A reader could divide the selections in Farther Away, the latest essay collection by Jonathan Franzen, into two distinct categories: birds and books.
Or, a little more specifically, birders—“birdwatchers,” to those who don’t share the passion—and literary writers. But since the author self-identifies as each, I’d suspect he might reject such duality and instead thematically unite these essays under a single classification:
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For Franzen is a rare bird, one who is both the birdwatcher and the self-proclaimed “literary writer,” and positions himself apart from the culture rather than a part of the culture. The perspective within these provocative essays is from above, or at least to the side, observing and judging, pointing out how and where things went so terribly wrong and occasionally trying to exert a small push toward setting them right.
It’s not a perspective designed to win friends, even if it attempts on occasion to influence people. But likability isn’t a high priority for the novelist who has been accused of (and sometimes admired for) cultural elitism since l’affaire Oprah, when she introduced 2001’s The Corrections to her book-club masses.
If you “imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see?” Franzen asks rhetorically in the collection-opening “Pain Won’t Kill You,” his commencement address last year at Kenyon College. “You see a person without integrity, without a center…If you dedicate your existence to being likable…and you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are.”
And who is Franzen, really?
He’s a writer who treats the obligatory inquiry about influences as a philistine annoyance: “The fact is, at this point in my life, I’m mostly influenced by my own past writing,” he asserts. He then proceeds to catalogue writers whom he’d loved in his 20s, including the usual suspects such as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo and plenty of others, before proclaiming that “to me these various ‘influences’ seem not much more meaningful than the fact that, when I was fifteen, my favorite music group was the Moody Blues.”
(Is this the bravest musical admission a “literary writer” has ever made?)
One of the more fascinating progressions of recent years has been the rise of his popular profile, from obscurity (though his debut, The Twenty-Seventh City, remains one of the more subversively hilarious novels in recent memory) through a popular breakthrough with The Corrections (which will soon reach well beyond its initial readership with an HBO adaptation)—to the follow-up novel that took him from the world of literature to the cover of Time.
Freedom was almost universally hailed as upon its 2010 publication as not only Franzen’s masterpiece but the masterpiece of the young millennium, though some of us still think its predecessor was superior. No matter. With Freedom Franzen enlarged his place in the cultural universe, not occupying nearly as much space as Oprah, of course, but a lot more than any of his contemporaries. You might find greater pleasure in reading Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Dee or one of the other Jonathans, but you had to read Franzen.
And this collection shows why, without apology or concession to cultural consensus. Whether Franzen’s writing about his complicated, competitive friendship with David Foster Wallace, and the anger amid all the other powerful feelings he felt over that author’s suicide, or the joy and significance that birding brings to his own life, one senses that the author is engaging in issues of vital importance to him, whether the culture agrees or not. That he’s engaging with life on life’s terms. And that he’s capable of tying seemingly disparate strands into a coherent whole, in a world of cyber flashes and random impulses that too often seems to lack such coherence.
“When I go looking for new bird species,” he writes, “I’m searching for a mostly lost authenticity, for the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us.”
Of Foster Wallace, he writes, “I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape into the joy of birds and he could not.”
And for the rest of humanity, he writes in that collection-opening commencement address, “The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. The fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact, or, by way of love, you can embrace it.”
This is that a literary writer does: He reminds graduates basking in the sunlight of fresh possibility and new beginnings (“commencement”!) that the eternal darkness of death looms large and near. He reminds us that we’re all an endangered species.
Longtime music journalist Don McLeese is the author of Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, out now, from the University of Texas Press.