Farther Away: Essays

By Jonathan Franzen

(FSG, $26, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Jonathan Franzen, who has homes in New York and California, is one of today’s most admired American writers. He has written novels – “The Corrections” and “Freedom” –  that simultaneously hit two very different bullseyes: fine literary fiction and blockbuster best-seller. Known for his prickliness – he famously declined to be chosen by Oprah’s Book Club, an honor that most authors would kill for -  he is nonetheless a superb writer.

Several years ago, Franzen spoke at the West Hartford Library and his unease before the largely adoring audience was palpable. He and his listeners were equally relieved when he moved from speaking extemporaneously to reading from his work. It’s no surprise that he titled a book about his personal history “The Discomfort Zone.” Not all authors are comfortable interacting with readers, nor should they be. Franzen is far more at home on the page, and that is where his talent can best be appreciated.

What is this book about?

“Farther Away” is a collection of recent essays, reviews and speeches, and in it, Franzen explores literary themes and contemporary life. He is an avid bird-watcher, is fascinated and also frightened by the power of technology, such as cellphones, is impressed by the emerging and often troubling ascendance of China among the world’s great nations and still mourns the death of his fellow author and good friend David Foster Wallace, and those subjects are among those treated in the book. Also included are reviews of work by such authors as Paula Fox, Christina Snead, Donald Antrim, Alice Munro and Dostoevsky.

Why you’ll like it:

This book is worth reading just for the essay on David Foster Wallace, Franzen’s peer among contemporary American writers and very close friend. Wallace struggled for years with deep clinical depression and eventually took his own life. Franzen tells that story and the story of his own reactions to Wallace’s illness and suicide in brilliant, disturbing and very moving ways. This essay is not mere obituary or appreciation of a major talent. It is about love, hurt, sorrow and anger, a bitterly powerful brew. It demands to be read.

Many of the other pieces are compelling, too. Here, from a commencement address he gave a Kenyon College last year, are some of his thoughts on cellphones, which lead to a brilliant examination of what he calls “the commodification of love:”

“…A couple of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold, with a five-megapixel camera and 3G capability. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its tiny track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics. I was, in short, infatuated with my new device. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old device, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship. I’d developed trust issues with my Pearl, accountability issues, compatibility issues, and even, toward the end, some doubts about my Pearl’s very sanity, until I’d finally had to admit to myself that I’d outgrown the relationship. …”

Don’t you want to read more?

What others are saying:

“Further dispatches from one of contemporary literature’s most dependable talents . . . Anyone with an interest in the continued relevance of literature and in engaging with the world in a considered way will find much here to savor. An unfailingly elegant and thoughtful collection of essays from the formidable mind of Franzen, written with passion and haunted by loss,” says a starred Kirkus review.

“Whether he is writing about technologies’ assault on sincerity or analyzing Alice Munro’s short stories, what emerges are works of literary theory and cultural critique that are ambitious, brooding and charmingly funny . . . The essays in “Farther Away” are rigorous, artful devotions navigating morally complex topics. At the heart of this collection are the ways ‘engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are.’ Collectively, they are a source of authenticity and refuge — a way out of loneliness,” says Kathryn Savage in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“Franzen . . . follows up his 2010 blockbuster novel, “Freedom,” with a collection of recent essays, speeches, and reviews, in which he lays out a view of literature in which storytelling and character development trump lyrical acrobatics, and unearths a few forgotten classics . . . in his native realm — books that revel in the frustrations, despairs, and near-blisses of human relationships — he is an undeniably perceptive reader . . . This intimate read is packed with provocative questions about technology, love, and the state of the contemporary novel,” says Publisher’s Weekly.

“[Franzen’s] new collection takes the reader on a closely guided tour of his private concerns . . . the miscorrelation between merit and fame, the breakdown of a marriage, birds, the waning relevance of the novel in popular culture . . . Franzen rewards the reader with extended meditations on common phenomena we might otherwise consider unremarkable . . . the observations [he] makes regarding subjects like cell phone etiquette, the ever-evolving face of modern love and technology are trenchant . . . With “Farther Away,” Mr. Franzen demonstrates his ability to dissect the kinds of quotidian concerns that so often evade scrutiny . . . It may be eight years before he releases his next shimmering novel; in the meantime Mr. Franzen seems intent on keeping the conversation going. “Farther Away” at least achieves that,” says Alex Fankuchen in The New York Observer.

When is it available?

“Farther Away” is as near as the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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