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Dispatches from the Island

Luna Dolezal

Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, 352 pp, €16,99, ISBN: 978-0007459513

Jonathan Franzen is well-known as a serious writer of literary fiction, and his last two novels, The Corrections and Freedom, have deservedly launched him to the forefront of American literature. Franzen writes the Great American Novel, employing narrative realism to execute ambitious and expansive plotlines exploring the disintegration of American life ‑ as Franzen sees it ‑ through narratives grounded in the minutiae of ordinary family relationships and suburban life. The novels are full of complex and conflicted characters enmeshed in suffocating mid-Western families and grappling with the most universal of human experiences ‑ shame, guilt, love, betrayal ‑ all of which Franzen describes with engrossing and almost pathological exactness. Beyond his novels, of which there are four, he has published two other works of non-fiction: a collection of essays, How To Be Alone, and an autobiographical book, The Discomfort Zone.

His latest collection of essays, Farther Away, consists of twenty-two essays, reviews and speeches spanning thirteen years. As with his previous collection, he visits an array of topics, always treating his subject matter intelligently, his prose unfailingly precise and personal. Farther Away contains a broad spectrum of writing including lengthy critical book reviews of the work of writers such as Alice Munro, Christina Stead and Frank Wedekind, a playful mock interview with New York State, autobiographical essays and two lengthy eco-travel reportage pieces (on China and Cypus) about his unbashed passion, bird conservation.

Arranged in reverse chronology, the collection starts with Franzen’s commencement address to the class of 2011 at Kenyon College, Ohio, an honour previously awarded to his friend and contemporary David Foster Wallace, whose writing and untimely death inspire two of the best essays in the collection. In this address, “Pain Won’t Kill You”, Franzen is emphatic about what he sees as the emotion-numbing and narcissistic perils of technology: “the ultimate goal of technology,” he argues, “is to replace the natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes ‑ a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts; a world of resistance ‑ with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively a mere extension of the self”. As we become increasingly enamoured with our mobile phones and Facebook profiles, life, Franzen argues, becomes an emotionally sterile and solipsistic love affair with our social media gadgets, an empty narcissism in a Facebookesque “private hall of flattering mirrors”. These entreaties are familiar to readers of his novels and previous essays: turn off your mobile phones, televisions, social media; establish meaningful connections with the natural world; embrace the messiness of real emotions and human relationships; try to love.

In a personal essay, “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, Franzen continues in this vein with what starts off as a hyperbolic tirade against the intrusion of technology into daily life, and in particular mobile phone usage. He positions himself as a disgruntled “grampaw” figure lamenting the collective loss of privacy, quiet public space and the disintegration of simple manners that public mobile phone usage produces. In particular he has a bone to pick with mobile users who end their conversations with the words “I love you”: “I’m talking about the habit, uncommon ten years ago, now ubiquitous, of ending cell-phone conversations by braying the words ‘LOVE YOU!’ Or, even more oppressive and grating: ‘I LOVE YOU!’ It makes me want to go and live in China, where I don’t understand the language”. The essay starts as a playful, fogeyish tirade against “the intrusion of other people’s personal lives” but transforms into a more sombre account of Franzen’s experience in Manhattan on September 11th, ultimately morphing into a touching portrait of his parents. As usual, he writes beautifully about his parents ‑ figures already familiar to his readers as the elderly Enid and Alfred in The Corrections. A Valentine’s letter from his father to his mother is transcribed in full, and Franzen once again reflects on the stoicism of his father and the innocence and optimism of his young mother, culminating in a contemplation of the spoken and unspoken “I love yous” of Franzen family life.

Although the essays and reviews meander through many disparate topics, Franzen reliably orbits around the same themes: family, love, birds, writing and literature. In the much critically discussed and criticised title essay, “Farther Away”, he assembles these themes around the centrepiece of the death of his friend and contemporary David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008. This panoramic essay, printed originally in The New Yorker in April 2011, is an unlikely travelogue, reflecting on boredom, solitude and loss from the rocky outposts of Alejandro Selkirk, a remote Chilean island in the South Pacific. It is written by a weary Franzen posturing as an aspirant Robinson Crusoe, clumsily negotiating the inhospitable landscape of the island in the hopes of sighting the Masafuera rayadito: one of the world’s rarest songbirds. The essay works both literally and metaphorically: survival is writing; the island himself; and the bird ‑ vexingly nearby but never seen head-on ‑ is his grief.

Franzen writes in order to come to terms with Wallace’s suicide, the final act of a man inconsolably marooned, as Franzen sees it, on an island of depression, boredom and despair. Wallace, on the “farthest-away island”, communicated to the “mainland” of other people through his writing: “lonely dispatches” of “urgent and fresh and honest news”. When he lost hope for writing, Franzen posits, “there was no other way out but death”. Here, Franzen inextricably links writing to survival, to that which sustains life and keeps boredom and demise at bay, a Robinson Crusoe-like industriousness which furnishes the means to see beyond the shores of the islands we each of us inhabit alone. Franzen’s particular island is decidedly inhospitable, consisting of sheer cliff faces and treacherous mountains blanketed by disorienting fog and pelted by constant rain. Occasionally the clouds part and he catches a glimpse of a dazzling vista of sky and sea, but for the most part his head is down and the goal is simply survival: surviving boredom, depression and loss.

He arrives at the island without distractions ‑ no tobacco, alcohol or computer ‑ and with a matchbox filled with Wallace’s ashes, bestowed to him by his widow as he is departing. The trip becomes more than just chasing a rare bird species (“the only activity that I could absolutely count on not to bore me”) and turns into a means to realise a promise to himself to face up to Wallace’s suicide (“that, after I’d finished my book project, I would allow myself to feel more than fleeting grief and enduring anger at David’s death”). What follows is a panorama of musings: a thumbnail history of the novel; autobiographical reflections on solitude, identity and writing; a portrait of his father; travel reportage; reflections on Wallace and friendship; a book report on Robinson Crusoe; meditations on suicide and grief.

The essay is solemn and honest. The varied reflections culminate in an ashes-scattering moment ‑ a self-consciously mechanical redemption-delivering climax to the essay ‑ which Franzen, shaken from a disorienting hike through blinding fog, executes so incompetently that it fails to deliver the effectuation of his grief, which like the rayadito, remains elusive: “I was doing a lot of different things at every moment. Even as I was crying, I was also scanning the ground for the missing piece of my tent, and taking my camera out of my pocket and trying to capture the celestial beauty of the light and the landscape, and damning myself for doing this when I should have been purely mourning, and telling myself that it was okay that I’d failed in my attempt to see the rayadito in what would surely be my only visit to the island ‑ that it was better this way, that it was time to accept finitude and incompleteness and leave certain birds forever unseen.”.

Passages like these reveal the charm of Franzen’s non-fiction writing, the blending of his own flawed character ‑ he is admittedly competitive, moody, opinionated, pedantic ‑ and modest biography ‑ a suburban upbringing, an overprotective mother, a failed marriage, bouts of depression ‑ with honest and insightful reflections on literature, love, society and life. Indeed, this essay is Franzen at his best, writing in the precise and personal prose which gives the impression he is speaking directly to you, communicating with you in private as an affable, though discontented, friend. Although we may not always agree with Franzen ‑ he has been heavily criticised for his views on experimental writing and his comments in this essay about Wallace’s suicide ‑ or even like him, it is hard to fault him for his honesty, nor is it easy to fault his writing: he is undoubtedly a skilful and intelligent writer. This collection is further testament to this fact. Franzen writes for his readers, but he also writes for himself, and through the essays, speeches and reviews of Farther Away it is a pleasure to follow him doing his best to make sense of his world and his life, through writing and a love of literature.

Luna Dolezal is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin.