Farther Away is a book for literature nerds—more specifically, for literature nerds who know Jonathan Franzen and his work. His two most celebrated and recent novels, The Corrections and Freedom, sit separated by the decade beginning with 9/11, and each takes a darkly comic, sometimes sad look at a dysfunctional American family. His characters aren’t always likeable, but then again, neither are Franzen or the American culture and psyche he mirrors so scrupulously. Franzen’s essay collection How To Be Alone came along shortly after The Corrections, and now, as a chaser to Freedom, comes Farther Away. This new collection of essays—in the loosest definition of “essays”—stretches all the way back to 2004, but finds him far more introspective than he was in How To Be Alone. He’s nearly unrelenting in his analytical thinking about the world around him. Content-wise, the book is all over the map, but together, the short pieces take a deep, often tangled look at the relationship between writing and self.
Those who dismiss Franzen’s work as a cynical picking-apart of the annoyances of modern society will find some of those same things to complain about here, but unlike in his novels, in which the characters embody the traits or mannerisms that chafe readers, here it’s Franzen who’s analyzing these complicated relationships, and his persistent questioning rings genuine and honest. In Farther Away, he writes, “the stories that recognize people as they really are—the books whose characters are at once sympathetic subjects and dubious objects—are the ones capable of reaching across cultures and generations.” He isn’t defending his own writing; he’s exploring what constitutes successful writing. But this exploration of the process of authorship and the meaning of writing are both deeply personal questions for Franzen, and it comes through in nearly every essay in the book. He addresses these questions both explicitly, with lectures on his own process or essays picking apart specific novels, and implicitly, with short nuggets of memoir and other literary explorations.
Part of the joy in reading these essays is in their variety: Franzen has thrown together a buffet of essays, speeches, lectures, bits of memoir and journalism, and a few oddballs, like an extended fictional interview with New York State and her entourage (publicist, attorney, historian, geologist). The pieces are arranged in reverse chronological order, but the first two—a commencement address for Kenyon College and the book’s title essay—serve almost as a reference and index for everything that follows. The collection jumps around in length and style, making for a well-balanced, surprising read; unlike a tome like Freedom, each new chapter brings a different tone forward, from the sincerely pained remarks at David Foster Wallace’s funeral to a short scene about extinguishing hornets’ nests while housesitting. Each finds a home in the collection because, in the end, each informs Franzen’s capabilities as a writer.
It’s always tempting but never a good idea to draw a direct line from an author’s comments and experiences to his fictional work, and in these essays, Franzen is acutely aware of that temptation, and the extent to which he’s exposing these straightforward bits of his personality and process. That’s part of the fun of Farther Away—Franzen seems to be a step ahead at every turn. Near the center of the book is the lecture “On Autobiographical Fiction,” in which he thoughtfully addresses the more clichéd questions he gets from readers and critics, including “Is your fiction autobiographical?” Throughout these essays, Franzen plays with this question, asserting simultaneously that his work is highly personal—informed by his experience and limited by what he knows and can write truthfully—but rarely purely autobiographical, in that he doesn’t pull scenes or dialogue directly from his experience.
His personal experiences, which inform every piece in this book, make Farther Away a fascinating read for Franzen fans. He discusses at length the evolution of The Corrections, which began with a (now-extinct) character named Andy Aberant, who was serving 20 years in prison for a murder his wife committed. He writes an excellent essay about traveling to the remote island of Masafuera to reread Robinson Crusoe and scatter some of Wallace’s ashes. In the meantime, he explores his love of birds and includes an amazing passage from a journal he kept as a teenager on a camping trip. He rants for three pages about people who write sentences with the word “then” following a comma. Somehow, the material all fits together as an eclectic mix of Franzen’s fiction-style prose—that plain language rendered rich by its novel construction and telling detail—and a candid, earnest investigation of what makes for great writing. It’s inspiring on two levels: the quality of the writing, and the content about the quality of writing.
Some of Franzen’s essays break down where the material skews too esoteric. While they still arguably provide a window into his creative process and analytical thinking, many of the smaller essays are a weird hybrid of book reviews and an almost academic analysis. He enthusiastically picks apart individual novels, scrutinizing the details that make them good books and citing plot points and character development. While this might lead to an excellent reading list, those essays carry less interest for those who haven’t read the originals. It’s too hard to gauge the arguments without knowing the source material.
Also tough to stomach is “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” a screed against both the ubiquitous, invasive use of cell phones and people who say “I love you” too often. Franzen brings up valid points—yes, people use cell phones in public places and expose strangers to their lives; and yes, perhaps a phrase repeated too many times sees a decline in impact—but the essay is steeped in unpleasant whining. Franzen tries to head readers off here, too, guessing that they’re calling him “Grampaw,” but it fails to take the edge off his tone. This is the kind of observation that’s perhaps best wrapped up in a character who would guide readers to dislike the behavior rather than the author.
These are just small complaints, though, in a collection of thought-provoking, potent essays that rouse a renewed desire to read good books in a culture that is, as Franzen says, marked by its “saturation in entertainment.” The texts are both a testament to and an illustration of what attracts people to books—a delicate play between writer, text, character, and reader that prompts excellent questions and provides surprising answers.