Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away: Book Review

I first encountered Franzen on the cover of one of my favorite books. “Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink.” This one sentence was an impressive arranging of words to be sure, but after reading the book and seeing how the writing style, form, and underlying plot worked together, this sentence blew me away because it so captured the book in its entirety. Another way of saying the above would be that I fell for him.
Almost a year ago, I spotted his newest (2012) Farther Away in one of my favorite bookstores, Explore, in Colorado. I read the jacket and was severely impressed with what he seemed to offer within the book…mainly because it seemed like writing the book had given him much to offer. But it was almost $30. I was not that impressed. (really, I was just poor.)
A close friend, knowing how much I had been jonesing for Franzen bought me a copy of The Corrections which I read over Christmas break this past school year. I was so frustrated by a lot of the things happening in the book that I was a hard person to be around, even for myself. But it was worth it. The complexities he chose to bring out in his characters were beautifully wrought and he constructed beautifully a kind of love that I and, I think, many others have experienced, but which I have never encountered in any literature before.
So this year, I finally remembered to check the Rice library for Farther Away when I was there with my Corrections friend. Since I didn’t have my ID, she ended up checking it out for me. I think it’s safe to say that Dorothy is my official sponsor for Franzen.

Farther Away is the title of the place he goes in the second essay which in the native language is Masafuera. It is also the the place he emotionally needed to go in order to grieve the loss of one of his closest friends, David Foster Wallace.
The title also refers to his need to get Farther Away from promotional tours for his latest novel “substantial swaths of my personal history were going dead from within, from my talking about them too often”, his desire for us as readers and humans to get Farther Away from some of the things we are doing technologically and ecologically and how they can negatively affect the rest of humanity and the animal kingdom, and allows him to refer to his early marriage, subsequent divorce, and works from a now more distant vantage point.
The chronology of essays also gets, you guessed it, Farther Away from the present as you read on.

I found that in every essay though, he is in fact, urging us to get closer.
Even by writing a book of non-fiction which is not his typical arena of expertise (though he has two other volumes) it seems he is trying to get closer to us. I found his messages… the things that drive his writing, plot, and characters unchanged from The Corrections but it almost seemed like– listen to me. I’m passionate about this stuff and it is getting late. I can’t make up a great story about this that you’ll read and dissect because I have and I did and I did but I have to dispense with that stuff now.
I appreciated his voice in this book. One that is frank, earnest, and almost desperate. Knowing Franzen and the control of his prose and feeling something near desperation or underlying anxiety in these essays lends to being almost frightened and really caring for his causes (this isn’t meant to say he has causes with a capital C…just that there are clear purposes to each essay as personal expression.) I wonder if this underlying emotional intensity in the writing is cultivated.
The book starts with a commencement address he wrote for Kenyon College titled “Pain Won’t Kill You.” He invites us to get close to pain and to the reality of other people…especially in a world where “technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object ask for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all-powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer: that (to speak more generally) is the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes– a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance –with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.” Franzen wants us to get closer to this world of “hurricanes, hardships”…”When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might end up loving some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”
So he urges us at the start of the book to get closer to pain. Because it won’t kill you.
He shows us he is getting closer to us by taking the risk of writing in non-fiction, of not hiding behind his masterful plots and developed characters, but just presenting himself. He gets even closer to us by telling us how he feels when we ask him certain questions on writing in “On Autobiographical Fiction.” He tells us about his divorce, his marriage, his parents and siblings, their relationships with him. And we see how much of himself he gives in his fiction in the truest sense… “The greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life.” He gets angry about what’s happening in China and Greece. He goes there to see firsthand and joins in the fight, sometimes physically endangering himself, against poachers and other threats to birds and wildlife. He urges us to get close to these things by sharing them with us, these terrors in worlds far away we don’t have access to. He urges us to read so many authors underappreciated and shares what he’s gotten out of them. And he shows us what it was like to get close to someone with a mental illness and how to grieve, get close to closure when someone you love commits suicide.
In every page of this book, he gave us himself, a worn man who is feeling, articulate about that feeling and living in a world that is full of moral complexities and fragility. People often hail certain novelists or poets as the voice of our generation. I always think that is so broad…and can that really be a good thing? To represent everything…isn’t that too much like nothing at this point, in this world? But I know that Franzen is the voice for myself in this moment. He is someone concerned with the objective truth in a world tainted with over-cynicism and over-sentimentality. I’m finding in my early 20’s that I jump between the two almost hourly and I can’t say I care for either.

So in closing, as he would say about other authors,

Read this Franzen! Read this Franzen!,

Ling Ling

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