Bird-lover and ebook-hater, Jonathan Franzen has developed a reputation as a modern-day Luddite. His latest book, Farther Away, reveals this view of the author to be fundamentally misinformed. A collection of essays and speeches written during the periods surrounding the publications of his two bestsellers, The Corrections in 2001 and Freedom in 2010, it illuminates Franzen’s views on technology, as well as topics such as literature and its place, birds, love and the death of David Foster Wallace.
Far from being the torchbearer for the contemporary versions of mill-burners and factory-saboteurs, Franzen is shown to be a lover and consumer of technology. The description he gives, in his Kenyon College commencement address, of his relationship with his old BlackBerry and his infatuation with the new, is one that any purchaser of technological devices will undoubtedly be able to associate with. Franzen is not, however, uncritical and is ever conscious of the impact technology can have on society and the individual – be it his concern that Facebook is transforming ‘to like’ from a representation of an emotional response into an assertion of consumer choice, or his exacerbation at the sonic pollution and intrusion caused by the use of mobile phones in public spaces.
It should be noted that even when expressing his distaste of these developments, Franzen remains cognisant of the nature and potential motivational force behind his criticisms, be they arising from the importance he places on privacy, their obvious subjectivity, or where they might be entirely personal and cause grief to only him. Franzen even notes, if circumstances where different (such as his mother still being alive), he may well be one of those forcing his private life on others by saying ‘I love you’ into a mobile phone, albeit in a quieter voice than the typical user.
Though a consistently strong collection, the title essay and ‘On Autobiographical Fiction’ are the standouts. The former sees Franzen isolated on a South Pacific Island with a copy of Robinson Crusoe and the ashes of his friend and literary rival, David Foster Wallace. The result is a mesmerising and stimulating travelogue, which also functions as a piece of literary criticism and contemplation on the loss of a loved one. In his lecture ‘On Autobiographical Fiction’, Franzen dissects four difficult questions that novelists are always asked and attempts to give them satisfactory answers. In doing so, we are delivered a crash-course in literary influence and the narrative craft from one of the deftest fashioners of prose currently writing.
Farther Away is necessary reading, not only for lovers of Franzen’s previous work, but also for anyone interested in contemporary literature and the thought-process of a novelist. Franzen is a sharp and critical observer who does not require you to agree with him, but does require you to consider what he has to say.
Farther Away is available in bookstores now.
By Graham Hansen