In the literary world, publicly expressing your opinion on Jonathan Franzen is the political equivalent of publicly stating your opinion on an issue like nuclear energy. It’s divisive, loaded and full of baggage. When you say, “I think Jonathan Franzen is…” you know you are about to be judged. His work creates intellectual — and pop-cultural — wars.
So let’s get this judgment over with: I think Jonathan Franzen is great. I loved both The Corrections and Freedom, but I remained skeptical and uneasy about my love after all the hype and hoopla about the guy. "Is he overpraised?" We all asked. Or, "Wait, maybe he’s underpraised." Or, "Maybe he’s the right amount of praised, but I still don’t like him because he’s supposed to be an asshole." Or, "Maybe he’s not an asshole, but he’s definitely self-obsessed." Or even, "How could he be so pretentious to turn down Oprah!"
Farther Away, Franzen’s newest collection of essays, managed to shut up all the background noise that unfortunately surrounds him. Reading Farther Away felt like sitting down with the guy and listening to him talk. And Franzen has some downright fascinating things to say.
Cell phones, puffins, David Foster Wallace, saying I love you, bird watching, Swedish crime novels, Alice Munro, Chile, poor grammar, author interviews, September 11, Spring Awakening and Dostoevsky: These are all things that Franzen ruminates on in Farther Away. I underlined so much of this book that I felt like I was back in 7th grade, underlining every other word of The Great Gatsby because I didn’t know how to annotate and I wanted to impress my teacher. But with Farther Away, I underlined because I truly thought Franzen’s musings were interesting and worthwhile.
“I’m going to do what literary writers do,” Franzen writes in the first essay of the book, “which is to talk about themselves, in the hope that my experience has some resonance with your own.” Okay, so right off the bat he’s acknowledging the “I-ness” of writing. But I didn’t this find this as proof of self-obsession in Franzen’s essays. Instead, I found a thoughtful regard for everything and everyone around him. And when he does talk about himself, it’s often in a self-deprecating – or at least self-aware – way. For example, when talking about how getting a cold results in his desire to read Swedish crime novels instead of Henry James or Faulkner, he writes, "Whenever I got a cold I couldn’t write or smoke, and whenever I couldn’t write or smoke I couldn’t feel smart, and feeling smart was pretty much my only defense against the world.”
And what do you know – Franzen is funny! This fact was a delightful surprise as I giggled my way through the collection. He’s known to be rather curmudgeonly – a fact that he pokes fun at, calling himself “Grandpaw” in one essay, in which he criticizes the takeover of technology and the subsequent disregard of any hope of public respect for privacy.
Franzen includes his remarks from Wallace’s memorial service in an essay titled “David Foster Wallace.” The speech is rich with touching anecdotes of Wallace’s life and substantive reflection, but there was one quote that made me reflect on Farther Away as a whole. Franzen writes about “that neutral middle ground on which to make a deep connection with another human being: This, we decided, was what fiction was for.” Franzen manages to do this, on a nonfiction level, with Farther Away. It’s not transportative like fiction can be, but this collection of essays was one of the best I’ve read in awhile. I’m delighted that through it we gain a more accessible vision of Franzen’s intellectual engagement with the world.
Time taken: The essays vary widely in size, some lasting only two pages and others lasting 20 to 30. The entire collection is 321 pages. If you read a few essays per day, you could finish it in a week. I wouldn’t rush through it though. I did, and I wished I had spent more time savoring each piece.
Worth reading: If I’m guilty of anything, it’s of praising Franzen too much, as I mentioned earlier. But I think that his work is essential, and this collection of essays enabled me to see him in a new light – more like a friend than an intimidating New Yorker writer.