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Farther Away: Essays Hardcover – April 24, 2012
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Jonathan Franzenâs 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 âa masterpiece of American fictionâ and lauded its illumination, âthrough the steady radiance of its authorâs profound moral intelligence, [of] the world we thought we knew.â
In FartherÂ Away, which gathers together essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years,Â 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 Franzenâs implicit promise to conceal nothing.Â On a trip to China to see first-hand the environmental devastation there, he doesnât omit mention of his excitement and awe at the pace of Chinaâs economic development; the trip becomes a journey out of his own prejudice and moral condemnation.Â 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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"What love is really about is bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on 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 yourself."
The hems and haws ("as I understand it," "in a funny way") are characteristic of Franzen the essayist, who is too modest to claim that he speaks for everyone. Don't try to save humanity, he advises; just be good to SOMEONE, and you might save yourself. I gave this essay to a friend here in Berkeley who spends a day or two each week cleaning and restoring the local creeks, and who in a small way is actually helping to make a difference.
Good as that essay is, there is even better stuff further along. That characteristic quality of Franzen's prose - sure of his own convictions, but giving readers room to disagree - is present in many pieces. His essay on David Foster Wallace persuaded me to buy that writer's INFINITE JEST and to try for the second time to read it - but it's just too grim. However, I did read and enjoy Wallace's long essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again," which is an hilarious satire of luxury cruises. Many of Franzen's other literary enthusiasms - generally of an "experimental" nature, unlike Franzen's own fairly mainstream fiction - also failed to convince me, but he opened my mind to them at least, and on his recommendation I did read and enjoy THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, a Swedish murder mystery of the '70's.
I'm no bird watcher, but through Franzen's eyes I could understand the passions of a few of my friends for this pastime. The essay that gives his book its title is trip to an island named "Robinson Crusoe" in the South Pacific, in search of a rare bird that he never even glimpses. This is a priceless account of the hardships of ecotourism. While reading I really had a vicarious experience of the wind, rain, fog, danger, etc. of his failed quest, and his subsequent account of the people of Mediterranean islands trapping and eating songbirds to near extinction was horrifying and effective, too. The mock-interview of New York State, which another reviewer complains of, I found howlingly funny, and the form an ingenious invention of a new way to write what might otherwise have been tourist puffery. For Franzen, who grew up in a St. Louis suburb, is in love with his adopted state.
And so I read on, from cover to cover, enjoying every essay. The self is a frequent topic. Franzen is infected with the modern disease of Self, and admits as much, but so am I, and so are most of us these days, endlessly wondering "Who am I?" and "Why am I not better?" He tackles these questions in his essay on the autobiographical aspect of fiction, including his own, and comes out with some useful warnings not to read novels as the writer's confessions. The message is familiar, but the wealth of detail from an insider makes for fascinating reading.
If you like his novels I think you'll find his non-fiction equally engaging, and if you haven't read FREEDOM or THE CORRECTIONS, reading this collection will probably make you want to do so.
* One of the best authors to arise in the past 20 years
* A grumpy old man
* A fascinating trove of bird-love
this collection of essays focuses on a few things, namely book-reviews, his love for birding, the life, times and death of his friend and brotherly rival David Foster Wallace and a few travels, e.g. to China and Italy.
His genius shines through his grumpiness at times, for instance, when writing about modern technology, which doesn't just sound grumpy, but is insightful and funny:
Consumer-technology products, of course, would never do anything this unattractive, because they're not people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they're filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery. And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don't have to have contempt for its manipulability, the way we might with actual people. It's all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.
Franzen's honesty is at times very striking, both in fiction and also in these essays. While delving into his relationship to his late parents, it is also notable to see his relationship with his current partner - a couple of times referred to as "a Californian" - and his ex-wife.
From a speech on being a writer, where he lists four questions he often is asked during interviews and goes into them on different levels:
The second perennial question is: What time of day do you work, and what do you write on? This must seem, to the people who ask it, like the safest and politest of questions. I suspect that it's the question people ask a writer when they can't think of anything else to ask. And yet to me it's the most disturbingly personal and invasive of questions. It forces me to picture myself sitting down at my computer every morning at eight o'clock: to see objectively the person who, as he sits down at his computer in the morning, wants only to be a pure, invisible subjectivity. When I'm working, I don't want anybody else in the room, including myself.
He writes on writer's block, on how birds are treated on Cyprus, collates thoughts on his parents in a quite non-soppy way, which is nice, and goes on to dissect a former marriage. It all ties into "Freedom", his magnum opus.
Funny near-luddite things:
One of the great irritations of modern technology is that when some new development has made my life palpably worse and is continuing to find new and different ways to bedevil it, I'm still allowed to complain for only a year or two before the peddlers of coolness start telling me to get over it already, Grampaw--this is just the way life is now.
I'm not opposed to technological developments. Digital voice mail and caller ID, which together destroyed the tyranny of the ringing telephone, seem to me two of the truly great inventions of the late twentieth century. And how I love my BlackBerry, which lets me deal with lengthy, unwelcome e-mails in a few breathless telegraphic lines for which the recipient is nevertheless obliged to feel grateful, because I did it with my thumbs.
And my noise-canceling headphones, on which I can blast frequency-shifted white noise that drowns out even the most determined woofing of a neighbor's television set. And the whole wonderful world of DVD technology and high-definition screens, which have already spared me from so many sticky theater floors, so many rudely whispering cinemagoers, so many openmouthed crunchers of popcorn.
Privacy, to me, is not about keeping my personal life hidden from other people. It's about sparing me from the intrusion of other people's personal lives.
If you choose to spend an hour every day tinkering with your Facebook profile, or if you don't see any difference between reading Jane Austen on a Kindle and reading her on a printed page, or if you think Grand Theft Auto IV is the greatest Gesamtkunstwerk since Wagner, I'm very happy for you, as long as you keep it to yourself.
From a trip to China:
the final push into a new hemisphere came two years ago, shortly after Ji was named a Model Citizen. Because of China's population policy, one thing a Model Citizen really can't do is have more than one child. Ji already had a boy from a previous marriage, and his wife had a daughter from her previous marriage. They were now expecting their first child as a couple, which would be Ji's second. One night, when his wife was six months pregnant, the two of them decided that she should go to Canada to have the baby. Their child was born in Vancouver three months later; and Ji was able to remain a Model Citizen.
On the book "The Laughing Policeman" by Sjöwall/Wahlöö, from Sweden:
"The weather was abominable," the authors inform us on the first page of The Laughing Policeman; and abominable it remains thereafter. The floors at police headquarters are "dirtied" by men "irritable and clammy with sweat and rain." One chapter is set on a "repulsive Wednesday." Another begins: "Monday. Snow. Wind. Bitter cold." As with the weather, so with society as a whole. Sjöwall and Wahlöö's negativity toward postwar Sweden--a theme in all ten of their books--reaches its delirious apex in The Laughing Policeman. Not only does the Swedish winter weather inevitably suck, but the Swedish journalists are inevitably sensationalist and stupid, the Swedish landladies inevitably racist and rapacious, the Swedish police administrators inevitably self-serving, the Swedish upper class inevitably decadent or vicious, the Swedish antiwar demonstrators inevitably persecuted, the Swedish ashtrays inevitably overflowing, the Swedish sex inevitably sordid or unappetizingly blatant, the Swedish streets at Christmastime inevitably nightmarish. When Detective Lennart Kollberg finally gets an evening off and pours himself a nice big glass of akvavit, you can be sure that his phone is about to ring with urgent business. Stockholm in the late sixties probably really did have more than its share of ugliness and frustrations, but the perfect ugliness and perfect frustration depicted in the novel are clearly comic exaggerations.
His love for Alice Munro's writing:
But who is Alice Munro? She is the remote provider of intensely pleasurable private experiences.
This is great writing at times, and at its worst, too navel-gazing for my own liking, but then isn't that how we find ourselves at our most naked or delve into insanity?