Can anyone hold a candle to Jonathan Franzen in the world of contemporary American belles lettres? Perhaps the best candidate was the late novelist David Foster Wallace, whose unfinished posthumous novel The Pale King was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize (which was ultimately unawarded). Farther Away, a new essay collection by Franzen, includes among its most poignant moments Franzen’s reflections and ruminations upon the life and death of his friend and fellow literary darling. No one who reads this collection could doubt that the 2008 suicide of “DFW” was an overshadowing event that affected Franzen deeply, and his writings on that relationship alone would make for an intriguing collection of essays. There is more here, however, and much of what else is found is lacking, making for an uneven and sometimes jarring collection.
Wallace, Franzen writes in the essay from which the book takes its name (all 21 essays included were previously published), was a mentally ill and depressed friend whom he simply loved, but also a friend who killed himself “in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed.” In attempting to make sense of his own struggle—between seeking to honor Wallace but simultaneously rejecting efforts to canonize his life or sanitize his death—Franzen writes some of the most moving nonfiction of his career. Wallace was “as passionate and precise a punctuator of prose as has ever walked this earth,” Franzen comments in another essay (drawn from his remarks at DFW’s memorial service). He was also someone for whom love and fear existed in equal amounts, and ultimately the author of Infinite Jest “had all too ready access to those depths of infinite sadness.”
On less gut-wrenching topics, Franzen’s efforts are spottier. The number of book reviews here seems out of context, particularly sandwiched in as they are with long-form essays. There is an extraordinarily well-crafted essay, “On Autobiographical Fiction,” in which Franzen’s views on the writer’s craft prove fascinating. At one point he reflects on a conversation he had with his own mother on her deathbed, in the context of a writer’s attempt to overcome his or her own self-consciousness. After he delivers a kind of apology to her for his life’s idiosyncrasies, she forgives him by noting, “Well, you’re an eccentric.” Franzen pushes beyond her apparent absolution, however, identifying her comment with a perhaps-unconscious desire to communicate to him that he takes himself too seriously. “And this was one of her last gifts to me: the implicit instruction not to worry so much about what she, or anybody else, might think of me.”
Every writer knows that struggle—from Harold Bloom’s literary theory of “the anxiety of influence” to the endless silent competition among peers (Franzen admits his own rivalry with Wallace) that makes up such a part of the writing life. Reading Franzen on these matters, we see him at his most human—despairing of choices made in life, cognizant of the danger of excessive self-reflection, adoring of the genius of his friends. And writing, and writing.
There are also, unfortunately, moments where Franzen comes across as somewhat sanctimonious and elitist, someone with little interest in religion or morality who has filled in the space left by their absence with a humorless and unimaginative kind of tsk-tsk moralizing about the bad manners of others. Anyone living in Brooklyn, in Berkeley, in Madison, in Seattle, in any urban neighborhood whose name ends with “Centre” or “Village,” has friends who remind one of Franzen in his more smug moments. I am terrified I sound like smug Franzen myself. Regularly when I encounter others like this, I think these people are actually reading Franzen. More often, they are talking in a monotone delivery (learned by osmosis from NPR, I am certain) about someone they saw smoking, about the distasteful mention of Jesus in public discourse, about the regrettable attention being paid to some public human tragedy, the coverage of which is inevitably referred to as “lachrymose.”
A good example of this tendency can be found in the first essay, adapted from a graduation speech Franzen delivered at Kenyon College in 2011, where Franzen notes that “trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being.” Exactly three pages later, he confesses that “it’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds.” Love of birds, he notes (unlike love of humanity?), “became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed.” If you have read Franzen’s novel Freedom, you’ll recognize the character of Walter right there, a man who finds love of birds an escape from narcissism but love of humanity somehow self-serving.
In the same vein (and speaking of birds), an essay on endangered songbirds reinforces this occasional sense of unintentional self-parody. In “The Ugly Mediterranean,” a long and interesting but heavily moralizing essay about poaching, he segues at the very end into a brief discussion of St. Francis of Assisi. By his reckoning, no one since Jesus has lived the Gospel better than Francis. Francis, he writes, “went Jesus one better and extended his gospel to all creation.” This particular bit of environmentalist sanctimony appears in the same essay where Franzen openly admits to illegally eating endangered songbirds. His sorrow for the poaching of said songbirds has nevertheless caused him to conclude “the blue of the Mediterranean isn’t pretty to me anymore.” We are a long way from the Pulitzer here.
The ultimate impression one takes away from this uneven collection is that Franzen is an extraordinarily talented writer whose best subject (when it comes to non-fiction), is writing itself. He is sincere in his love of what he loves and the people whom he loves, but he can also be a bit of a predictable bore. When the subject matter is right, Franzen is the best; when the subject matter is not, dare I say Franzen is for the birds?