“To consider [Edith Wharton] and her work is to confront the problem of sympathy. Privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage,” novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote in the February 2012 anniversary Issue of The New Yorker. Because of Wharton’s plainness complex, he added, she created beautiful yet tormented characters such as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.
Franzen’s elision of sympathy with the presence of beauty and the absence of privilege elicited the ire of readers, who saw it as a costive, ad hominem critique. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, novelist Victoria Patterson parried Franzen, quoting Lionel Shriver on “Wharton’s drive, independence, willfulness, and autodidactic mastery of the English language.” “I don’t give a shit what she looks like,” Patterson irreverently closed.
Franzen’s tetchiness inflects Farther Away, a compendium of speeches and occasional pieces first published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Guardian. “The Greatest Family Ever Storied: On Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children,” wryly calibrates the pleasure and guilt of immersing oneself in a novel, but devolves into a portrayal of one character, Louie, as a mirror for familial ugliness. “And who wants to look into the mirror of the novel and see such ugliness?” Franzen asks. “The absence of literary swans seems like a small price to pay for a world in which ugly ducklings grow up to be big ugly ducks whom we can then agree to call beautiful,” he continues. He insists that Stead “wasn’t remotely good looking,” and that “the pain that Louie experiences in not being pleasing to anybody’s eyes… is surely drawn from […] Stead’s own pain.”
Like his essay on Wharton, this piece presumes vanity on the part of a female novelist, who must struggle to compensate for her plainness, and who limns characters based on life rather than from her novelistic imaginary. This type of argument mars Franzen’s appreciation for Stead’s creative faculties. Though in a later speech he says that writing fiction is “a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life,” here, a New Critical reading, focalizing the novel over Stead’s biographical or aesthetic details, would have been more effective in encouraging us to this novel.
Yet Farther Away does offer aperçus. The title piece, which won a Sidney Award upon its first serial appearance in The New Yorker last April, catalogues Franzen’s journey to Alejandro Selkirk, or Masafuera (literally, “farther away”) a South Pacific island 500 off the Chilean coast, likely the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Franzen’s search for the rare rayadito songbird is an attempt to reclaim “a mostly lost authenticity, the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us.”
This echoes Freedom’s Walter Berglund, who fears, “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.” Just as Robinson Crusoe exemplifies Franzen’s observation that “we now understand a novel to be a mapping of a writer’s experience onto a waking dream,” so too does Freedom emerge a profoundly autobiographical novel.
“Farther Away”, the essay, unmasks the dangers of “radical individualism”, as well. Robinson Crusoe was published amid the societal secularization of England, the rise of the middle class, an increase in leisure time, and a heightened need for literature that “identically entertained” a mass market. While 20th century novelists like David Foster Wallace, whose ashes Franzen scatters on Masafuera, actively resisted such a collective through techniques like “annotation, digression, nonlinearity, [and] hyperlinkage”, there’s a cautionary tone in Franzen’s regard for him.
Franzen weighs Defoe’s maxim, “life in general is, or ought to be, but one universal act of solitude,” against the isolation that threatened Wallace’s well-being: “He was a lifelong prisoner on the island of himself. What looked like gentle contours from a distance were in fact sheer cliffs.” This portrait evokes Elizabeth Bishop’s Crusoe, who laments his return to England: ““Now I live here, another island,/that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?”
“Farther Away” celebrates the moments when we retreat from technology and the personæ we cultivate through social media, when artifice is stripped, and we are left with arguments, empathy, imperfection, and humility—the raw materiality of being. This elemental state, in which we readers encounter most of Franzen’s fictional characters, is what touches us. But what he says about fiction in his opening speech, that “the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect you as you really are,” applies to his own essays. Besides the title piece, and another about birding in Malta and Cyprus, few essays in Farther Away are authentic, or deserving of our sympathy.