The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen was the first “serious”, contemporary novel I ever read of my own volition. I was 16 and was so proud when I bought it that I would bring it to school with me and be sure to make it visible on my desk in English classes with hopes that my teachers would comment on it. To my memory, they never did, but the book had an immense impact on me. I was so thrilled by the fact that I was reading a book meant for old, smart adults, but that I was still picking up on some of the things that made it great. What an amazing experience for a young person to first feel the thrill of being moved and enriched by a novel.
To this day, The Corrections is one of only 3 or 4 books I’ve ever read twice. It is a testament to Franzen’s talents that he can write a novel that spoke powerfully to me as a 16 year old and as a 27 year old (and if its winning of the National Book Award is any indication, older readers as well). He writes incredibly wise, funny and insightful books, but in a language so simple it can be easy to not even notice the weight of what he is doing.
Franzen’s newest release, Farther Away is a collection of essays published from 1998-2012 that includes book reviews, lectures, biographical pieces and shorter experimental work. There is very little to criticize in this book. The essays are so smart, funny, heart-felt and honest that even topics that might not be of interest to many readers, such as bird watching or Chinese industrialization, end up moving and enlightening in surprising ways.
For lovers of fiction, it is great fun to read Franzen’s literary criticism, which makes up a large portion of the book. Whether it’s appropriate or not, Franzen seems to think of himself as one of our culture’s last remaining defenders fiction, and he goes to great lengths to give readers his thoughts on some great, forgotten novels and plenty of eloquent reasoning as to what makes them great and worth our time. By the time readers turn the last page of “Farther Away”, their Amazon wish list will have grown.
As I mentioned, he is also a very funny writer when he wants to be. From an essay on how much Franzen dislikes discussing his literary influences: “According to Mr. Harold Bloom, whose clever theory of literary influence helped him make a career of distinguishing ‘weak’ writers from ‘strong’ writers, I wouldn’t even be conscious of the degree to which I was still laboring in E.M. Forster’s shadow. Only Harold Bloom would be fully conscious of that.”
And also, from an essay on China that includes a trip to the golf course “If you want to feel radiantly white, male, and leisured, you can hardly do better than to trouble an ethnically diverse crowd of working people to step around your golf bags during morning rush hour.”
Franzen is a complex and often frustrating individual. He often comes across as cantankerous and self-absorbed in interviews and some of his writing. In “Farther Away”, however, the reader is exposed to a much more nuanced and thoughtful individual than his anti-Twitter and Kindle rants might indicate.
There IS plenty of ranting in here, but it is almost always couched in a genuine concern for society and its successes. In the opening essay, a transcription of Franzen’s 2011 commencement speechat Kenyon College, he laments the narcissism implicit in Facebook by saying “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors”. He riffs on the insufficiency of the culture of ‘liking’ the social network promotes, imploring readers and listeners to love, not like. And loving is hard, he says,
“There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of… What love is really about is a bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with their struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of yourself.”
A later essay entitled “I Just Called To Say I Love You” also features an apparently cranky rant against cell phone users’ need to loudly exclaim “I love you” to end their public phone conversations. Franzen postulates that this is in part a result of September 11 and the knowledge that loved ones could be taken from suddenly and every call could be the last, but the essay ends with the author remembering the power of his father’s wordless love, that never featured the three words, but did contain a lifetime of actions to let a son know the love was there.
Love is on his mind throughout most of the book, most powerfully so in two essays dedicated to his close friend David Foster Wallace who Franzen remembers he “fell in love with at first sight.” Wallace committed suicide in 2008 and “Farther Away” includes Franzen’s beautiful remarks from Wallace’s funeral as well the title essay that is a 40 page clinic in nonfiction writing that spans travelogue, literary criticism and the author wrestling with his feelings about his friend killing himself. I can think of few pieces of writing I’ve felt more in awe of.
Throughout, Franzen’s rendering of “love” eschews the petty and shallow. Love is seen to be difficult, sacrificial, yet essential and rewarding. In his Kenyon speech he gets to the heart of the matter: without surrender, there is no true love. To describe love in this way—as particular, difficult, sacrificial, something that calls for the giving away of one’s self—is to come dangerously close to articulating the kind of love that the Christian scriptures claim is at the heart of the gospel. Readers who find themselves compelled by the Bible’s unique portrait of a self-giving God will readily hear such echoes throughout Farther Away.
Much like when I first read The Corrections, I finished Farther Away and felt inspired. Highly recommended.