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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Words and Resolutions: Tracy K. Smith and a Happy New Year

Because of the documentary poetics class I’m taking, I wanted to share a poem by an amazing woman who uses poetry as witness. This is from her book Life on Mars which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.

Life on Mars

1.

Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right—how strong the pull can be, as if something

That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how

Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.
Anita feels it now as a tug toward the phone, though she knows

The ear at the other end isn’t there anymore. She’ll beat her head

Against the rungs of her room till it splits, and the static that seeps out

Will lull her to sleep, where she’ll dream of him walking just ahead

Beside a woman whose mouth spills O after O of operatic laughter.
But Tina isn’t talking about men and women, what starts in our bodies

And then pushes out toward anywhere once the joy of it disappears.

She means families. How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another,

Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something

Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?
2.

Last year, there was a father in the news who kept his daughter

Locked in a cell for decades. She lived right under his feet,

Cooking food, watching TV. The same pipes threading through his life

Led in and out of hers. Every year the footsteps downstairs multiplied.
Babies wailing through the night. Kids screaming to be let outside.

Every day, the man crept down into that room, bringing food,

Lying down with the daughter, who had no choice. Like a god

Moving through a world where every face looked furtively into his,
Then turned away. They cursed him to his back. He didn’t hear.

They begged him for air, and all he saw were bodies on their knees.

How close that room. What heat. And his wife upstairs, hearing

Their clamor underfoot, thinking the house must just be

Settling into itself with age.
3.

Tina says dark matter is just a theory. Something

We know is there, but can’t completely prove.
We move through it, bound, sensing it snatch up

What we mean to say and turn it over in its hands
Like glass sifted from the sea. It walks the shore,

Watching that refracted light dance back and forth
Before tossing whatever it was back to the surf.
4.

How else could we get things so wrong,

Like a story hacked to bits and told in reverse?—
5.

He grabbed my blouse at the neck.

All I thought was This is my very best

And he will ruin it. Wind, dirt, his hands

Hard on me. I heard the others

Jostling to watch as they waited

For their turns.
They were not glad to do it,

But they were eager.

They all wanted to, and fought

About who would go first.
We went to the cart

Where others sat waiting.

They laughed and it sounded

Like the black clouds that explode

Over the desert at night.
I knew which direction to go

From the stench of what still burned.

It was funny to see my house

Like that—as if the roof

Had been lifted up and carried off

By someone playing at dolls.
6.

Who understands the world, and when

Will he make it make sense? Or she?
Maybe there is a pair of them, and they sit

Watching the cream disperse into their coffee
Like the A-bomb. This equals that, one says,

Arranging a swarm of coordinates
On a giant grid. They exchange smiles.

It’s so simple, they’ll be done by lunchtime,
Will have the whole afternoon to spend naming

The spaces between spaces, which their eyes
Have been trained to distinguish. Nothing

Eludes them. And when the nothing that is
Something creeps toward them, wanting

To be felt, they feel it. Then they jot down
Equation after equation, smiling to one another, Lips sealed tight.
7.

The earth beneath us. The earth

Around and above. The earth

Pushing up against our houses,

Complicit with gravity. The earth

Ageless watching us rise and curl.

Our spades, our oxen, the jagged lines

We carve into dirt. The earth

Nicked and sliced into territory.

Hacked and hollowed. Stoppered tight.

Tripwire. The earth ticking with mines,

Patient, biding its time. The earth

Floating in darkness, suspended in spin.

The earth gunning it around the sun.

The earth we ride in disbelief.

The earth we plunder like thieves.

The earth caked to mud in the belly

Of a village with no food. Burying us.

The earth coming off on our shoes.
8.

Animals everywhere, packed into stalls. Their legs

Stiff, pointing whichever way. Eyes fixed,

Unblinking because they know. They’ve seen

Our lives, heard us thinking to ourselves, and so

They wait, always ready. Won’t go quietly

In through the massive doors. Won’t go like pets

Into the big wet room where everything ends.

They nose the pellets meant for food. They eat

Only enough. They sip from the trough. Small sips,

Watching the workers as they pass.
9.

Tina says we do it to one another, every day,

Knowing and not knowing. When it is love,

What happens feels like dumb luck. When it’s not,

We’re riddled with bullets, shot through like ducks.
Every day. To ourselves and one another. And what

If what it is, and what sends it, has nothing to do

With what we can’t see? Nothing whatsoever

To do with a power other than muscle, will, sheer fright?
To me, this poem is not only moving, but so technically impressive. The heavier subjects of dark matter, gods, God could have been too esoteric, especially to start with, but the writing is so conversational it is easy to keep going.
In general, the person narrating is very casual and there is a strange relationship to authority in the poem. So much attention paid to Tina and what she says…as if we know who she is. So much wondering about gods and God and the father who kept his daughter locked up.
Reading this poem top to bottom reminds me a little bit of some babysitting experiences I’ve had. You get these really precocious kids who have the same odd relationships with authority, where they don’t know who’s “in charge” of the universe but they do know their older sibling has it all right. These kids are also often the ones who say the strangest things most offhandedly….the juxtaposition of naivety and subject matter in this poem as well as the scrambled form all contribute to the last question because they cause fear and chaos in the readers mind.
This is actually an earlier version of the poem; later on, she changes 8. to a powerful excerpt quoting Rush Limbaugh on Abu Ghraib. The way she weaves this and the father and daughter story to the poem are so impressive to me because she creates a place where our own universal fears can co-exist with things that have happened in history.
As I kept reading, I kept becoming more scared. Sentences started to pop out like spectres in a haunted house- “spills O after O of operatic laughter”, “He grabbed my blouse at the neck”, “Nothing eludes them..they smile” etc. The poem gets more sinister and more disorienting as it progresses. The fracture of form and chaos it then provides mirrors the narrators distrust in organization, in God.
The one redemptive section is the beautiful part about? or by? the earth. Suddenly, something we can trust. The earth beneath us, around us, surrounding us. Protecting us in the middle of this frightening poem. Spades oxen jagged carved nicked sliced stoppered tight, gunning it around the sun, earth earth earth. These are words of power, heavy and hard words. And the way earth keeps coming back in the section, almost an incantation. But just as we trust and start to live in these comforting hard words, “the earth coming off on our shoes.” It isn’t so strong? Are we more powerful than the thing we trusted? We destruct what protects us? Who knows. But stability is gone. (Similar to how I felt about the 3rd and 2nd movement of Tchaikovsky 5 mentioned in a previous post..) And for awhile we were still thinking from the first line about dark matter holding people together, or is it God holding people together? love? What holds people together? And you forget about this question and suddenly the poem ends asking, is it just that primitive instinct…fear? I confess, I skimmed through the last part of this poem because I was frightened and needed to know how it ended and when I read the last sentence, my eyes stung. All in all a beautiful poem seemingly written by someone young who wants to believe in God or gods but finds it difficult when presented with a world where incestuous fathers lock up their daughters, torture happens in prisons and is joked about lightly, and people stay together out of “not quite love.”
This idea that fear is what holds us together reminded me of another very similar idea in The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I know…what doesn’t remind me of The Waves? But no, really…this does. There is a scene in the book where one of the characters is at a party. A big social affair where she feels out of place.
“Scorn and ridicule pierce me. I, who could beat my breast against the storm and let the hail choke me joyfully, am pinned down here; am exposed. The tiger leaps. Tongues with their whips are upon me. Mobile, incessant, they flicker over me. I must prevaricate and fence them off with lies. What amulet is there against this disaster? What face can I summon to lay cool against this heat?”
I remember relating immensely to this section in the book because I am shy and experience a lot of social agitation. The idea of amulets and how we use people, ideas, things we are comfortable with to ward off other things or guard ourselves from them was a new idea when I read the book. Being at a new school this year, where I have friends I’m extremely comfortable with, I feel like I’ve fallen prey to this way of thinking many a social situation in the last semester. That is not fair to the amazing friends I have.
So here it is…my New Years Resolutions. (You know…just two weeks late) Not a single person in my life deserves to be used as an amulet because I’m feeling uncomfortable, unloved, unnecessary, unhuman, etc. I want to choose to have people in my life because I love and enjoy them, not because I need them selfishly. The same goes for a lot of other decisions I make. Often, I buy clothing or personal possessions because they contribute to the personality I label myself as having. By labeling myself, I create an identity that is tidy and in a way, I use that as an amulet too. “I know who I am and that helps me make other decisions throughout the day” mentality. It’s hard to face the contradictions that exist in any given personality, life, lifestyle. so…I know there is such a thing as healthy fear, but I don’t want unhealthy fear to make any decisions in my identity, personal relationships, and professional relationships anymore. As scary as that is….
Ling Ling