Age of anxiety

Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$26, 336 pages

It must be somewhat galling to be Jonathan Franzen. You’re the author of the critically acclaimed and bestselling novels The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) that bookend the first decade of the 21st century like colossi. You’re one of the few authors to appear on the cover of Time magazine; even Oprah likes you (although you have mixed feelings about her). Yet just as you’ve hit your literary peak, you find that the book itself is under attack from a mixture of ironic detachment, electronic gizmos and an increasingly distracted population dosed up on an omnipresent culture of low-brow entertainment.

Franzen is not unaware of his plight. In this collection of essays, book reviews and speeches from the past 14 years, the state of the novel is at the forefront of his thoughts. In the first essay in the book, “Pain Won’t Kill You”, he describes how the novel’s most profound innovation was allowing us to experience “a made-up story purely for pleasure”. This eventually engendered the deluge of fictional storytelling across multiple media that, ironically, has led to the book being “at risk of no longer being needed”.

Franzen equates serious literature with jet engines and other products that are simply themselves “and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it”. We do not ask a jet engine to be comprehensible to the average mind, why should we ask that of a novel? This insistence may seem surprising given the remarkable accessibility of Franzen’s own novels but he clearly sees himself as a keeper of the flame.

Franzen’s suspicion of the narcissism of modern electronic devices is key to his embattled philosophy. As he puts it: “Our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship.” This assertion is part of a general unease pervading his essays that people are not acting seriously enough. A whiff of caustic superiority floats over the essays, coating everything but his true passions in disdain. Franzen is too self-aware not to realise he can sound like a prig, one of a horde of “cranky 51-year-olds” dissing social media. This doesn’t mean he isn’t one.

Those who are familiar with Franzen’s work will be familiar with his concerns – the importance of real human relationships unmediated by technology, the disintegration of relationships (most noticeably his own), the parlous state of the environment, and his all-consuming love for birdwatching, which has taken the place of a religious conversion in his life. But overriding this collection, in particular the title essay (originally written for the New Yorker in 2011), is the ghost of his friend and rival, the writer David Foster Wallace.

Wallace committed suicide in 2008 after suffering from depression for many years. He and Franzen had jousted for literary supremacy over the past two decades with Wallace winning the early skirmishes with the publication of his immense and experimental Infinite Jest (1996). Since Wallace died, his reputation has soared. This has proved troubling to Franzen.

Franzen’s wish to criticise the cult that has grown up around Wallace is understandable yet his need to reclaim his friend by reasserting various unpleasant aspects of Wallace’s character cannot help but seem churlish. Indeed, much of Franzen’s more recent non-fiction speaks of an annoyance with other people. For all his liberal sentiments, the now firmly middle-aged Franzen is something of a nostalgia-ridden conservative. He wants to curb invasive plants and intrusive technologies, and he wants to preserve wildfowl nesting grounds and paper-bound books.

Interestingly, the essays in this book are printed in reverse chronological order. We move from the Franzen of 2011 back to the lesser known writer of 1998. As we do so a strange effect comes into play. His huffy attacks on Broadway musicals and the misplacement of commas are replaced by loving book reviews and pellucid memory pieces. The tone becomes lighter, the anxiety recedes somewhat and the older, grouchier Franzen seems to slip away to be replaced by a younger, more enthusiastic, less doubting soul. The last essay in the book, a review of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, almost bursts off the page with joy. “I’m in love all over again,” he declares upon rereading it. For once, it’s hard not to like him.

George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers Press)

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