Tue, Jun 26, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Book review: Farther Away

Inspired by a trip to a deserted island, Jonathan Franzen’s latest collection of essays tackle marriage, mobiles and birdwatching

By Geoff Dyer  /  The Guardian, London

Only kidding, obviously, but, reading this essay, I experienced a flicker of kinship with the moron who took Franzen’s specs hostage, a passing version of the permanent respect I feel for the philistines who attached hamburgers to little helicopters and sent them up to torment David Blaine while he was working his “hunger artist” hustle in the box over the Thames a few years back.

Elsewhere in the collection, Franzen seems more gregarious — in a solitary sort of way — than he was in How to Be Alone. There, he looked back fondly on the days when John Cheever and James Baldwin had their pictures on the cover of Time magazine. Here, he has more to say about the pleasures, metaphorically speaking, of kicking a ball around. Almost inevitably, however, he ends up dribbling it back to the same key moments in his life. Like a shark attracted to the smell of blood that turns out to be its own, he returns again and again to the break-up of his marriage and its creatively liberating aftermath.

Certain themes keep cropping up too. Privacy, for example, which Franzen carefully redefines not as the desire to keep his personal life hidden from others but as the need to be spared “the intrusion of other people’s personal lives” into his own, especially via mobiles. This transition from “nicotine culture to cellular culture,” the way “smoke pollution became sonic pollution,” is not just a source of fogeyish irritation. His analysis of the purpose of constant technological improvement — occasioned, rather quaintly, by his upgrading to a 3G BlackBerry Bold — has the intellectual suppleness of Baudrillard or Zizek without all the Euro flimflam: “The ultimate goal of technology ... is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes ... with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”

The notion that the complexities of late 20th-century/early 21st-century life could be rendered within the parameters of the realist tradition of fiction is crucial to Franzen in his post-Recognitions incarnation. The same holds true for his work as an essayist and occasional critic.

In How to Be Alone, he recorded how, after ODing on Gaddis, he was “eager to read shorter, warmer books by James Purdy, Alice Munro” and — a constant foil to po-mo experimentalism — Paula Fox. The essays on their work in Farther Away give a tacit continuity to the two volumes, though this is offset by the decision to put the recent Wallace-Crusoe piece near the beginning. As a result, the contents are arranged in reverse chronological order so that we end up where this phase could be said to have begun, with the 1998 piece on Fox’s Desperate Characters.

These essays are exemplary instances of reader-friendly criticism in that they can be studied profitably even by people unfamiliar with the works in question. They also display two related side effects of becoming a great novelist. First, the ease with which Harold Bloom’s idea of the anxiety of influence can be swept aside as an amusing irrelevance. Second, that the great novelist is, by default, a great reader.

Franzen doesn’t engage with Tolstoy and Flaubert because he figures (I figure) that they can look after themselves. He prefers to deploy his power as a lobbyist, “a pleader on behalf of yet another underappreciated writer.” (In the case of Munro, Franzen seems somewhat to overstate the extent of her underappreciation.) No binoculars are needed to see the overlap between this kind of literary activism and his dedication to birdwatching and protection (the subject of the two longest pieces in the book). He’s pledged to the protection of endangered species of writers whose books are rarely but eagerly sighted in secondhand shops.

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