Saturday, November 17, 2012

Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen

I am not a Jonathan Franzen fan. Unlike most readers, I didn't care for his first Great American Novel, The Corrections (or the way he accepted Oprah's endorsement long enough to sell a lot of books and then began to feel suddenly squeamish about it). I disliked his first collection of essays, How to Be Alone, and haven't yet read his second Great American Novel, Freedom, despite a ringing endorsement from my son the literary scholar (I feel use that designation so often it should be in quotes or capitals). So I can't explain why I picked Farther Away off the shelf at the library or why, when I struggled to get through it (every essay involving Franzen's beloved birds stopped me for at least a week), I renewed it twice.

However, I've finally made it through the collection and, while I don't recommend reading it cover to cover, I do like Franzen a little better having read it. The first essay, actually the 2011 commencement address that Franzen gave at Kenyon College (interestingly, also the site where Franzen's friend David Foster Wallace gave a renowned address several years earlier), began to shift my view, as Franzen argues for getting out into the world and connecting with people or animals and perhaps even loving them: "engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are."

In most of the other essays, Franzen deals with what he loves--birds, the works of particular writers, David Foster Wallace (whose death Franzen continues to grieve), his parents, his brother. My favorite piece, "I Just Called to Say I Love You," begins as a rant against people talking on cellphones, particularly people saying "I Love You" on cellphones, but morphs into a reflection on 9/11 and on his parents' differing ways of loving. The piece that gave me the most to chew on was a lecture Franzen gave "On Autobiographical Fiction." The question of to what extent fiction is autobiographical comes up often in our book group discussions, and Franzen gives a nuanced response that all fiction readers should consider. Part of his response is the challenging idea that, with each subsequent book an author writes, "you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you are already wrote the best book you could. There's no way to move forward without changing yourself."  If that is indeed how Franzen approaches his work, then I have to proffer my respect.

So, my recommendation is to dip in and out of the collection, choosing the pieces that speak to you (who, knows? Perhaps you'll enjoy "Interview with New York State" and understand "Our Relations: A Brief History") and don't try to slog through the rest.

Favorite passages:
Between me and the place where my dad is now--i.e., dead--nothing but silence can be transmitted. Nobody has more privacy than the dead.

People who like to be in control of things can have a hard time with intimacy. Intimacy is anarchic and mutual and definitionally incompatible with control.

Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self's own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with their struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.


  1. Nice review. I enjoyed this book a lot. And actually, "Our Relations: A Brief History" is about the United States: resented by his older brothers (Europe), partied 8 years with a lovely Arkansan (Clinton), did not like Albertine (Gore), married the horrendous Georgina (Bush) and lost everything to Georgina's parents and lawyers after some goon broke his window (9/11), which was scary but not nearly as horrible as the European wars.

    1. Thank you -- somehow I missed these connections.