Much like John Updike’s elegant novels, Jonathan Franzen’s fiction paints a rich portrait of middle America as it copes with its failures, its hidden dreams and its ruptures. While Updike’s doughy men and women live their lives locked in a struggle between faith and doubt, Franzen’s characters suffer through boredom and restlessness. And just as Updike’s stylish essays range widely and smartly over a broad range of topics from golf and art to philosophy and religion, Franzen’s graceful essays range widely over topics from ecology and the origins of the novel to theater and ornithology. In Farther Away, his new collection of essays (most of them written over the past five years), Franzen discusses topics as diverse as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Alice Munro’s exceptional fiction (and the reasons it excels in comparison to most literary fiction) and . . . hornets.
The fullest bodied of the essays show Franzen engaging passionately with texts, people and birds. Woven through the essays, and the focus of at least two of them, are Franzen’s attempts to come to terms with the loss of his good friend, David Foster Wallace. Reflecting on Wallace and the late novelist’s engagement with writing and the world, Franzen observes, “At the level of form and intention, however, this very cataloging of despair about his own authentic goodness is received by the reader as a gift of authentic goodness: we feel love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it.” Wallace’s death brings Franzen out of himself, as does his own commitment to environmentalism.
In the past, Franzen’s arrogance has masked his real passion for good writing and has limited his ability to express his deep appreciation for writing that makes a difference, but in these essays he unveils his appreciations. On Randall Jarrell’s introduction to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Women, Franzen reminds us that we “can read Jarrell’s introduction and be reminded of what outstanding literary criticism used to look like: passionate, personal, fair-minded, thorough, and intended for ordinary readers.” With great force and affection he reminds us that James Purdy “continues to be one of the most undervalued and underread writers in America.”
Even though he etches many of them out of pain and loss, the essays in Farther Away offer delightful, poignant, sometimes humorous glimpses of a writer not only struggling to capture a moment in just the right words but also falteringly embracing his humanity.