Bibliophysicists now speculate that no less than three parallel versions of Jonathan Franzen can coexist at any given moment, and the variant, some say, could be much higher. This assortment of Franzens—and how readers interpret them—can make an impartial reading of his work problematic. The fifty-three-year-old novelist exists, first, as one of America’s most celebrated authors, a position he earned with The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010); however, he also exists as a public intellectual, devoting his time to literary criticism, political discourse, and public speeches. And, of course, whether admitting he doesn’t think e-books are for serious readers, calling Twitter “irritating” and “irresponsible,” or incensing feminists by going on about how ugly Edith Wharton was, his ideas have proven an effective flashpoint for other writers and the wider literary community to feud about.
Now, in Farther Away, Franzen returns with a multifaceted collection comprising twenty-two essays in reverse chronological order from 2011 to 1998. Topics range from the global and political to the private and emotional. They also span the geography of several regions, including New York, China, the Mediterranean, and Masafuera (a tiny island off the coast of Chile in the South Pacific). Quite a few of the entries are reviews themselves and concern authors as diverse as Alice Munro, Christina Stead, Sloan Wilson, David Foster Wallace, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A few of the essays, such as “Comma-Then” or “Our Relations: A Brief History,” are funny rants or story fragments. But what emerges at the end is a whole more interesting than its component parts. At its core, Farther Away proves to be a deeply personal portrait of a contemporary writer at work.
Many of Farther Away’s features explore creativity and craftsmanship: their tensions and intersections and how those forces can be used together to create a beautiful object, starting with the blueprint-inspired origami instructions that decorate the cover. The essays often seem to contain double or triple meanings. At the same time, they belong to a specific situation, deriving their wider context only from juxtaposition with the other essays in the collection. For example, a sentence near the opening of his commencement address to Kenyon College also serves as an effective guiding principle for the book itself: “I’m going to go ahead and assume that you all knew what you were getting into,” Franzen jokes, adding, “I’m going to do what literary writers do, which is to talk about themselves, in the hope that my experience has some resonance with your own.”
Although the majority of Franzen’s language is unpretentious, he doesn’t shy away from using words like “technocapitalist.” But neither is he self-serious. The book, while full of intellect, is also full of puns, anecdotes, and self-effacing jokes about being a cranky, old-fashioned Luddite. In other words, Jonathan Franzen knows what some people think about him, and he couldn’t care less, an attitude in keeping with his public personality. Because, despite the fiery exchanges that can erupt around him, Franzen usually appears untouched by the conflagration, reacting with detached humor or insightful observation. It’s as if he didn’t mean to cause a kerfuffle. For example, when Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult complained bitterly about critics’ laudatory praise of Freedom, he admitted during an NPR interview that their dispute was a “feminist critique,” adding, “I have a lot of those feelings myself.”
The most personal moments in Farther Away come in the essays about Franzen’s passions. In “The Ugly Mediterranean,” he describes conservation efforts and devastation to native bird populations in Cyprus and Italy. Also, in “The Chinese Puffin,” he writes about Asia’s growing subculture of bird watchers, and about the ecosystem they inhabit inside Communist China. In each case, rather than narrow his focus, he treats his subjects discursively, managing to work in asides on golf, tourism, politics, and Internet message boards. These essays have sentiment but also clear-eyed pragmatism. Franzen relates the situations he encounters with the objective eye of a scientist, even though you can clearly feel his emotion just under the surface. The same is true for “David Foster Wallace: Memorial Service Remarks,” and for the book’s eponymous essay about Robinson Crusoe, self-reliance, and isolation, both literal and emotional.
Ultimately, the many Franzens who coexist within the pages of the collection—and within readers’ imaginations—resolve themselves into a comfortable paradox. Like the poet who contained multitudes, Franzen seems comfortable contradicting himself. He loves his BlackBerry and loathes people who talk on cell phones in public. He values his privacy above most things, yet can’t keep from ending up the center of attention, even trending on Twitter at one point as supporters and detractors sounded off about his views on that medium. He champions fiction that is simultaneously complex and accessible. But one thing remains clear at all times: With Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen has proved once again why his intelligence, empathy, and humor have earned him widespread acclaim—and also why, whether you love him or hate him, we need his voice as a catalyst for literary conversations in the 21st century.