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Book Review: Farther Away

Farther Away: Essays

by Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012

There’s an irony to the fact that the cover and spot illustrations for Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen’s latest quickie volume of reprints, are various shapes made out of a folded piece of paper, and it’s not the intended irony of playful inventiveness (or, God forbid, childish wonder). The background disappointment of a paper hat or a paper airplane is that if you take the time to unfold them, you don’t get a handful of wool or fuselage parts; you undo the surface-cleverness and get … just that same old sheet of paper. Something similar (what Franzen refers to throughout this book as the ‘analog’) happens when reading Farther Away, starting of course with that discreet little sub-title ‘essays’ when most of these things are nothing of the sort, just some recent squibs and reviews-for-money slapped in between two hard covers like bratwurst (in a particular prickish move that I’ve come to hate in this kind of collection, the author can’t even be bothered to write a new introduction – or rather, he’d grudgingly do it, for $35,000, so the book goes without): the shapes of the pieces vary – a college address, a New Yorker piece, a book review, a two-page vignette, etc. – but when you unfold them, you get the same old Jonathan Franzen.

This is doubly disappointing – not only because real essays should be genuinely protean, works of self-discovery as much as outward investigation, but also because Farther Away does its bit to cement the suspicion that the same old Jonathan Franzen isn’t some young-ish over-lauded writer playing at being a graceless, narcissistic boor but instead is some young-ish over-lauded writer who really is a graceless, narcissistic boor. This is the central tension at the heart of the Norman Mailer enfant terrible shtick: if you act intellectually impatient with everything and everybody around you, that’s fine – you’re artfully drawing attention to the vacuousness of modern culture. But if you really are intellectually impatient with everything and everybody around you – if you’re one of those snobs who reflexively complicates everything you do and then indifferently dismisses it for being too complicated – that’s a different story. Who, the reader might well ask, needs to spend carefully-hoarded book-money to spend time with somebody like that?

The familiar argument to such a worry is that Franzen is our greatest living writer, deeper and more profound in his insights into the human condition than anybody since the author of the Book of Job. The corollary to such claims is that their subject doesn’t need to be agreeable – anybody who’s ever watched House can tell you that (I’d suspect Franzen has watched the show, except that would cue the whole routine: abortive burst of a sigh, sideways-distracted expression, “Look, I don’t really watch TV, OK? Could we just …” etc.). It’s the quality of the prose, so the argument goes, that will exonerate just about anything.

It’s not a bad argument, as far as it goes. There’s certainly plenty of first-rate prose on display in Farther Away. Franzen isn’t entirely responsible for the PR machine that put him on the cover of Time magazine as the greatest thing since Herman Melville – although he sure as Hell didn’t give it the sighing, sideways-distracted routine, did he? – and it stands to reason that somewhere along the path that brought him to deification as America’s new Sinclair Lewis (he, the poor dear, would say Edith Wharton) he must have done some passionate reading. The purely reader-portions of this collection are by far the best parts of it, thoughtful, twisty appreciations of things as varied as James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, and even the barren waste-scapes of Alice Munro. There’s a very spirited review of Spring Awakening and some profitable ruminations about one of Franzen’s favorite authors:

It would be somewhat more meaningful to say that I was influenced by Franz Kafka. By this I mean that it was Kafka’s novel The Trial, as taught by the best literature professor I ever had, that opened my eyes to the greatness of what literature can do, and made me want to try to create some literature myself. … Kafka teaches us how to love ourselves even as we’re being merciless toward ourselves; how to remain humane in the face of the most awful truths about ourselves. It’s not enough to love your characters, and it’s not enough to be hard on your characters: you always have to try to be doing both at the same time. The stories that recognize people are they really are – the books whose characters are at once sympathetic subjects and dubious objects – are the ones capable of reaching across cultures and generations. This is why we still read Kafka.

There’s hot air in there, yes, but less of it than might be expected from the author of a long novel called Freedom. Reading Franzen about books is an almost unshadowed pleasure even in such recent ‘essays’ as these, nearly all of which must have germinated in the particularly acidic loam of literary superstardom. But that brings on another irony, since the pleasure stops abruptly when Franzen talks about his own books, or his writing philosophy behind them. Readers (especially those who know anything at all about Franzen’s life, even if that knowledge is restricted to things he himself has said about it in public interviews) encountering his thoughts on autobiographical fiction, for example, will find a passage like this simply jaw-dropping:

My own novels are not. In thirty years, I don’t think I’ve published more than twenty or thirty pages of scenes drawn directly from real-life events that I participated in. I’ve actually tried to write a lot more pages than that, but these scenes rarely seem to work in a novel. They embarrass me, or they don’t seem interesting enough, or, most frequently, they don’t seem quite relevant to the story I’m trying to tell.

A man who takes James Frey to task for being disingenuous ought not to pen so lambently lying a passage, but even the gentler fibs are still little strobe-lights:

My difficulty with golf is that, although I play it once or twice a year to be sociable, I dislike almost everything about it. The point of the game seems to be the methodical euthanizing of workday-size chunks of time by well-off white men. Golf eats land, drinks water, displaces wildlife, fosters sprawl.

The sure, eagerly-readable prose style there has already been noted,  but look at the rest of it! Look at the implied distance of ‘well-off white men,’ when such a phrase describes Franzen perfectly; look at the coy evasion of ‘I dislike almost everything about it'; look at the black-and-white falsehood of ‘I only play it once or twice a year,’ for all the world as though there were no such thing as eyewitnesses, or credit card records, or hell, even playback video footage. After a few dozen such passages, even the most forbearing reader will begin to wonder what the point of all this irony-origami is. What is the use of striking pose after fraudulent pose when your actual observable reality has been in the public domain for over a decade? How much traction can the old at-war-with-myself gimmick have when the user of that gimmick is so visibly selling arms to both sides of that war?

Dedicated fans of the late David Foster Wallace will want Farther Away for the various tributes, mentions, and even excoriations it offers to Franzen’s lost friend – that friendship and its wrenching end when Wallace committed suicide have obviously only just begun to transform Franzen’s imaginary landscape, and so his every mention of it feels like a probe toward a different and perhaps very much more moving volume. This present volume is not that future one; it’s grounded in the present, and in the ongoing warm low-key melodrama of being Jonathan Franzen. Readers of the New Yorker and the New York Times will have seen many of these paper shapes before; newcomers will, one hopes, already be aware of the fragility of the form.

 

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