Book review: Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen's attitude to the suicide of a friend reeks of self-aggrandisement. ''Picture: Rex Features
Franzen's attitude to the suicide of a friend reeks of self-aggrandisement. ''Picture: Rex Features
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The author of The Corrections is in a petulant mood throughout this sad collection of essays

FARTHER AWAY

BY Jonathan Franzen

Fourth Estate, 324pp, £16.99

Non-fiction books, in particular collections of essays, by writers known mostly for their novels, are a curious subcategory of literature. Like every genre, it has its classics: Stevenson’s Memories and Portraits, for example, or Woolf’s The Death Of The Moth. Although there has been a tendency of late for publishers to slap a jacket around an assortment of reviews, introductions, occasional pieces, reminiscence and lectures and present it as if it were a coherent and cogent work, the genre still has its exceptional voices: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind and Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy Of Influence spring to mind.

What readers are hoping for in such a book is a combination of disparate factors. Part of it is the author’s style, their particular handling of the sentence: a reader who enjoyed the rebarbative pyrotechnics of Martin Amis’s Money would find the same smart snarl in The Moronic Inferno. Part is the intrinsic interest in the matters under discussion. It is thanks to Geoff Dyer’s Working the Room that I first heard of the art of Idris Khan, and AS Byatt’s On Histories and Stories offered me new ways of understanding the renaissance of the historical novel.

Together, these aspects of interests hint at the real reason for reading the non-fiction of novelists. There is a suspicion – a suspicion at once confirmed, eluded, tantalised and frustrated – that such books might offer insights into the author’s creative endeavours. Not the key to unlock the novels, nor the precise frequency to tune into them, but some image or aim or antecedent or metaphor that enriches the ideal reading of their novels.

If nothing else, Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away is revealing, though not always in an especially pleasant way. His previous sally in this field was the 2002 How To Be Alone which included an expanded version of the notorious essay from Harper’s, “Perchance to Dream”, now retitled “Why Bother?”, and, in the paperback version, its pendant, “Mr Difficult”. These pieces are basically manifestoes, and detail Franzen’s decision to forgo the style and influences of his first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, in favour of a modernised traditional realism or the “Big Social Novel”. The Harper’s essay came out long before (and How To Be Alone hot on the heels of) Franzen’s delivery of the creative manifestation of the essayistic promise: The Corrections.

The debate hangs over this book like a Christmas wreath on 6th January, spiky and slightly faded, and there is nothing in the book to compare, in terms of provocation and thinking, with the earlier versions. It is in the background to his lecture “On Autobiographical Fiction”, his commencement address to Kenyon College, his reviews of Alice Munro and Paula Fox, and the title essay. There are also some more instalments of his bird-watching hobby and a few squibs – one on New York for the anthology State By State, a brief recollection of house-sitting, a reprimand to those who use the construction “comma-then” – which to call make-weights would be to grant too much substance.

There is a tone throughout of testy tiredness which seems almost determined to alienate the audience. “On Autobiographical Fiction” begins “I’m going to begin by addressing four unpleasant questions that novelists often get asked at an event like this. These questions are apparently the price we pay for the pleasure of appearing in public”. These questions [on influences, working patterns, characters “taking over” and the use of personal experience] are “disturbingly personal and invasive”, “raise my blood pressure”, make him “feel as if my powers of imagination are being challenged”. I nearly dropped the book at the hauteur of one of his answers: “the fact is, at this point in my life, I’m mostly influenced by my own past writing”. This seems to encapsulate the paradoxical solipsism of the supposedly “social novelist”. The reader may well wince at some of the more blatant misanthropy. A tirade against mobile phones (where Franzen unconvincingly interjects “Grampaw” as if to satirise his position, but in fact to conceal its sourness) begins by stating that privacy is “about sparing me from the intrusion of other people’s personal lives”. But the pitch of Thersitean rage comes later. “I’m talking about the habit, uncommon ten years ago, now ubiquitous, of ending cell-phone conversations by braying the words “I LOVE YOU”… I simply do not, while buying socks at the Gap, or standing in a ticket line and pursuing my private thoughts, or trying to read a novel on a plane that’s being boarded, want to be imaginatively drawn into the sticky world of some nearby human being’s home life”. Such people, Franzen claims, are “socially retarded”.

Between How To Be Alone and this sad, petulant book, Franzen’s friend David Foster Wallace committed suicide. The suicide informs two pieces, one a eulogy from the funeral, the other the book’s eponymous article.

In “Farther Away”, Franzen is frazzled from his hectic publicity schedule and decides to go to Masafuera, the island where Alexander Selkirk, the prototype of Robinson Crusoe, was shipwrecked. He is going to see some rare birds, to re-read Defoe and to scatter a matchbox-full of Wallace’s ashes. In a way, all the books themes coalesce in this one piece.

That Franzen is angry with Wallace is understandable; that he finds the cultic hagiography reductive and erroneous, equally so. No doubt DT Max’s forthcoming biography will provide a more rounded picture, complete with Franzen’s observations that Wallace was “childishly transparent in his lies”, and aware of the “extremes of his own narcissism, misogyny, compulsiveness, self-deception, dehumanising moralism and theologizing, doubt in the possibility of love, and entrapment in footnotes-within-footnotes self-consciousness”. Humans, as both social and avant-garde novelists know, are complicated entities.

There is a level of self-aggrandisement in Franzen’s statement that whereas he could empathise with Wallace’s suicidal feelings, Wallace could not appreciate his joy in birdwatching; and when these differences are transposed into the domain of aesthetics, it becomes decidedly queasy. The piece ends with Franzen reading Defoe’s near-contemporary Samuel Richardson and thrilling at the “sex and class conflicts … the realistic power of this story”, which is “groundbreaking” compared to the “radical individualism” of Defoe – and to stress the point, he points out the latter had been a “fruitful subject” for Wallace. Richardson confirms Franzen in his own decisions and acts as a rebuke to the self-destructive abyss of the alternative. You do not have to have read Roland Barthes’ “The Death Of The Author” to think that suggesting a link between Wallace’s suicide and his literary decisions is tenuous at best, distasteful at worst.

The overwhelming tone of Farther Away is defensive and disdainful, perhaps exacerbated by Franzen’s insistence that he is interested in what the novel and the novel alone can say – in which case, why this? When Franzen snaps that people go to “integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likeable”, you can hear him tighten the cilice to his thigh.