Richard Davenporthines

Preaching to the converted

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Farther Away

Jonathan Franzen

Fourth Estate, pp. 321, £

Jonathan Franzen is a pessimist with a capacity for quiet joy. In a revealing passage in this collection of essays, reviews and speeches he writes of his fellow novelist Alice Munro: ‘She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion’. Explaining this, he apes the General Confession in a church service. Reading Munro makes him reflect ‘about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death’.

The stealthy theme of Farther Away is Franzen’s secularised religiosity. He honours obscure priests of his faith — forgotten novelists such as James Purdy, Paula Fox and Sloan Wilson — and gives exegeses of lesser known tracts (Dostoevsky’s The Gambler is discussed in four shining pages). Moreover, Franzen’s ornithological enthusiasms — his celebrations of the natural world and indictments of environmental despoliation — insistently recall Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘God’s Grandeur’. It is odd to find a smart denizen of 21st-century Manhattan, who calls himself a ‘control freak and know-it-all’, resembling a 19th-century Jesuit ascetic.

Although Franzen has none of the brazen exploitation of American preachers, he sometimes yields to an unfortunate pulpit manner. His opening section reproduces that sententious American phenomenon, a college Commencement Address, in which eminent guests present the accumulated wisdom of Polonius in vernacular, even folksy language. Franzen tells the 2011 class at Kenyon: ‘I’d like to work my way around to the subject of love and its relation to my life and to the strange technocapitalist world that you guys are inheriting.’ This Commencement Address resembles the mellifluous, silky causeries that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, used to publish 80 years ago — except that it includes words like ‘megapixel’, ‘technoconsumerism’, ‘empathy’ and ‘shtick’. There is nevertheless much to attend to in Franzen’s views, even if the tone is sometimes pontifical.  

‘The ultimate goal of technology’, Franzen declares in his Commencement Address, ‘is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts; a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.’ He despises the primacy given to sociability rather than loving one’s neighbour.  Instead of traditional notions of duties owed to God, of service given to one’s community, of respect earned from neighbours, Facebook users are dedicated to presenting themselves as likeable, and winning bogus popularity among their equally devalued peers. They star in their own movies, photograph themselves incessantly, manipulate affections to intensify their narcissism, confirm their mastery every time they click their mouse.

Franzen perhaps trusts birds more than humans. His account of visiting former avian wetlands in China, now rendered into wastelands by industrialisation, is a gentle, generous, sad and beautiful piece of travel-writing. His report on Mediterranean bird massacres, especially in Cyprus, is cogent but necessarily ugly. Rather less successful is an account of bird-watching on a Pacific island where he scatters some of the ashes of his beloved friend David Foster Wallace.

Franzen’s eulogy at the memorial service held after Wallace’s suicide is a centrepiece. It is passionate, nuanced and provocative: the hinge upon which his whole book turns. The literary essays about neglected American novelists also excel. The pieces on Alice Munro and Paula Fox make me yearn to read their work, and are full of oblique wisdom on the novelist’s craft. There is mandarin grace to Franzen, even when he is disapproving:

My difficulty with golf is that, although I play it once or twice a year to be sociable, I dislike almost everything about it. The point of the game seems to be the methodical euthanising of workday-size chunks of time by well-off white men. Golf eats land, drinks water, displaces wildlife, fosters sprawl. I dislike the self-congratulations of its etiquette, the self-important hush of its television analysts.

There are passages of sustained hilarity, notably a comic dialogue with New York state officials, and several affectionate, endearing cameos, especially of his parents and of Jane Spicer, proprietor of an Arizona business which supplies golf club covers shaped like the heads of gophers, tigers, walruses and puffins.

In a book that is never less than superbly intelligent, but proceeds at times with ponderous stateliness in prose that is over-veneered, Franzen’s wit and loving kindness come as abrupt surprises as if a glossy, paunchy bishop has suddenly started to play hopscotch.