To approach Jonathan Franzen in 2012 is, for the book reviewer (which almost invariably connotes an aspiring writer), a daunting task.
We know that Franzen’s 2001 satire of the generational divide, The Corrections, made waves that few literary novels—including many superior to it—have made in the digital age. Shortly after Franzen’s follow-up novel Freedom hit the stores and digital-download emporiums in 2010, Time featured the author on its cover, accompanied by the slogan “Great American Novelist.” His accolades begin there and disperse, ad infinitum, into the media ether. Despite rumors of bitterness amongst his contemporaries—and, for that matter, writers younger and older—many in the literary realm have come to look upon our middle-aged boy wonder as something of a beacon. We see him as a level-headed Gen X intellectual whose work manages to extrapolate the closed-circuit, writers-writing-for-other-writers vanity mill of literary-literature in the aughts.
In The Paris Review, we peruse retrospective photo galleries conveying Franzen’s dorky Midwestern beginnings. We see also the spines of his books in Midwestern homes (and elsewhere), filed next to The Help and whatever else our mothers may have plucked from the Oprah booklist in recent years (Franzen, in case you slept, had a celebrated spat with Orpah, then made up). It’s not Hemingway being stormed by rabid fans on the streets of Cuba, but it is something. Franzen has achieved eminence. He possesses an elusive literary chromosome that has raised him into what passes in this technological day and age for mass consciousness.
So we come to Franzen’s most recent tome, an essay collection entitled Farther Away. We arrive with a consideration—one is about to expose puny critical thoughts towards the mid-career work of a prospective giant. This turns out to be a dubious proposition, especially when the reviewer, like myself, finds spending time with Franzen to be an ambivalent experience.
But I’m already being unfair to Jonathan, getting caught up in his public ethos rather than the work at hand. So, without prejudice, where does this collection find our hero?
It takes no more than a page to understand that Franzen comes to the book preoccupied with handheld electronic devices. “Pain Won’t Kill You,” a 2011 commencement address for Kenyon College and the collection’s opening essay, serves up a forgivably precious and utterly agreeable missive about our relationships to technology—the personification of gadgets, the displacement of emotion onto our gadgetry, what consumer products rank as “likeable” versus loveable and the fundamental problems all this brings to modern consciousness.
Franzen openly admits his fondness for his own BlackBerry—a recurrent theme in several essays—and soon enough enlarges his essay to include a love of literature and birds, and mention of his failed marriage (all components never far from reach in his nonfiction). As with many of Farther Away’s major pieces, memoir becomes the engine. By the end, Franzen talks about the challenges of love, urging a reader to take the plunge.
It’s admirable, certainly: Franzen’s commitment to producing work that, to use his phrase, is “morally instructive.” He once and for all addresses how he feels about being asked his influences (“On Autobiographical Fiction”). He veers towards the esoteric (“A Brief History”). The collection’s centerpieces, however, find our novelist journeying far and wide (Cyprus, and a solitary island off the coast of Chile) in search of endangered birds. He reports on the cause of their endangerment, recasting his experiences with such care and exacting prose that the essays, quite often, succeed in conveying larger truths about our own flighty species and its relationship to the natural world.
At its best, little contends with Franzen’s prose. He writes behemoth sentences, graceful, technical mini-wonders that read as easily as his most colloquial quips. He blends balanced reportage—on, say, avian histrionics or Cyprian culture (“The Ugly Mediterranean”)—with personal narrative in sure-handed mastery. We sit up straight at unexpected mergers of autobiography and foreign fringe politics, self-analysis and the state of Chinese ecology.
We never feel a moment of memoirist fraud—no D’Agata energies here. When our great novelist sits down to finally feast upon the ambelopoulia, an illegal Cypriot dish made of “almond-sized breasts” shaved from the very endangered bird he’s come to investigate, Franzen admits that the delicacy—well, it tastes damn good. When a gaggle of bird poachers chuck rocks that strike our hero’s Committee Against Bird Slaughter cohorts, he confesses how he ran for the hills.
Franzen’s weapon, his rock to chuck? Prose. His ability to comprehend the fundamental truths of another culture’s poaching mindframe gives him the leverage to deflate its bloodthirsty traditions. He employs a riff on Saint Francis of Assisi that arrives straight out of left field but works, nevertheless, as a closing statement.
It’s a feat that, despite disparate components, so many of these essays hang together. Roundtable discussions in many MFA writing programs could lambast several of Farther Away’s pieces, taking aim at aberrations of form and liberties with adherence to theme. In a few of the pieces, one might argue that Franzen simply coasts on his literary prowess. The collection’s eponymous essay, for example, reads as a loosely stitched, overstuffed odyssey describing the author’s bungled solo adventure to a remote island in the South Pacific (a scenario bearing similarities to his 2005 essay “My Bird Problem”). Since the island holds both literal and metaphorical links to Robinson Crusoe, the trip inspires a rereading of Defoe’s novel. Predictably, Franzen expounds on Defoe. Rain clouds loom over the island. Franzen’s tent is thrashed; he cites excerpts from his boyhood camping diaries. Themes of boredom-as-soul-cancer and solitude-versus-human-curiosity emerge from the South Pacific mist.
It gets worse. Hiking, Franzen grows contentious with his GPS device while pining for the glimpse of the rayadito—a rare bird. Then, slowly, we’re alerted to the fact that the essay, at heart, means to be a meditation on the loss of his friend/friendly rival David Foster Wallace. The reader arrives in headfuck territory.
An exercise in consciousness? Maybe. A cohesive essay, or literature-as-transference? Debatable. Only our implicit—and, on the author’s part, presumed—understanding of the grand implications of the Franzen/Wallace literary kinship allows the piece, in all its clutter, to keep afloat. Devotees of the Franzen/Foster Wallace enterprise might be swept up in the depiction of Franzen’s lone mountainside weeping. Others, like myself, can only be baffled at the essay’s affectations.
Franzen has been criticized for his self-importance, his annoyed-nerd didactics and his typical writer-like personality tics. In the wake of The Corrections, some felt our novelist set out on a mission to personally appoint himself amongst the greats. As a man who’s scarily well-read and equally well-versed in the public discourse of his idols, Franzen’s fan-boy understanding of what makes a legendary man of letters might indeed once have made him overzealous to prescribe his genius and personal mythology onto us readers.
Yet Franzen 2012 appears deft at conveying humility, at putting self-deprecation to use in a way that feels practically earnest. Almost always, he strikes us as a decent guy. Even with a number of passages in Farther Away that might elicit pretension-induced nausea, Franzen expertly shifts focus just in time. The moment we grow weary of his gripes about open air cell phone banter (“I Just Called to Say I Love You”) or the aesthetic perils of placing a comma before the word then (“Comma-Then”), he gives us something new to chew on.
Book reviews in Farther Away serve as intermissions. Franzen never feels more lucid than when assessing—or more often championing—texts that have taken him by the lapels. An awestruck analysis of Christina Stead’s forgotten novel The Man Who Loved Children arrives 53 pages into the collection, and the frequency of the reviews grows as we read on. Literature turns out to be Franzen’s religion. He can’t say for certain whether good literature can change society for the better, but he conveys no doubts about its ability to improve one’s soul.
If his proselytizing on love or his cutesy meta-essay/Q-and-A with New York State (“Interview With New York State”) strike some as overwrought, it’s difficult to object to Franzen’s fervor for books. He urges us to “Read Munro!” In fact, so fervent is his adoration for Alice Munro’s recent story collection Runaway that the thought of mentioning the stories directly confounds him. “The only summary of the text is the text itself,” he writes, amidst a clever abstract on Munro’s genius. Here, Franzen comes across at his humblest and most exuberant, spreading his religion. Those of us already converted to the gospel of Alice Munro can feel grateful to hear it preached again.
By Franzen’s account, to be “likable” (as in liking something on Facebook, or the functional pleasantness of our most user-friendly gadgets) is not necessarily a desirable effect. In so many ways, this axiom applies to the author himself. The Corrections gave us brilliant messiness and stylistic innovations, a layered, entangling depiction of generational fall-out amongst the baby booming conformists and their scatterbrained Gen-X progeny. Yet, through and through, I found myself enjoying—and trusting, on an emotional level—very few of its moments. Franzen leads with his brains and lingual expertise. Still, he understands how essential emotional rawness and the subversion of etiquette can be to a great story or, for that matter, essay.
Of Franzen’s contemporaries, few are as forthcoming with their praise as Bret Easton Ellis, a writer who—above all else, it might be argued—has paid his mortgage investing profoundly vacuous characters with trace amounts of feeling, so that they might serve the conceptual nihilism of his stories. Unlike Alice Munro’s finest characters, Franzen’s are likeable for their literary attractiveness and universal gawk-appeal, yet unlovable in the sense that they fail to resonate at the deepest personal levels. When The Corrections’ Alfred, in a pharmacological delirium, hallucinates about a looming wave of feces attacking him in a cruise ship bathroom, it’s easy to snicker at the hyperbole, but difficult to feel a shred of sympathy or empathy for the psychic perils of a literary cartoon.
It feels imprudent, these days, to scrutinize a good book like The Corrections. But surely Franzen understands that his accolades draw him into a brighter room, illuminated by acknowledgements so few living writers experience. It is, perhaps, for this very reason that Farther Away’s inclusion of his memorial service remarks for David Foster Wallace might raise a troubled eyebrow amongst those of us looking to the author of these essays for “moral instruction.”
Reading “David Foster Wallace,” I first experienced a sorrow that the bereaved family had to endure this speech. Then I felt vicarious embarrassment for Franzen. He unfolds an eerily laconic hypothesis about why depressed people commit suicide and a self-referential account of Wallace’s struggles, including Franzen’s final conversations with the deceased author. There are touching gestures within, reminisces, yet awkwardness and discomfort prevails. “People who like to control things,” says Franzen, “have a hard time with intimacy.” Finally, Franzen states: “But he had a beautiful, yearning innocence, and he was trying.”
Whether the address brought comfort to the deceased’s family is impossible to say. A visceral offering it isn’t—not so much— but rather a steady-pulsed testament that theorizes more than it emotes. We must consider, of course, the traumatized state in which Franzen may have found himself when he composed the essay, such a short time after his friend’s passing. What’s baffling remains his choice to include the remarks in Farther Away. It may be hard to criticize a man’s tribute to his beloved, departed friend, but the fact is that those words, published here, leave us to scratch our heads, to ask, “That’s it? Once the proverbial lid is closed, this is what our great novelist has to say to his most worthy peer?”
Franzen’s essays meet stiff competition in the summer of 2012. Last year, John Jeremiah Sullivan issued his debut essay collection Pulphead, more or less exploding the minds of nonfiction readers from here to Cyprus with an unprecedented fusion of reportage and personal narrative. No nonfiction book since, including this one, can hang with it. And we have the other Jonathan—Jonathan Lethem—and his 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence. The compilation of essays arrives at once so joyous and stylish and seemingly effortless that it feels unfair to judge Franzen’s latest beside it. But have we come to expect Franzen to outshine all and sundry, demanding perfection to justify his heightened profile in our small literary galaxy?
Still, this same raised stature might have allowed Franzen—upon his flabbergasted receipt of a Puffin golf club head cover—to venture whimsically to the Shanghai plant that manufactured the synthetic accessory. Forget that most of us would have to forfeit our jobs and pawn our Blackberries to skip to China on nothing more than consumer curiosity. Franzen goes there for us. In astoundingly elegant prose, he walks us through the Puffin manufacturing plant and, by extension, the burgeoning superpower’s industrial complex and crisis of pollution. He asks the questions we really do want to ask. Basically: how terrified should the rest of the world be of the imperial, light-speed advancements of the industrial East?
In the same way, Franzen admits complex feelings while looking out from his high-rise hotel window onto a vast place of industry (“the most advanced I’d ever seen”) already surpassing the West’s industrial hotbeds. Soon enough, of course, his mind flies to the local birds—the black-faced spoonbills and endangered cranes—as surely as ours would drift to our own private obsessions.
This drift of consciousness, this commitment to birds and books and yearning to understand the way it all comes together, lets us know our novelist is— we’re pretty sure of it— a good human being. For Jonathan Franzen, the world’s best interests lie at heart.
It’s what makes our great American novelist, in so many ways, loveable, even when he isn’t likeable.
Sean Hoen lives in Brooklyn, where he writes and teaches writing. His fiction has appeared most recently in BOMB Magazine and his first book is currently under submissions.