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Feckless Franzen

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Farther Away

by Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux/New York, 2012

I’ll have you know that I bought Farther Away, a collection of 21 essays by Jonathan Franzen, the fervently celebrated and presidentially praised author of, among other works, Freedom (2010) and The Corrections (2001), before I intended to review it, and, of course, well before I realized that I would not be able to make myself like it. I enjoy nonfiction: The form often insists that the author adopt a welcoming and teacherly tone, and if there is one thing I miss during these lonely postbellum months after my own graduation, it is being taught.

This collection begins hopefully with the commencement address Franzen delivered at Kenyon College in May 2011, six years after David Foster Wallace’s better, justifiably more famous address (which bounced around the internet for years until it was published in 2009 during the gold rush that followed Wallace’s suicide on September 12, 2008) at the same school’s commencement ceremony. The fact that the occasions for their speeches are identical makes comparisons unavoidable, and even the briefest examination finds Franzen coming up short. He describes lamely the not uninteresting idea that the ubiquity of technology might be, for instance, bad, and concludes that emotional investment in something outside ourselves might be, for instance, good. Fine, but I was struck by how Franzen in this and most of the other essays in Farther Away seemed consistently blown away by the mild moralism of this idea. It reminded me of William Deresiewicz’s suggestion in his review in the New York Times of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot that for Franzen and those of his ilk “becoming an adult is possible to imagine happening, at best, at excruciating cost, and often not at all.”

Franzen anticipates that he will sound like a “grampaw” (his spelling) and tries to undercut criticism of his grampawliness by writing lines like “I’m still allowed to complain for only a year or two before the peddlers of coolness start telling me to get over it already.” That quote is from his teeth-shatteringly dumb essay “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which preaches the eighth-grade conviction that overuse of the phrase “I love you” might somehow kill it, much as saying the word “fork” five times in a row can throw the hapless pubescent into an irreversible flux of meaninglessness—irreversible, that is, until 30 seconds later when the word regains its signification, because, of course, that’s what happens. But the essay is more fundamentally about Franzen’s hatred of people who exist loudly around him (“Privacy, to me, is…about sparing me from the intrusion of other people’s personal lives”), an embitterment which, again, seems at first glance easy to get behind, but which after any sort of critical thought appears unsympathetic and curmudgeonly.

This sentiment, combined with Franzen’s insistence that we need a return to sentimentality, smacks of Walter Berglund, the perennially disappointed person-with-opinions-cum-advocate-for-birds-and-stuff from Freedom. In trying to like that novel, I had entertained the threadbare prayer that Walter (whose name for whatever reason is never abbreviated or played with in the novel, e.g. Walt, Walty, Walt Disney, Walnut Birdman, etc.) was not simply a mouthpiece for Franzen’s own opinions on birds and the environment and, most frustratingly, the supposed problem of overpopulation. Farther Away answers my prayer with a resounding, “Fuck you.” Franzen seems to invite the sort of reductionist biographical analysis he sounds like he’s railing against in “On Autobiographical Fiction”: He makes it impossible to ignore the idea that his obsession with solitude and birds might have its root in his own pathology. But the infuriating thing is that he never recognizes this in any meaningful way, and instead takes it as unquestionably self-evident that more people/cellphones/talking + fewer birds = bad, which equation, I would submit, is not as obviously true as he writes. I am reminded of the title essay of Wallace’s second collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, in which he examines from the ground up the ethical issues with eating living things. Franzen, on the other, worse hand, takes it as a given that everything he thinks about preservation and animals and really everything he talks about in Farther Away is correct. And as Wallace wrote in his essay “Authority and American Usage” (also anthologized in Consider the Lobster), “Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue—your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you are trying to argue for.” Seems like a pretty elementary idea, doesn’t it?

And we have yet to touch on Franzen’s hair-pullingly exasperating reading of Wallace’s suicide, which reading I will here happily oversimplify with this quote from the title essay of Farther Away: “If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.” Try to ignore for a moment the putrid pile of prose that festers at that sentence’s center and look at it—just look at it. How are the first two clauses given at all?

And all this is not to mention the strange, mercifully brief essays about specific books, some of which discuss novels so obscure that few people reading this collection will have read them (e.g. Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters). Reading these essays when you haven’t read the work he’s talking about is almost exactly as fun as sitting through a lecture on a text you haven’t read. The one essay on a short novel I have read, “The End of the Binge,” about Dostoevsky’s The Gambler (1866), was a disappointment and just about as lame on the subject of addiction as the title essay. It was like a weak paper for a class on Dostoevsky, but mixed with the presumption that people will want to read a review of something published 146 years ago. And again Franzen reduces Dostoevsky’s work to an expression of some biographical detail of his life: “[Dostoevsky’s] sensualism and compulsive nature and caustic rationality were the personally destabilizing forces against which he subsequently erected the fortress of The Brothers Karamazov and lesser redoubts like The Gambler.” He does the same violence to Alice Munro, Christina Stead, and David Foster Wallace—and this after an essay on why doing this sort of reading is bad.

What Franzen seems incapable of realizing is that he may perform this reading so readily because his own fiction is so autobiographical, and not in a good way.

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