I didn’t much like Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Farther Away” when I read it a year ago in the New Yorker. A complicated mishmash of a piece, it seeks to juxtapose the author’s visit to the South Pacific island of Masafuera, renamed in the 1960s “for Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish seaman whose tale of solitary living ... was probably the basis for Daniel Defoe’s novel ‘Robinson Crusoe,’” with his thoughts on Defoe and on the novel, and, most important, the effort to process the death of his close friend and sometime literary rival David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself in 2008.
At the time the essay appeared, Franzen took heat for suggesting that “in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels,” but that’s not really what he’s saying; more to the point is the mix of rage and sorrow, the loss of faith that the suicide provoked.
“The depressed person then killed himself,” Franzen writes, “in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took him away from us and made the person into a very public legend.”
This is where Franzen lost me, at the moment the suicide ceased to be about Wallace and started to be about him. It’s a risk in any personal essay, which as a form often occupies the murky ground between solipsism and self-expression, but here it started to feel less like an essential tension and more like an authorial pose. And yet, my reaction was completely different when I read the piece again as part of Franzen’s third book of essays, also called “Farther Away.” What that tells us is that context is everything, but it also ties into one of Franzen’s central concerns in these pages: that in a culture as hyper-linked and sped-up as this one, self-absorption is the order of the day.
“Consumer-technology products,” he declares in the opening essay, originally delivered at Kenyon College’s 2011 commencement, “are ... great enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface.” Think about this in relation to the Wallace piece and what emerges is a larger argument about depth and superficiality and the difficulty of having feelings, issues that inform Franzen’s fiction as well.
I still have my problems with the title essay, but here I can see it as an attempt to reveal true emotion: messy, unflattering, contradictory, the way we are inside. “Sooner or later,” Franzen observes in that commencement address, “you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.”
“Farther Away” offers a series of takes on the actual life, as filtered through Franzen’s abiding obsessions: literature, birding and (yes) himself. I’m tempted to add Wallace to that list, since the book, or part of it anyway, exists in both his real and metaphorical shadow; among his most widely read essays is an earlier Kenyon commencement address. But if, at times, Franzen himself seems to want to frame the collection as his side of an ongoing discussion with his dead friend about art and life and the necessity of engagement — “I understood,” he writes at one point, “the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not” — that is, ultimately, too reductive a lens.
Rather, he’s after something more elusive: identity, we might call it, which he understands to be not fixed but fluid, a set of reactions or impressions in evolution, a constant variation on the self. “(W)hat this means, in practice,” he notes in the text of a lecture called “On Autobiographical Fiction,” “is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself. Without, in other words, working on the story of your own life. Which is to say: your autobiography.”
This is an essential point, the heart of everything, made all the more so because Franzen’s fiction is not autobiographical in any overt way. And yet, what else could it be when literature is, must be, the result of “a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life”? Such an intention runs throughout these essays, whether critical (takes on Paula Fox, Christina Snead, Donald Antrim, Dostoevsky) or experiential (an account of bird preservation efforts in the Mediterranean, a tirade about the effect of cellphones on urban life).
Here’s Franzen on his decision to visit China after receiving a fake puffin from his brother: “The industrial system that had created the fake bird was destroying real birds, and I wanted to be in a place where this connection couldn’t be concealed. Basically, I wanted to know how bad things were.”
And here, on Alice Munro, whom he admires as much as any living writer: “All fiction writers suffer from the condition of having nothing new to say, but story writers are the ones most abjectly prone to this condition. There is, again, no hiding. The craftiest old dogs, like Munro and William Trevor, don’t even try.”
On the surface, these pieces have nothing to do with each other, yet what is either one about if not authenticity? Again and again, that’s the question Franzen raises in this collection, perhaps nowhere as movingly as in “Interview With New York State,” where he recalls a teenage visit to Manhattan with his older, cooler cousin, or the understated “Our Little Planet,” which describes a childhood drive from the Twin Cities to St. Louis, on the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
What Franzen is getting at is the concept of being “islanded,” the notion that — no matter what — we are on our own, all the time. This is among his fascinations; there’s a reason his first essay collection was called “How to Be Alone.”
In that sense, all of it — from the kid in that car to the teenager wandering New York to the birder on Robinson Crusoe’s island — is of a piece with David Foster Wallace and even Neil Armstrong: isolated dots of consciousness in a capricious universe, trying to find a point of real connection before time runs out.
“The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking,” Franzen acknowledges, but in the end, it is the counter-argument that lingers, even (or especially) when it leaves us exposed.