Jonathan Franzen, Farther Away
The outline of a soul
In addition to writing prize-winning epics of American family life, Jonathan Franzen has spent the last two decades penning reviews, reports and book introductions. It might surprise some readers to learn that Farther Away is actually his third nonfiction book, though individual essays from it will be familiar to regular readers of the New Yorker and the New York Times, where many of them first appeared.
It is not too much to say that what emerges from this collection — which spans 13 years and is composed of essays written at vastly different lengths — is the outline of a soul. Through these essays, we learn of Franzen’s claustrophobic, post-college marriage, his complicated friendship with David Foster Wallace, his love of birds and his taste in novels. The book opens with a graduation speech delivered at Kenyon College in 2011. Titled “Pain Won’t Kill You,” it knits together many of the themes explored in the other 22 essays as well as offering a sentence that might as well be the thesis of Franzen’s entire career: “Love is about bottomless empathy,” he writes, “born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.”
Together these essay give us a cross-section of Franzen’s obsessions and influences, and we are able to make out, though dimly, the scaffolding of his novelistic genius. Just as at the end of Freedom it is easy to sympathize more with Patty Berglund than anyone from true life, at the end of Farther Away, it is possible know Franzen’s moral and aesthetic sensibilities better than your own.