The latest in Jonathan Franzen's catalogue of long books with lonesome titles, Farther Away collects the author's magazine reporting, personal histories, and book reviews from the past 13 years and arranges them in reverse chronology, creating a this-is-your-life kind of recap of how the long hours around the publication of those two great novels, The Corrections and Freedom, were killed. The answer is that the author, for the most part, worries. He worries about the state of New York. He worries, twice, that Facebook users are unlearning the desire to communicate in person. Occasionally, he worries that he worries too much, but not much, since he already covered that in his memoir.
Without the editorial restraint of his previous nonfiction collection, How to Be Alone, Farther Away suffers under the weight of all this worrying, filled as it is with so many rote pieces impassive to the author's skills as a novelist: his sensitivity to the various impressions an encounter can have on different people, his ability to flex and withhold judgment, his dialogue. Tasked with writing about things that already mean something to someone, the author becomes contrarian and full of points, dispassionately pooh-poohing defenders of his given topics, or the unimpressed, or, in one of the most awful tirades, people who say stuff to each other on cellphones.
And the author's inner grumpy old hag emerges even with topics he clearly does love, such as his reflection on the work of Alice Munro, in which an equal number of pages are devoted to his frustration that an already famous author he admires isn't famouser than to any actual admiration of her. Or his insistence, in the middle of writing about the death of his friend David Foster Wallace, on scolding book award committees for not recognizing Infinite Jest, a grudge he appears to have held onto for 15 years. Or a 20-page etymology of what his fans mean by the questions they direct at him at live events, in which he uses his keen powers of assumption to prove that pretty much everyone is out to waste his time or make him appear stupid. You can almost feel the slap of his palm against his forehead.
Maybe the greatest shame of the workmanlike book introductions and show-stopping gaffes that make up about two-thirds of Farther Away is the attention they draw away from the three longest and most complex and dramatic of the essays, the ones in which the author's novelist's skills are on full display to stunning effect. All originally written for The New Yorker, these three—“The Chinese Puffin,” “The Ugly Mediterranean,” and the title essay—show the author at his curmudgeonly best, out of the house, away from people who know his wizened forehead from the cover of Time, busy with the world. At their best, they read like his novels, slowly and beautifully, with their strange and sometimes portentous combination of travel reporting, literary criticism, environmental concerns, and unparalleled social awkwardness. Alone together, they would have made a wonderful slim volume of nonfiction writing, personal and cold and terrifically fascinating. As they are, they're unfortunately necessary reminders of what the author is capable of when he has more to do than to say.
Jonathan Franzen's Farther Away will be released on April 24 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. To purchase it, click here.