The notably unsentimental Jonathan Franzen offers a clear-eyed defense of sentiment in this essay collection.
In the first essay in his new collection, Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen rails against “technocapitalism,” arguing that “consumer-technology products” like the BlackBerry are “great allies and enablers of narcissism.” At this point, such pronouncements are standard Franzen fare: Not a week seems to go by without the author of “The Corrections” and “Freedom” launching a jeremiad against Twitter or bemoaning how Facebook has changed the meaning of “like.” Franzen is American literature’s grouch in chief, and he seems to relish the role.
Given the prickly persona that Franzen cultivates, it may come as a surprise to find that the real subject of “Farther Away” isn’t technocapitalism, but that which it most threatens: love. The collection opens with a defense of love as “bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are”; it ends with Franzen finishing Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters” for the “sixth or seventh time,” finding that the novel retains its power to move him: “suddenly I’m in love all over again.” “Farther Away” is, from beginning to end, a celebration of love: what provokes it and what endangers it, what joys it brings and what terrors it produces.
There is an interesting tension between Franzen’s crisp, clear prose – even intensely self-reflexive passages are crisply, clearly so – and the digressive form his essays often take. The best pieces in “Farther Away” are loose, baggy monsters, combining personal reflection, cultural analysis, and philosophical introspection. (There are also several excellent travel essays.)
“I Just Called to Say I Love You,” an essay that considers the increasing frequency with which people publicly declare “I love you” into their cellphones, is a perfect example. In a mere 20 pages, Franzen manages to shift from a consideration of privacy and technology to a description of the events of Sept. 11 and the “disastrous sentimentalization of American public discourse” that it brought about to a close reading of a love letter his father sent to his mother in 1944. The essay shouldn’t work – there are too many shifts in register and tone – but somehow it does.
Franzen writes that “the one thing that all prose ought to do is make its makers think.” The best essays in this collection don’t just show us Franzen thinking; they force us to think differently, more expansively, as well.
“Farther Away” takes its title from the New Yorker essay in which Franzen first discussed the suicide of his friend the novelist David Foster Wallace. Franzen refuses to see his late friend as the saintly figure he has posthumously been cast as. Wallace’s intractable problem, Franzen believes, the spiritual and psychic bind that he could never think or write his way out of, was that he “never quite felt that he deserved to receive” love. Wallace couldn’t allow himself to feel loved, and so he “killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those who loved him most”. It’s a startlingly candid claim in a startlingly candid essay. Part elegy, part literary criticism, part travelogue (Franzen describes taking some of Wallace’s ashes to “a forbiddingly vertical volcanic island” off the coast of Chile), “Farther Away” is one of the strangest, most powerful documents of mourning that I’ve ever read.
“Farther Away” reveals a kinder Franzen, a writer who has no truck with sentimentality but is a clear-eyed defender of sentiment. At one point, Franzen lists the many things that he is against: “weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence....” The list goes on. But “Farther Away” is such a wonderful collection because of the things Franzen is for – the ennobling effects of love and imaginative experience, our need to escape from the isolated self and journey farther away, toward other places and other people.
Like the best fiction, “Farther Away” charts a way out of loneliness.