Synopses & Reviews
Jonathan Franzen's Freedom
was the runaway most-discussed novel of 2010, an ambitious and searching engagement with life in America in the twenty-first century. In The New York Times Book Review,
Sam Tanenhaus proclaimed it “a masterpiece of American fiction” and lauded its illumination, “through the steady radiance of its authors profound moral intelligence, [of] the world we thought we knew.”
In Farther Away, which gathers together essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years, Franzen returns with renewed vigor to the themes, both human and literary, that have long preoccupied him. Whether recounting his violent encounter with bird poachers in Cyprus, examining his mixed feelings about the suicide of his friend and rival David Foster Wallace, or offering a moving and witty take on the ways that technology has changed how people express their love, these pieces deliver on Franzen's implicit promise to conceal nothing. On a trip to China to see first-hand the environmental devastation there, he doesn't omit mention of his excitement and awe at the pace of China's economic development; the trip becomes a journey out of his own prejudice and moral condemnation. Taken together, these essays trace the progress of unique and mature mind wrestling with itself, with literature, and with some of the most important issues of our day. Farther Away is remarkable, provocative, and necessary.
"Franzen (The Corrections) 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. Franzen's easy dismissal of a few canonical works, such as Ulysses, may invite contention, but when in his native realm books that revel in the frustrations, despairs, and near-blisses of human relationships he is an undeniably perceptive reader. In other essays, he confronts an epidemic of songbird hunting in the Mediterranean, tracks a novelty golf club cover back to a Chinese factory to investigate that nation's notoriously ambivalent stance toward environmental conservation, and withdraws to a remote South American island to meditate on Robinson Crusoe and the suicide of his friend and rival David Foster Wallace. He also weighs in on Facebook's narcissistic death spiral and the way the 'sexy' new gadgets that never seem to leave our fingertips get in the way of real life and relationships, as well as the uneasy subject of autobiographical fiction and the effect a failed marriage had on his early novels. This intimate read is packed with provocative questions about technology, love, and the state of the contemporary novel. Agent: Susan Golomb Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"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." Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"[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." Alex Fankuchen, The New York Observer
"Together, the short pieces take a deep, often tangled look at the relationship between writing and self....[Franzen's] persistent questioning rings genuine and honest....Part of the joy in reading these essays is in their variety: Franzen has thrown together a buffet of essays, speeches, lectures, bits of memoir and journalism, and a few oddballs, like an extended fictional interview with New York State and her entourage (publicist, attorney, historian, geologist)....Each finds a home in the collection because, in the end, each informs Franzen's capabilities as a writer....The material all fits together as an eclectic mix of Franzen's fiction-style prose — that plain language rendered rich by its novel construction and telling detail — and a candid, earnest investigation of what makes for great writing. It's inspiring on two levels: the quality of the writing, and the content about the quality of writing...a collection of thought-provoking, potent essays that rouse a renewed desire to read good books in a culture that is, as Franzen says, marked by its 'saturation in entertainment.' The texts are both a testament to and an illustration of what attracts people to books — a delicate play between writer, text, character, and reader that prompts excellent questions and provides surprising answers." Emily Withrow, The A.V. Club
"Farther Away is, from beginning to end, a celebration of love: what provokes it and what endangers it, what joys it brings and what terrors it produces....Farther Away takes its title from the New Yorker essay in which Franzen first discussed the suicide of his friend the novelist David Foster Wallace...part elegy, part literary criticism, part travelogue... "Farther Away" is one of the strangest, most powerful documents of mourning that I've ever read. Farther Away reveals a kinder Franzen, a writer who has no truck with sentimentality but is a clear-eyed defender of sentiment. At one point, Franzen lists the many things that he is against: 'weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence...' The list goes on. But Farther Away is such a wonderful collection because of the things Franzen is for — the ennobling effects of love and imaginative experience, our need to escape from the isolated self and journey Farther Away, toward other places and other people. Like the best fiction, Farther Away charts a way out of loneliness." Anthony Domestico, Christian Science Monitor
"Franzen captivates readers whether ranting about such everyday concerns as bad cellphone manners or lamenting the diminishing relevance of the novel or examining the talented, troubled life and suicide of his close friend and literary brother, David Foster Wallace....At his best, Franzen exposes himself. He does so often and unapologetically, with understated humor, level-headed alienation and rare insight, typically at the nexus of self-analysis and self-indulgence." Don Oldenburg, USA Today
"[Franzen's] essays are riddled with aphorisms ('One half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love') and, surprisingly, humour (theory and sex prove incompatible bedfellows when his wife-to-be declares: 'You can't deconstruct and undress at the same time'). A multifaceted and revealing collection, Farther Away actually brings the reader closer to the author." The Economist
"[Franzen is] after something more elusive: identity, we might call it, which he understands to be not fixed but fluid, a set of reactions or impressions in evolution, a constant variation on the self. '[W]hat this means, in practice,' he notes in the text of a lecture called 'On Autobiographical Fiction,' 'is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There's no way to move forward without changing yourself. Without, in other words, working on the story of your own life. Which is to say: your autobiography.'
This is an essential point, the heart of everything, made all the more so because Franzen's fiction is not autobiographical in any overt way. And yet, what else could it be when literature is, must be, the result of 'a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author's story of his or her own life'? Such an intention runs throughout these essays, whether critical (takes on Paula Fox, Christina Snead, Donald Antrim, Dostoevsky) or experiential (an account of bird preservation efforts in the Mediterranean, a tirade about the effect of cellphones on urban life)....On the surface, these pieces have nothing to do with each other, yet what is either one about if not authenticity? Again and again, that's the question Franzen raises in this collection....What Franzen is getting at is the concept of being 'islanded,' the notion that — no matter what — we are on our own, all the time....In that sense, all of it — from the kid in that car to the teenager wandering New York to the birder on Robinson Crusoe's island — is of a piece with David Foster Wallace and even Neil Armstrong: isolated dots of consciousness in a capricious universe, trying to find a point of real connection before time runs out." David Ulin, Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Jonathan Franzen is the author of four novels (Freedom, The Corrections, Strong Motion, and The Twenty-Seventh City), a collection of essays (How to Be Alone), a personal history (The Discomfort Zone), and a translation of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, all published by FSG. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.