You don’t have to have read much of Jonathan Franzen (though you should) to know the basics, because in recent years he’s reached a level of cultural saturation that’s generally not the province of middle-aged literary writers with contrarian tendencies. “Farther Away,” Franzen’s latest essay collection, written over the past five years and mostly first published in The New Yorker, seems to be a product of that fame: the Franzen here is the authorial equivalent of the celebrity guest star who shows up playing a heightened version of himself. He’s out-Franzened Franzen.
His primary obsessions—books, the perils of modern technology, loneliness, his late friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace and birds–are well documented, both by him and by everyone who writes about him, and the pieces collected in “Farther Away” pair and re-pair Franzen’s fixations with comic consistency. Technology, birds. Books, technology. David Foster Wallace, birds. David Foster Wallace, books.
If there’s a problem, it’s not with the topics themselves, or not exactly. “The Corrections,” Franzen’s spectacular 2001 novel, captured the fundamental awkwardness of social interaction with a precision so sharp it bordered on grotesque. His 2002 essay collection, “How To Be Alone” featured plenty of worried commentary about the Internet age, literature and the troubles of literature in the Internet age. And “Freedom,” his 2010 megahit, confirmed the place of birds (so many birds) in the Franzenian oeuvre.
“Farther Away,” though, loses much of what makes his previous work so dauntingly good. Then as now, one of the great pleasures of reading Franzen is that every essay is a personal essay: a Franzen book review is as revealing as a Franzen travelogue, which is as revealing as an essay about his parents. In his best work, Franzen’s extreme presence—the anxious introspection, the hawk-eyed observations (birds!), the trademark gloom and the unexpected tenderness—animates his external subjects. At the same time, though, those external subjects enforce a kind of restraint, a foil to Franzen’s personal tics. The evidence is “Farther Away,” which too often leaves Franzen railing against the various evils of modern life and the people that live it without engaging much with the complications of the world outside his own mind.
That Franzen is a bit of a curmudgeon is hardly news. Skim a few sentences of “The Corrections” or “Freedom” or his previous essay collection, “How To Be Alone”—hell, skim a few lines of dialogue from his translation of “Spring Awakening”—and it’s pretty clear the guy’s no Pollyanna. In “Farther Away,” though, the master of modern anxiety performs a parody of himself.
Among the crankiest: “Comma-Then,” a short tirade against that “irritating, lazy mannerism” (a comma followed immediately by the word “then”), condemns not only the practice, but also the mental prowess of any writer to employ it. His essay celebrating the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, structured as a collection of “guesses at why her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame,” spends as many words railing against readers, reviewers, the Swedish Royal Academy and, of course, the Internet as it does discussing the author herself. And “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” a particularly fervent polemic against the evils of cell phones and the people who say I love you on them, a crime for which there seems to be no possible forgiveness. This is Jonathan Franzen via “Saturday Night Live.”
Still, the essays like these aren’t frustrating because they’re “bad”—even at his puffed-up worst, Franzen’s staggering command of the English sentence is attraction enough in itself—but because they divert attention away from the collection’s handful of true knockouts. They’d be fine, in other words, if there was nothing special here to see, but there is.
The title essay, for example, follows a lone Franzen onto a remote South American island, where he’s looking for an extremely rare species of bird, and also contemplating “Robinson Crusoe,” and also scattering the ashes of his best friend. In “The Chinese Puffin,” it’s factory production in China, and also Chinese birdwatching organizations; in “The Ugly Mediterranean,” it’s bird-poaching in Cyprus and the troubles of the southernmost members of the EU.
The more esoteric his topic, the better Franzen seems to be. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that with Franzen, the primary subject is incidental. What matters is that he turns his attention outward—to Cypriot poaching, to Chinese birdwatching—to anything that positions him in the world, rather than outside of it. When Franzen is brilliant, he’s engaging, not opining. And for those essays, “Farther Away” is worth the price of the rest. (Rachel Sugar)
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 319 pages, $26