THERE’S SO MUCH RAW pain in these gorgeous essays that one understands why many writers rarely leave the house, much less travel to Robinson Crusoe’s island off the coast of central Chile, or to China, or California. Every one of them contains loss — especially the loss of Franzen’s friend David Foster Wallace, whose suicide in 2008 settles like dust in some corner of each essay (Franzen scatters some of DFW’s ashes off the coast of the Chilean island).
Franzen isn’t coy about it — he’s angry that his friend chose to become a legend rather than remain a friend, but mostly you feel how much he misses talking to DFW, trying to make him laugh, trying to convince him to come to parties. Even as Franzen complains about these and other qualities, you can tell how much he misses them and it makes a reader remember how important irritation really is. You scratch things that itch; you make them bleed. This is how Franzen writes — a small itch opens a vein.
For example, the phrase “love you,” with which so many cell phone users end their calls, drives Franzen crazy. (“It makes me want to go and live in China, where I don’t understand the language.”) This leads him to explain how the love of his mother — effusive, sentimental — differed from the love of his father — unspoken, deep: “I feel lucky to have had the dad I did. He loved his kids more than anything. And to know that he felt it and couldn’t say it; to know that he could trust me to know he felt it and never expect him to say it: this was the very core and substance of the love I felt for him. A love that I in turn was careful never to declare out loud to him.”
You get a sense from this passage of how clear and simple much of Franzen’s writing is, but how much weight it carries, how much punch. It looks easy, but is some of the most carefully constructed literature around. He’s careful because he knows firsthand how dangerous the stories we tell about ourselves and the world can be, and how the frames we create become prisons. He treats language with great respect and the reader feels this — manipulated at times but not trifled with. He’s an edge-walker, Franzen, scanning the cultural perimeter and sending out smoke signals. If I were you, I’d pay attention.