Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was the runaway most-discussed novel of 2010, an ambitious and searching engagement with life in America in the twenty-first century. In The New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus proclaimed it “a masterpiece of American fiction” and lauded its illumination, “through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, [of] the world we thought we knew.” In Farther Away, which gathers together essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years, Franzen returns with renewed vigor to the themes, both human and literary, that have long preoccupied him. Whether recounting his violent encounter with bird poachers in Cyprus, examining his mixed feelings about the suicide of his friend and rival David Foster Wallace, or offering a moving and witty take on the ways that technology has changed how people express their love, these pieces deliver on Franzen’s implicit promise to conceal nothing. On a trip to China to see first-hand the environmental devastation there, he doesn’t omit mention of his excitement and awe at the pace of China’s economic development; the trip becomes a journey out of his own prejudice and moral condemnation. Taken together, these essays trace the progress of unique and mature mind wrestling with itself, with literature, and with some of the most important issues of our day. Farther Away is remarkable, provocative, and necessary.
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The book jacket advises,"In Farther Away, which gathers together essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years, Franzen returns with renewed vigor to the themes, both human and literary, that have long preoccupied him". Especially, one might add, the theme of himself. Snark aside, Franzen comes across in these essays as a very intelligent, hard-working writer - a real professional - with a massive sense of self. That's not to say he's arrogant, and he's entirely up front about the approach to writing that interests him: "My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author's story of his or her own life." (129, from 'On Autobiographical Fiction'). Virtually all the pieces in this (mostly non-fiction) collection reflect that deep engagement. Two factors make them worth reading even for those of us less personally engaged in Franzen's autobiography. First, Franzen delivers arresting insights and observations on other topics - bird habitat in China, Cypress, and Malta; the way technology has changed our behavior; and especially, how writers write well. If you think about it, you probably have a friend or relative like this - everything in their presence is about them, not sooner or later, but continuously; but they're fascinating company, and anyway, you're not going to change them. Here's the second reason to read these essays: in the best ones, such as the reviews of Alica Munro's short stories ('What Makes You So Sure You're Not the Evil One Yourself?') and Paula Fox's Desperate Characters ('No End To It'), Franzen addresses subjects he seemingly can't bring into orbit around himself. The resulting tension lights up these essays, opening up space for the reader to sit, absorb, and think independently. Unlike perhaps the majority of other readers, the one piece in this collection that I think misses the mark is the title essay, 'Further Away', about Franzen's trip to Selkirk Island (setting for Robinson Crusoe's real-life alter ego). There, he contemplates loneliness, risks falling off a cliff while searching for a rare bird in a storm, and mourns his late friend, David Foster Wallace. As always, the writing is elegant; but the piece seems to me to reflect a waypoint in a much longer grieving process, before Franzen had really found a way to absorb Wallace's suicide into the narrative of his own life. For example: Franzen acknowledges that Wallace was depressed and in great pain before his suicide, but on another level, can't let go of a conception of Wallace as a calculating, and therefore morally culpable, actor. The piece is heartfelt and at points beautiful, but lacks the internal balance and integration of most of the other essays.more