Fourth Estate £16.99
Farther Away, By Jonathan Franzen
On beauty, books and rare birds
Sunday 10 June 2012
Farther Away is a collection of 22 essays, reviews and speeches by the author of The Corrections and Freedom. Arranged in reverse chronology, it starts with his commencement speech to 2011's graduating class at Ohio's Kenyon College – an honour previously bestowed upon his friend David Foster Wallace, whose life, writing and suicide inform two of the best pieces on show. And it concludes in 1998 with an article on Paula Fox's novel Desperate Characters. In between there are reviews (astute assessments of Alice Munro, Christina Stead, Frank Wedekind), vivid travel pieces (on China, Cyprus) and a witty faux interview with New York State. There is also quite a lot about birds, slightly more about books, and plenty about Jonathan Franzen.
It is not hard to detect the ker-ching of a cash-in; of a publisher capitalising on the success of the enjoyable, if bloated Freedom, much as Franzen's previous non-fiction anthology, How to Be Alone, maintained the buzz created by The Corrections. Only, the world, and indeed Franzen, have moved on. How to be Alone provided, for many, longed-for insights into the author of the newest Great American Novel: fans thrilled to his advocacy of fiction in the 21st century, his ideas about television's enervating influence, and hints about his family. Farther Away updates these concerns: Franzen's anxiety about television has been superseded by meditations on how the internet maps the self and how the mobile phone allows other people's lives to intrude upon our own.
As with most anthologies, it is pleasurable to zip around the contents, trying to join the dots into a coherent whole. If Farther Away has a theme, love seems as good as any. Franzen provides touching insights into his parents' marriage (a Valentine's letter from his father to his mother), alongside frank admissions about the failure of his own.
Then there's his love for David Foster Wallace, and how it was betrayed by Wallace's suicide in 2008. In the title essay, Franzen visits the remote island of Alejandro Selkirk, named after the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Frazzled by the hoopla surrounding Freedom, he re-reads Defoe's novel, searches for rare birds, and scatters a box of Wallace's ashes.
Fusing life and art, the essay figures Wallace as Crusoe, marooned on an existential island of "radical individualism". His greatness as a writer conceals his tragic frailty as a human: an inability to surrender himself to others. Franzen finds solace and sustenance in his own capacity for connection, reading Henry Fielding's Pamela, in which "solitude [is] overwhelmed by love of someone else."
In that opening address to Kenyon graduates, Franzen said: "What love is really about is a bottomless empathy, born out of the heart's revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are." At their very best, his essays live up to this definition, crossing divides of form, time and space to speak as wisely and warmly as a close, clever and eminently real friend.
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