MAY 27, 2012
WHEN JONATHAN FRANZEN PUBLISHED his first essay collection, How to Be Alone, in 2002, he was not yet the nation’s foremost novelist. He hadn’t appeared on the cover of Time, hadn’t been invited to the White House, hadn’t been interviewed by the Paris Review, wasn’t a wellspring of debate about what the 21st-century novel ought to be. The Corrections had appeared the previous year, making Franzen a very bright literary star, but he was part of a constellation that had begun to coalesce before 9/11. When The Corrections was published, David Foster Wallace was still alive, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay had been on shelves for a year, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex wouldn’t arrive for twelve months.
The intervening decade has poignantly dimmed that constellation. Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), while favorably reviewed, hardly had the culture-marshaling feel of Kavalier & Clay. (A new novel, Telegraph Avenue, is scheduled for September). Eugenides followed Middlesex last year with The Marriage Plot, a book that prompted interesting essays about the rise of theory in English departments — essays that proved more interesting than the novel, which rested upon a two-legged love triangle. And Wallace, of course, took his own life in 2008, amidst his struggles to match the titanic accomplishment of Infinite Jest.
Subtle alterations in the nation’s literary tectonics; the continued erosion of its attention span; a single, devastating suicide: these circumstances prepared the ground in such a way that when Franzen published Freedom in 2010, the inevitable consequence was his designation as the most important American author of his generation, alone able to command critical and scholarly attention, find a mass readership, and inhabit a role as a public intellectual. Chabon, Eugenides, and Wallace all claimed at least one of these three laurels at some point in their careers, but Freedom marked Franzen as the only American author who could maintain a hold on all three.
It also bespoke a new, almost imperceptible direction in his fiction, a sobriety present but not fully realized in The Corrections. Freedom drew on many of the same elements as the earlier novel: the comic tale of a family torn between the Midwest and the East Coast, the structure of interlocking novellas, the generous helping of social commentary. But it jettisoned the vestiges of Pynchonesque conspiracy from Franzen’s earlier work that lingered in The Corrections: its language was less self-consciously brilliant, and it took significant steps into the realm of tragedy. Like The Corrections, Franzen spends most of Freedom in an arch-satiric mood, submitting his characters to brutal scrutiny before shifting to a register of lyrical, redemptive comedy in the last hundred pages. In The Corrections, however, that redemption comes more unequivocally than in Freedom — its characters’ growth is more distinctly secured, their future happiness more readily imagined. Though Freedom ends in comedy, it is a decidedly elegiac strain of comedy. It is as if, at the novel’s end, Franzen picks up the shards of the world we’ve watched crumble for the previous 600 pages — all of the adultery and betrayal and self-deception and ecological disaster and bad Bush Administration foreign policy — and makes no effort to reassemble them, daring his audience to love in spite of such wastage. What is satisfyingly restored in The Corrections is not so easily put together again in Freedom.
Franzen’s new essay collection, Farther Away, stands in roughly the same relation to How to Be Alone. Like the novel it followed, How to Be Alone had the uncompromising coherence of a Statement. Its essays form a phalanx of argument, most of them from the years predating The Corrections, when Franzen was laboring in Harper’s and The New Yorker to carve the intellectual space for the kind of novel he wanted to write. Its unity is admirable, its purposiveness formidable: even a reported piece on the failings of the Chicago Post Office touches upon the disintegration of communal institutions and the consequential loneliness of modern life. Despite the soft landing that ends “Why Bother?” — the revised version of “Perchance to Dream,” Franzen’s infamous meditation on the social novel in Harper’s — How to Be Alone is an angry book, and also a brilliant one, announcing Franzen as a novelist-cum-social thinker in the tradition of Bellow and Mailer.
Farther Away carries little of that fighting spirit. This is not to say that it isn’t an excellent, passionate book. But it’s a much looser collection than How to Be Alone — an assemblage, really, of the trappings that come with being dubbed your generation’s major novelist. Among its contents are eight introductions to other works, two lectures, a commencement address, and a eulogy. Franzen’s position in literary debates is by now well staked — engrossing plots and characters are king — and here he maintains his ground with characteristic intelligence and earnestness. The social concerns remain largely unchanged — private life’s encroachment on the public sphere, technology’s intrusion on both public and private life, the necessity of reading and writing in a distracted age — with the exception of birds, a preoccupation first seen in Franzen’s 2006 memoir. But what distinguishes Franzen’s treatment of these matters in Farther Away is the frequency with which he appeals to love. Not that Franzen was previously an unloving writer: I would argue that rarely has an author shown as much love for his characters than in the final section of The Corrections, and How to Be Alone contained “My Father’s Brain” and “Meet Me In St. Louis,” heroic acts of empathy for difficult parents. But love now suffuses Franzen’s writing as it hasn’t before, in a manner intertwined with his newly tragicomic outlook. As the world outside of Franzen’s window grows grimmer — as America’s politics become more dysfunctional, digitization more irrevocable, humanity’s adverse effects on the planet more profound — his writing has increasingly located salvation in turning to the worthiest thing you can find and loving the hell out of it.
In Farther Away, this necessary message unfolds in ways both estimable and problematic, and the complications all arise from Franzen’s chosen objects of love. The collection’s opening essay, “Pain Won’t Kill You” — a commencement address delivered last year at Kenyon College — argues that consumer technology, with its promise of a painless, responsive world, “is incompatible with loving relationships.” It’s a veritable call to log off Facebook, go outside, and love something. Just listen to the conclusion:
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might end up loving some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?
This is a noble message to share with young college graduates, sensible and impassioned, leavened with Franzen’s characteristically rueful humor. But all of Farther Away’s tensions are lurking in this passage, in that conjunctive phrase — “or even just real animals.”
Franzen is referring to birds. He writes that after years of very angrily worrying about the environment, he decided, in the interest of his own well being, to ignore the plight of the natural world. But then he “fell in love” with birds, and he began attending to Mother Nature once again. “And here’s where a curious paradox emerged,” Franzen writes:
My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face it became, strangely, easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.
Birds, like all living things, deserve care and concern and, yes, love. But the love that birds require is vastly different from the love required by human beings; yet Franzen sets up an equivalence between the two. Before the essay’s avian section, Franzen writes, “What love is really about is bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit is real as you are.” Bottomless empathy for another human being is difficult enough, as Franzen demonstrates at length. But another person can try to return that empathy, can join you in love’s struggle, can risk as much pain for you as you can risk for them. Birds can do none of these things. Loving them is wonderful, but it’s no substitute for, as Franzen says (quoting Alice Sebold), “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.”
As often as Franzen makes this case in Farther Away, he can never quite surmount the barrier of substitution, of mediation. This is not a failing of Franzen’s so much as it’s an ineluctable consequence of the relationship he envisions between writing and love. As Garth Risk Hallberg observed in The New York Times in January 2012, writers like Franzen, Wallace, and Zadie Smith have proposed that the purpose of fiction is to assuage loneliness — an appealing but uneasy hypothesis. In Farther Away, many of Franzen’s most compelling and knotty statements about love are found in passages about writing’s communal possibilities, particularly in the two essays devoted to David Foster Wallace. In the eulogy that Franzen gave at Wallace’s memorial service, he says, “For most of the time I knew Dave, the most intense interaction I had with him was sitting alone in my armchair, night after night, for ten days, and reading the manuscript of Infinite Jest.” This shouldn’t be a surprising statement, given Wallace’s immense talent, the difficulties of befriending such a brilliant and disturbed individual, and Franzen and Wallace’s by now well-documented theses on the purpose of fiction:
Dave loved details for their own sake, but details were also an outlet for the love bottled up in his heart: a way of connecting, on relatively safe middle ground, with another human being. Which was, approximately, the description of literature that he and I came up with in our conversations and correspondence in the early nineties.
A paragraph later, he continues: “But that ‘neutral middle ground on which to make a deep connection with another human being’: this, we decided, was what fiction was for. ‘A way out of loneliness was the formulation we agreed to agree on.’”
Even so, Franzen’s disclosure about reading Infinite Jest startles. Fiction as “a neutral middle ground”: it sits uncomfortably against the admonition to “get into the pit and love someone,” against the belief (expressed in the essay “On Autobiographical Fiction”) that literature is not worth reading or writing “unless the writer is personally at risk.” What kind of connection, exactly, is forged on the page of the novel? When Franzen was reading Infinite Jest, Wallace was present only in the form of language — powerful and revealing, yes, but also slippery, and, in light of Wallace’s ultimate fate, safe. In many of the ways Farther Away so strenuously advocates, Wallace was absent.
In the collection’s title essay — a magisterial meditation on boredom, the novel, and Wallace’s death that unfolds on the island of Masafuera (literally, “farther away”), where Alexander Selkirk, the basis for Robinson Crusoe, was marooned — Franzen provides another scene from their friendship which, while perhaps less intense than being engrossed in Infinite Jest, is certainly more suggestive of “bottomless empathy”:
In the summer before [Wallace] died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was learning the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontent to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.
Add to this Franzen’s implication that Wallace’s suicide was motivated in part by a craving for literary sainthood — “… [I]t was still hard not to feel wounded by the part of him that had chosen the adulation of strangers over the love of people closest to him” — and you end up with an argument against literature as a conduit for interpersonal relationships.
The tension among Franzen’s statements about Wallace maps onto the conflict at the heart of the notion of loving through literature. There’s no denying that part of literature’s power rests in its ability to make the reader feel less alone, whether by confirming her sense that there’s more to life than the age’s conventional wisdom allows for, or by simply assuring the reader that her experience is not so unique — that other human beings have felt as futile or as exalted, as hideous or as sublime as she. But a sense of alienation creates many readers and writers in the first place, as Franzen observed in “Why Bother?,” where he distinguishes between the nerd’s anti-sociability and the reader’s “displaced sociability,” a distinction that strikes me as at best self-justificatory. In both instances, a human being finds in the imagination the sustaining community that eludes them in other human beings.
Any attempt to cast literature’s ultimate purpose as the easing of loneliness eventually runs into a single, qualified response: “Yes, to a point.” Even the most isolated reader, for all the solace they take in books, at some point finds that imaginative community insufficient; they miss company. What Franzen knows (yet often writes around) is what anyone who’s tried to fill a blank page with a true distillation of all of their hopes and fears and longings also knows: that the written word is a powerful but flawed way to love. Whether you’re the writer at the desk or the reader on the subway, you’re alone.
Obviously, I believe this solitude is often a good thing. I think Franzen is right in his contention that the seclusion afforded by literature only gains importance as mass media devises easier and shallower ways to amuse us. If it’s frustrating how often in Farther Away the case for literature as escape from loneliness gets tangled in its own logic, the number of times that Franzen crystallizes fiction’s palliative capacities is equally impressive. In a virtuosic review of Alice Munro’s Runaway, Franzen says that Munro’s work “puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death.” Writing about Christina Stead’s uncanny knowledge of family life, he contends that “telling the story of this inner life is what novels, and only novels, are for.” Considering Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, he celebrates its assault on mankind’s default egocentrism:
The Hundred Brothers speaks for all of us because we all inescapably feel ourselves to be the special center of our private worlds. It’s a funny novel and a sad novel because this natural solipsism of ours is belied — rendered both ridiculous and tragic — by our ties of love and kinship to private worlds that we are not necessarily the center of.
This praise beautifully echoes the conclusion of “On Autobiographical Fiction,” in which Franzen recalls nervously awaiting his brother’s reaction to serving as the inspiration for some of the more heavily satirized attributes of Gary Lambert, a character in The Corrections. A friend chides Franzen’s anxiety (“Do you think your brother’s life revolves around you?”) — accurately, it turns out. His brother, Franzen reports,
has since gone on, when talking to his friends about the book, to make no secret of the resemblance. He has his own life, with its own trials and satisfactions, and having a writer for a brother is just another piece of his own story. We love each other dearly.
This sort of ruthless and comic self-examination is foremost among Franzen’s many strengths, and it’s also a virtue he prizes in other writers. In the same essay, regarding Kafka’s unblinking gaze, he writes, “It’s not enough to love your characters, and it’s not enough to be hard on your characters: you always have to try to be doing both at the same time.” This ability distinguishes Franzen’s fiction, but he’s just as adept at probing persons from his life in Farther Away. The portions of the title essay devoted to Wallace reveal a depth of hurt that is often searing to read:
… his actual character was more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, and … he was more lovable — funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies — than the benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint that had been made of him.
Elsewhere, Franzen subjects his parents’ 1944 Valentine’s Day letters to a heartbreaking close reading. It’s a wonder of sympathetic humor, a gentle taxonomy of his parents’ mismatched union that’s all the more incredible for being tucked at the end of “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” one of the collection’s weaker pieces. There isn’t space here to discuss it fully, but suffice it to say that Franzen has learned from Kafka’s example of merciless love.
It’s the maturing ability of Franzen’s vision to encompass both the good and the grotesque that’s behind his move to a more forlorn brand of comedy, the hopeless hope that lends his recent writings their emotional force. In “Authentic But Horrible,” his take on Franz Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening, Franzen makes known just how thin a boundary he perceives between comedy and tragedy:
To laugh well at humanity, both at your own humanity and that of others, you have to be as distant and unsparing as if you’re writing tragedy. Unlike tragedy, though, comedy doesn’t require a grand moral scheme. Comedy is the more rugged genre and the one better suited to godless times. Comedy requires only that you have a heart that can recognize other hearts.
Here, then, is why Franzen prefers comedy: it’s the only mode that can withstand his pessimism. Franzen’s writing is often gloomy; in his work, the gods have long since vacated Olympus. In the delightful “Interview with New York State,” a mock Q&A in which Franzen imagines navigating layers of handlers before getting a few moments with the Empire State herself, he recounts his failure to find the hillside in Orange County where he and his wife were married:
The best I could do was narrow it to two hillsides. The same thing was happening on both of them. Building-size pieces of earth-moving equipment were scraping it all bare. […] I could see the whole gray and lukewarm future. No urban. No rural. The entire country just a wasteland of shittily built neither-nor.
Reporting on China’s unbridled industrialization, Franzen describes that what at first looks like progress is in fact “simple lateness: the sadness of modernity, the period of prolonged unsettling illumination before nightfall.” A section of his dispatch on bird poaching in Italy and Cyprus begins, “The blue of the Mediterranean isn’t pretty to me anymore.” Franzen can’t help but give voice to his despair, but neither does he give it the last word, choosing to place his faith in the ruggedness of comedy, in mankind’s ability to persist in a broken world. In the China essay, Franzen tellingly gives the conclusion to a young man named Shrike, a local birdwatcher:
“To see something being destroyed and not be able to do anything about it, it’s sad sometimes,” Shrike said to me. We were standing by a badly polluted river outside Nanjing, surveying a landscape of new factories in what had been wetland two years earlier. But there was still a small area that hadn’t been developed, and Shrike wanted me to see it.
As a writer, Franzen functions like Shrike. The things that matter most to him — the public sphere, literary fiction, any number of avian species — all appear to be on a dishearteningly fast track to relichood. But he’s determined to show them to us while he can.
Because it always returns to love, I suspect that some will charge that Farther Away is a work of hollow piety. Since 2005, when Ben Marcus painted Franzen in Harper’s as a reactionary who would destroy the avant-garde, he has been dogged by critics who contend that he “merely” writes bourgeois realist novels — as if The Corrections and Freedom were not deeply original works but instead books that John Updike would’ve eventually gotten around to writing. Sadly, Wallace’s suicide only deepened the antagonists’ sense of grievance, the crude subtext being that it was the truly gifted visionary who hung himself, leaving American literature with a pretender who writes beautiful, obsolete sentences.
This is an exaggerated account — but only by a little. Franzen is a successful male author with strong opinions, ensuring that he will anger large swaths of the reading population. His post-Freedom ascendancy has only stiffened the opposition. Even his defenders do him few favors: Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner aren’t likely to be appeased by Bret Easton Ellis telling the Paris Review that “The Corrections and Freedom are the two best novels that came out of my generation, so man up and deal with it, guys.”
Ellis’s heavily gendered apologia is unfortunate, and Franzen’s generation has produced several exceptional novels. Still, I’m sympathetic to the spirit of Ellis’s remark. Franzen’s preeminence has been met in many quarters with the kind of grumbling acquiescence that once accompanied the crowning of usurpers, a fact that baffles me. Farther Away is a reminder not only of Franzen’s greatness as a sentence-by-sentence writer, but also of how much he cares about literature. This has always been true of Franzen, but his rise to a position where his opinion actually carries some clout only seems to have made him care more. Is he still prone to boneheaded statements? Absolutely. Does his writing still occasionally lapse into infuriating liberal self-righteousness? Yes. (Even the softer clime of Farther Away contains “Comma-Then,” a needlessly petty bit of grammar snobbery.) Is he the most wildly exciting formal innovator American letters have ever produced? No.
But neither is Franzen a consolation prize for being a reader in the digital age. He is, rather, exactly the writer that that age demands: inured to the inexorable logic of capitalistic progress, resigned to entropy, but never anything other than profoundly humane. In “On Autobiographical Fiction,” Franzen discusses the imperative for modern writers to put themselves at risk:
This seems to me all the more true in an age where there are so many fun and inexpensive things a reader can do besides picking up a novel. As a writer, nowadays, you owe it to your readers to set yourself the most difficult challenge that you have some hope of being equal to. With every book, you have to dig as deep as possible and reach as far as possible. And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that the next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have to dig even deeper and reach even farther, or else, again, it won’t be worth writing. And what this means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book.
One of the great pleasures of both Freedom and Farther Away is witnessing Franzen’s attempt at living up to that imperative. Both books point to a writer wrestling with his own faults and limitations, and with the faults and limitations of his chosen medium. To sacrifice so much of yourself for art; to try to give readers hope amidst so much grim news about the novel; to try, as Franzen writes, “to return the gift that other people’s fiction represents for you” — these things look a lot like love. We should be grateful.