I’d heard that the title essay of Jonathan Franzen’s new collection was about his punishing experiences on a rough and tiny island. Some of what happened there is by now well known. The inhabitants of the UK welcomed him by printing the wrong version of his novel Freedom, necessitating the pulping of its entire first print run. Then at the party — marked, as a consequence of this error, by the absence of the book it was intended to launch — a gatecrasher plucked Franzen’s glasses from his face, ran off into the night and demanded a ransom of several thousand pounds. (He’s blind as a mole without his specs, apparently; probably the result of having subjected his peepers to every page of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and about half of his JR.)
When the plane lifted off from Heathrow, Franzen must have breathed a sigh of relief and said to himself that it would be a cold day in hell before he’d set foot on that loud-dump again. So I admired the courage it took to revisit the site of these serial traumas in print.
Except, it turns out, the essay is about another, less ferocious place: Mas Afuera, the island way down in the South Pacific where Alexander Selkirk (the model for Robinson Crusoe) was a castaway. Franzen retreats there after months of promoting his book, armed with a tent, a copy of Defoe’s novel and some of the ashes of his friend David Foster Wallace. Once installed on the island — installed in the sense of barely able to erect his tent — Franzen reflects on the ludicrousness of the endeavor (“I hadn’t felt so homesick since, possibly, the last time I’d camped by myself”), the rise of the novel in the age of Defoe and on his “friendship of compare and contrast and (in a brotherly way) compete” with Wallace.
A tremendous essay in Franzen’s earlier collection, How To Be Alone, had seen him “alone and unprepared on [the] steep-sided, frigid, airless, poorly mapped mountain” of The Recognitions. This time round, the actual topography in which he finds himself serves as a kind of parallel map of the condition in which Wallace — “a lifelong prisoner of the island of himself”— washed up. It’s a splendid essay and a nuanced tribute, but as Franzen wrestles with this issue of death and survival in the thin air of high-altitude literary endeavor, something in the reader’s soul starts to recoil.
The centerpiece of that earlier collection was an essay in which Franzen lamented, analyzed and ended up surmounting the difficulties of writing novels in an age when everyone had better (ie worse) things to do than read ‘em. For an individual described by the father of Joshua Cody in his son’s memoir [sic] as “just about the cagiest guy I’ve ever met,” Franzen has been distinctly uncagey about the agonies of being nailed to the vocational cross of the novel. He suffers so you don’t have to! In a state of “unmanageable misery,” Wallace evidently suffered far more than Franzen. And so, “when his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.” Well, okaaay... But I couldn’t help thinking that maybe there was a third way. Like, couldn’t he have just kicked a ball around for a bit? Also, while we’re at it, has no one considered the long-term — potentially lethal — health consequences for a writer of wearing a bandana?
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.
There’s a subtler synergy, too. In China, he learns that a nature reserve is designed not simply to protect species of birds but the place itself. That place, to extrapolate further, can be mental and psychological as well as geographical. One way or another, the essays in Farther Away are attempts to enlarge the place where literature, and the responsiveness to it, can be preserved.