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Jonathan Franzen Essays

A Huffington Post Best Book of the Year A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year Jonathan Franzen s Freedom was the runaway most discussed novel of 2010 an ambitious and searching engagement with life in America in the twenty first century In The New York Times Book Review Sam Tanenhaus proclaimed it a masterpiece of American fiction and lauded its illumination through the steady radiance of its author s profound moral intelligence of the world we thought we knew In Farther Away which gathers together essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years Franzen returns with renewed vigor to the themes both human and literary that have long preoccupied him Whether recounting his violent encounter with bird poachers in Cyprus examining his mixed feelings about the suicide of his friend and rival David Foster Wallace or offering a moving and witty take on the ways that technology has changed how people express their love these pieces deliver on Franzen s implicit promise to conceal nothing On a trip to China to see first hand the environmental devastation there he doesn t omit mention of his excitement and awe at the pace of China s economic development the trip becomes a journey out of his own prejudice and moral condemnation Taken together these essays trace the progress of unique and mature mind wrestling with itself with literature and with some of the most important issues of our day Farther Away is remarkable provocative and necessary Acclaimed literary novelist Franzen gathers together essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years The results document the progress of a mature mind wrestling with literature and with some of the most important issues of our day In this incisive collection of speeches and essays Jonathan Franzen returns with renewed vigor to the themes both human and literary that have long preoccupied him Whether recalling his violent encounter with bird poachers in Cyprus examining his f

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As we should all know by now, Jonathan Franzen is a serious writer who plays for the highest literary stakes, who is uncomfortable with American TV consumerism, and whose last two novels, “The Corrections” and “Freedom,” have legitimately catapulted him to the front ranks of American fiction. Less known is that he has also published three nonfiction books, “How to Be Alone” (essays), “The Discomfort Zone” (a short memoir) and, now, a second essay collection, “Farther Away.”

The nonfiction of pre-eminent novelists is bound to fascinate, shedding light on their mentality and fictional practice, even if such authors seem to be giving less than full energy to this second-choice genre. Saul Bellow, for instance, wrote magnificently essayistic fiction, but his actual essays pale by comparison; similarly, John Updike was an ever-graceful critic, but few of his nonfiction pieces stir the blood the way his short stories or novels can. There have been exceptions, of course, including Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence or, in our own day, J. M. Coetzee and Cynthia Ozick. Most dyed-in-the-wool novelists, however, do not excel at the essay, for good reason: they are wired otherwise. And so we come to Franzen’s latest collection, which, while not nearly as strong as his novels, still has its attractions, as might be expected from so insightful and resourceful a writer.

The book begins with a commencement address, “Pain Won’t Kill You,” which may be summarized as: Get past your adolescent brooding; turn off your narcissism-promoting social media; drag yourself out of your room; engage with the natural world (he chose birds) and your fellow human beings; try to love, and embrace the hurt and messiness that love entails. This message, delivered in a casual colloquial style to the graduating class and in a more urgent manner elsewhere, runs through the essay collection. The author is not shy about preaching simple morality; he can be both hedgehog and fox, and here he is often the hedgehog, with convictions born out of a personal crisis and the lessons learned. That crisis, which he discusses freely in these pages, stemmed from the failure of his youthful marriage and his attendant depression, guilt and shame. His overcoming the anguish successfully is reproduced here in what we might call a Healing Narrative.

It is no accident that the graduation speech was presented at Kenyon College, the very same venue where David Foster Wallace had given his famous commencement address several years previously. These pages are haunted by Wallace, whose suicide hit the author, his good friend, hard. In the title essay, Franzen goes off to an island in the South Pacific Ocean to bird-watch, to recoup his sense of identity after a grueling, boring book tour — and to allow himself to feel, by imposed isolation, the fullness of grief that he had been keeping at bay. Wallace’s widow, Karen, has given the author some of her husband’s ashes to distribute on that beautiful island. Though Franzen mocks himself for playing at Robinson Crusoe, this is essentially a solemn, somber essay, and a flawed one — too attenuated for the redemption it mechanically delivers (mission accomplished: he cries and sprinkles the ashes), too truncated to process all the murky emotions that lie beneath the surface.

“Once, when we were driving near Stinson Beach, in California, I’d stopped to give him a telescope view of a long-billed curlew, a species whose magnificence is to my mind self-evident and revelatory. He looked through the scope for two seconds before turning away with patent boredom. ‘Yeah,’ he said with his particular tone of hollow politeness, ‘it’s pretty.’ In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was learning the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.”

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