Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen: A review

The famously cranky writer Jonathan Franzen, who once dissed Oprah and her book club, has published this book of essays which gives some insight into some of his crankiness, how his mind works, and how he thinks about writing - his own and that of others. It is an eclectic collection of essays ranging from such subjects as modern technology to birding and ecology to literary criticism. I found myself most often agreeing with him about the things that annoy him and I was very interested to read of the fellow writers whom he championed here, most of whom I had never read and of some of whom I had never heard. After reading this book, I'm adding several of them to my "to be read" list.

I share with Franzen a passion for birds and birding and so the most interesting essays for me were the ones related to that subject, although, often, they are not only about that subject. The essay which gives the book its title, "Farther Away," concerns Franzen's trip to a lonely island off the coast of Chile called Masafuera (literally, Farther Away). He carries with him a copy of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and a small box containing some of the ashes of his friend, the writer David Foster Wallace, which he will scatter on the island. He will be alone on the island for a few days and he hopes to be able to see the Masafuera rayadito, an endangered native songbird. He ruminates about being alone, about writing novels and the value of reading novels, about the impact of invasive species on the island, and he tries to come to terms with the loss of Wallace to suicide. He writes of his friend:
He was a lifelong prisoner on the island of himself... Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him - as long as he'd been able to pour his love and passion into preparing his lonely dispatches, and as long as these dispatches were coming as urgent and fresh and honest news to the mainland - he'd achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.
Interestingly, he writes of his efforts to get Wallace to care about and find pleasure in the world of Nature and particularly of birds, but Wallace couldn't be bothered. He seemed unable to get out of himself long enough to appreciate such a world. A bit further along in the essay, Franzen tellingly writes "A funny thing about Robinson Crusoe is that he never, in twenty-eight years on his Island of Despair, becomes bored." He may have been trapped on a desert island, but he was never a "prisoner on the island of himself."

"Farther Away" was my favorite of these essays, but a close second was "The Chinese Puffin," the story of his trip to China and of meeting birders there and learning about the nascent ecological movement in that vast country. It was a sad and frustrating tale to hear of how so many birds - and other animals - are being hounded into extinction by a dirty environment and rampant industrial development, and yet it was also hopeful in that there is a small cadre of people who do care deeply about the natural world and are fighting the good fight to save the remnant of it that is left.

More difficult for me to read - I had to hurry past some sections - was "The Ugly Mediterranean" which is about the cultural tradition of slaughtering songbirds on migration. It's estimated that a billion of the little birds are trapped and slaughtered each year as they make their way from Africa to their summer range in Europe. 

I don't want to leave the impression that these essays are just about birds. A good number of them are about fiction. "The Greatest Family Ever Storied" is about Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, which is highly praised by Franzen. (Never heard of it or her.) "On The Laughing Policeman" is about the writing of the Swedish authors Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a happily married couple who wrote a series of ten books about their policeman, Inspector Martin Beck. I'd heard good things about this series before and it is actually already on my TBR list. Now, maybe I'll move it up a few notches.

There are also essays on Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening (again, never heard of it or him), James Purdy's Eustace Chisholm and the Works, the short stories of Alice Munro (He's a big fan.), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Paula Fox's Desperate Characters. Throughout many of these essays, the ghost of David Wallace looms as Franzen struggles through his sadness and anger over the waste of his death. One of the essays included is his eulogy given at Wallace's memorial service.

Much of Franzen's crankiness can be traced to technology and the misuse or abuse of technology. "I Just Called to Say I Love You" is about the rudeness of people who use their cell phones in public and insist on inflicting the most intimate details of their lives on those around them. He remarks upon the fairly recent phenomenon of these people ending every conversation with "I love you" or more often "Love you." As a fellow sufferer, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Well, I could go on. The twenty-two essays in this collection cover a very wide range of subjects but all are written with a lucidity and straightforwardness and are often autobiographical and revelatory of Franzen's private life and thoughts. I came away from them feeling that I understood the man and his writing much better. I read Freedom and enjoyed it. I think perhaps now I am ready for The Corrections. After all, Oprah liked it. 


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