Further dispatches from one of contemporary literature’s most dependable talents.
Franzen (Freedom, 2010, etc.) returns with a nonfiction collection that includes book reviews, reportage and personal reflections on such topics as the social scourge of cell phones and the pleasures of bird-watching, but the collection as a whole is haunted by the author’s relationship with David Foster Wallace, a peer similarly lauded for erudition and seriousness of purpose who committed suicide in 2008. Wallace’s suicide provides the emotional ballast for the title essay, an account of Franzen’s sojourn to an impossibly remote island where he hoped to escape the demands of modern technology, see some exceedingly rare birds and scatter the ashes of his dead friend. The piece functions as travelogue, a reckoning with the novel Robinson Crusoe and a howl of despair at the suicide of a friend, and Franzen’s formidable intelligence and literary skill combine these strands into an unforgettably lyrical meditation on solitude and loss. Elsewhere, the author makes impassioned cases for such obscure novels as The Hundred Brothers and The Man Who Loved Children, recounts hair-raising adventures protecting endangered birds on Cyprus from poachers, wrestles with Chinese bureaucracy and the ethical implications of golf and, in a whimsical, digressive faux interview with the state of New York, manages a highly amusing impersonation of Wallace’s lighter work. Franzen can get a bit schoolmarmish and crotchety in his caviling against the horrors of modern society, and he perhaps overestimates the appeal of avian trivia to the general reader, but anyone with an interest in the continued relevance of literature and in engaging with the world in a considered way will find much here to savor.
An unfailingly elegant and thoughtful collection of essays from the formidable mind of Franzen, written with passion and haunted by loss.