Farther Away. Jonathan Franzen.

Franzen, Jonathan. Farther Away. HarperCollins (Canadian Edition; 2012). Essays; 08/12.

This is a quite mixed eclectic bunch of personal essays and book reviews by one of my favorite authors of fiction. Franzen is at his best for me writing fiction, but is also good talking about writing and his personal experience of it.

He first got my excited attention in Pain Won’t Kill You, an address to a graduating class. Franzen loves birds, and tells us he fell in love with them because one half of a passion is obsession but the other half is love. Through this, he tells us

I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject. Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. You can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.

Discussing his apparently very dear friend novelist David Wallace, who had mental health problems and eventually committed suicide, he says

How easy and natural love is if you are well! And how gruesomely difficult — what a philosophically daunting contraption of self-interest and self-delusion love appears to be — if you are not!

… the use of “contraption” there is pretty close to genius for me.

Reviewing the novel The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim he says “at the level of technique, the book is a marvel: has to be a marvel, for, without supreme authorial control of scene and sentenced in detail, it would collapse under the weight of its preposterous premise.”

In On Autobiographical Fiction he does a fine job of dealing with the quandry an author is in when journalists ask if his work is autobiographical. It is and it isn’t, he says. He’s never written about actual events in his life, but writing and its value comes from one’s own experience:

Once you start writing a book, as opposed to planning it, the universe of conceivable human types and behaviors shrinks drastically to the microcosm of human possibilities that you contain within yourself. A character dies on the page if you can’t hear his or her voice. In a very limited sense, I suppose, this amounts to “taking over” and “telling you” what the character will and won’t do but the reason the character can’t do something is that you can’t.

I’ve just quoted the passages I’ve flagged in reading. Probably six or eight of the 22 essays left me cold, but there was enough going on that I always perked up with the next one, or the one after that. Given the choice though I’d take his fiction any day. 6.8/8.7

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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