining his friend would love his ashes being spread on a beautiful island that’s hard to get to. As Franzen fights a losing battle with nature, he begins to process some of of the grief and anger that he’s held at bay in the years since his friend’s death. I was stunned by the power of his words and by his brutal insights into Wallace’s suicide. SPOILER ALERT:
It is, admittedly, harder to connect with the infantile rage and displaced homicidal impulses visible in certain particulars of his death…To prove once and for all that he truly didn’t deserve to be loved, it was necessary to betray as hideously as possible those who loved him best, by killing himself at home and making them firsthand witnesses to his act. And the same was true of suicide as a career move, which was the kind of adulation-craving calculation he loathed in himself and would deny (if he thought he could get away with it) that the was conscious of making, and would then (if you called him on it) laughingly or wincingly admit that, yeah, he was indeed capable of making.
Using bird watching, Robinson Crusoe, isolation, and friendship as his tapestry, Franzen writes a beautiful tribute to his friendship with Wallace and describes the moment when he came to accept his friend’s death. The overall effect is complex and deeply moving. That essay alone is worth the price of the book.
The twenty-one essays in Farther Away run the gamut from humorous to academic to language-obsessive to intensely personal, but there’s something in it that will appeal to everyone. I realize Franzen is an acquired taste for some people, but if you enjoy his fiction and are looking to dip into his nonfiction, this would probably be the book to do it with (The Discomfort Zone can be hit or miss, and while I’ve heard excellent things about How to Be Alone, I haven’t read it and can’t vouch for it yet). His ability to craft an essay is remarkable, and though I didn’t initially intend to devour the book in a few sittings, that’s exactly what ended up happening.