Essays are an acquired taste. We read them for insights into subjects that interest us. We look for information about issues, places or people we want to know more about. Or we may be drawn to writers whose prose we like. Jonathan Franzen is best known as a novelist who won the 2001 National Book Award for “The Corrections” and was featured on the cover of Time after his last novel, “Freedom,” came out in 2010. But he also writes nonfiction. “Farther Away” is his second collection of essays, and is dominated by his twin passions — fiction and birding.
The title essay — the best in the bunch and one of the better essays you may read — addresses both topics. In this long piece first published in The New Yorker, Franzen recounts his journey to an island 500 miles off the coast of central Chile that is “populated by millions of seabirds and thousands of fur seals but is devoid of people.” The island is officially named Alejandro Selkirk, but locals use its original name, Masafuera, or Farther Away.
Franzen takes a copy of Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” based on the experiences of a Scottish seaman named Alexander Selkirk. He then deftly combines these elements and the death of his good friend David Foster Wallace, the writer who committed suicide in 2008, to reflect on the nature of love.
Addressing Wallace’s mental illness and pathological self-involvement, Franzen writes: “How easy and natural love is if you are well! And how gruesomely difficult — what a philosophically daunting contraption of self-interest and self-delusion love appears to be — if you are not!” He goes on to show how Defoe showed us how sick and crazy radical individualism really is. “No matter how carefully we defend our selves,” Franzen writes, “all it takes is one footprint of another real person to recall us to the endlessly interesting hazards of living relationships.”
The 22 essays are presented in reverse chronological order, from 2011 to 1998. Many are reviews or appreciations of works of fiction or authors.
These include Alice Munro, Paula Fox and James Purdy, plus such obscure works as Christina Stead’s “The Man Who Loved Children,” Donald Antrim’s “The Hundred Brothers” and Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening.”
I especially liked Franzen’s insights into writing, as in the essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” in which he responds to FAQs of writers. He notes that “the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life.”
His focus is usually on literary fiction, and argues that “unless the writer is personally at risk — unless the book has been, in some way, for the writer, an adventure into the unknown; unless the writer has set himself or herself a personal problem not easily solved; unless the finished book represents the surmounting of some great resistance — it’s not worth reading.”
Franzen includes a rant against the use of cellphones (“I Just Called to Say I Love You”) to inflict “the personal and individual on the public and communal.” He has two long travel pieces related to birding, one in Cyprus (“The Ugly Mediterranean”), where endangered bird species are being slaughtered, and one in China (“The Chinese Puffin”), where he visits fellow birding enthusiasts. He notes that Southeast Asia is “well on its way to being clear-cut and strip-mined into one vast muddy pit, since China itself is hopelessly short on natural resources to supply the factories that supply us.” And while the Chinese people bear the brunt of Chinese pollution, “the trauma to biodiversity is being reexported around the world.”
While readers may not always share Franzen’s interests, his writing is incisive, specific and, like his fiction, confessional in its narrative. His honest exploration of literature and of our world can help us look at our own involvement as we seek love that is willing to experience pain.