Jonathan Franzen, author and “Great American Novelist” (as declared by Time Magazine on its August 23, 2010 cover) has published a collection of 21 essays that fall generally into one of three broad categories: Perspectives on Life and the World, Thoughts on Writing, or Underappreciated Authors and Great Books. “Farther Away” offers both serious and humorous narratives that stand on their own but collectively provide a broad overview of the issues, authors and books that are important to Franzen as a writer and a human being.
One of my favorite essays – “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is Franzen’s take on technology, cell phones, privacy and the unpleasant aftermath of living in a world where we hear and see too much of other people’s lives. And, “Hornets” is a hilarious account of Franzen dealing with a pest control problem while house sitting (think city slicker goes to the country). But my absolute favorite is Franzen’s commencement address at Kenyon College in May, 2011 entitled “Pain Won’t Kill You.” I suspect Franzen gave this commencement address as a tribute to his friend, David Foster Wallace who committed suicide in 2008. Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005 and within days, the speech went viral and was eventually published into a book called “This is Water.“
Wallace’s speech (which is not in the book): “This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life” stresses the importance of having compassion and not living a self-centered life where everything is interpreted from the “I am the center of the universe” perspective. In the fast paced lives we all live, Wallace points out “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about ” – our unconscious tendency to personalize daily inconveniences (traffic jams, crowded aisles, long check-out lines) as an affront to our immediate needs instead of consciously thinking differently: that maybe, just maybe “some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.” From a man who suffered from depression, this is a powerful message because depression by its very nature swallows a person in self-centered darkness.
Franzen’s commencement address “Pain Won’t Kill You” complements the commencement speech Wallace made six years earlier. In his 2011 address, Franzen talks about the importance of experiencing life by confronting pain and not isolating yourself in anger because problems seem overwhelming. The world no doubt has serious problems – overpopulation, violence, pollution, cruelty, consumerism – and when considered, can make a person fall into “rage or despair” for how can one person really make a difference? Instead of falling into the world of anger and “people-hating,” Franzen offers an alternative: focus on what you love because that effort can become a portal “to a less self-centered part” of yourself that you never knew existed.
Franzen offers his love for writing and birds as an example. On a trip to the Mediterranean “to interview hunters and poachers who were slaughtering migratory songbirds,” Franzen in meeting the “enemy” found people he genuinely liked and “in some cases outright loved” which made him pause as “the blanket antipathy that had come so easy….wasn’t so easy anymore.” Franzen chronicles this personal journey in “The Ugly Mediterranean” and concludes by writing:
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just animals, there’s a very real danger that you might end of loving some of them.
Five hundred miles off the coast of Chile in the South Pacific Ocean, is a small island named Masafuera, which means “Farther Away.” Franzen traveled to this island after a hectic book promotion tour to be by himself, bird watch, re-read Robinson Crusoe and grieve for his lost friend, David Foster Wallace. While on the island, Franzen endured hardships and disappointments in his self-imposed exile while accepting defeat which “was a gift I’d been given and my beloved dear friend had not.” This journey is chronicled in the essay appropriately named “Farther Away” and is another piece of the puzzle that makes this book such a great read.
And, finally for those that love fiction and are looking for great books to read, “Farther Away” offers eleven essays on authors whose works are immensely underappreciated by the literary world. I finished the last essay and immediately went to the Amazon website and added 6 titles to my shopping cart (with the other recommendations placed in “Save For Later”).