In his first column from New York, Charles Arrowsmith gives us a review of Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen
At a book reading in New Orleans in March, the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who has been almost continuously in the culture pages since the publication of his fourth novel, Freedom, in 2010, made the headlines again when he described Twitter as “unspeakably irritating”. It was hardly an outburst, although many commentators were quick to characterise it as one – as well as to add Twitter to a list of other things Franzen has publicly denigrated, including Facebook and e-books. (The hashtag #JonathanFranzenhates was the inevitable satirical offspring of this latest statement.) His curmudgeonly public persona, in particular his avowed technophobia, has been largely dismissed as idiosyncratic, a forgivable by-product of a career spent crafting top-spec high-end realist fiction. Such a dismissal, though, trivialises his concerns and misses acres of nuance.
Franzen’s new book, Farther Away, recently published here in the States and on the June roster in the UK, is a collection of essays written between 1998 and 2011, and could be read as a shit list that completely justifies his recent detractors’ concerns. He has no time for the construction comma-then, the musical Spring Awakening, Facebook, cell phones, the destruction of migratory songbird habitats… When he says at one point, “Whatever I most hated, at a particular moment, became the thing I wanted to write about”, it seems that the argument is won. But let’s be careful.
“Pain Won’t Kill You”, delivered as a commencement address at Kenyon College last year and acting here as a kind of introduction to the book, aims to address “the strange technocapitalist world that you guys are inheriting”. Franzen swiftly develops the notion that BlackBerrys, iPhones and other handheld devices have been crafted to “correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship” in their uncomplaining submission to our every whim and desire. Going Greek on us, a sure sign of scholarly seriousness, he suggests that “the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes […] with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self”. The grandiloquence of such a statement has all the hallmarks of high cynicism or satire. But then, as so often in these essays, Franzen performs a deft volte-face and repositions the essay as a defence of the pain incurred by love.
Franzen’s problem with so much technology – with Facebook’s insidious and banalising imprecation to “Like” something being perhaps the most representative exhibit – seems to be the way it intercedes between a person and the world, transforming human responses into consumer desires. Our erotic fixation on such consumer goods, which can simply be replaced if they disappoint, can only mean bad things for our human relationships. Franzen suggests that love – a theme throughout these essays in various forms – is a construct diametrically opposed to like. Because of the spectacular unlikeliness of the scenario I love every atom of another human being, love is necessarily difficult and complex. From the moment one meets a person whom one comes to love, entropy is at work, growing our love and forming bonds of passion as surely and ruthlessly as it incubates a million reasons to fear, to hate and not to be with this other. It is a kind of complexity that Franzen explores in his fiction and urges in his non-fiction. There are the romantic and historical ties that bind the Berglunds and those around them in Freedom; the familial bonds of the Lamberts in The Corrections, which prove strong enough to overcome immense outward impulsions and draw the family together for one last Christmas; and the ins and outs of the dysfunctional relationship between Louis and Renée in Strong Motion. It is the driving force behind his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream”, in which he argued for the return of the grand social novel. And it is a kind of complexity that is completely at odds with media like Twitter and Facebook, which make a virtue of brevity, sloganism and easy cynicism, and the two-dimensional interface of the Kindle with its very literal lack of substance and depth.
Franzen’s argument for pain is that it’s the price one pays for useful complexity (which, he implies, has the same DNA as love). He has no time for writers who haven’t sweated out what ends up on the page: “unless the finished book represents the surmounting of some great resistance – it’s not worth reading.” This intolerance of simplicity and ease is perhaps the best thing to take from Farther Away. Certainly Franzen proves that he is willing to practise what he preaches, getting himself into scrapes in the Mediterranean while defending his beloved songbirds and trekking to the remote island Daniel Defoe used as inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, which becomes a place he can reflect on the suicide of his friend the writer David Foster Wallace. He certainly goes the distance. And as the effects of social media and technology on our attention spans and our ability to relate to those we love are still being analysed, perhaps we should give the benefit of the doubt to the self-confessed “cranky” fifty-something who has, at the very least, given it the benefit of his noise-cancelled, geographically remote, Twitter-free attention.