Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Hatful or Bona? : Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen

Product.  In the consumerist digital age there is an unquenchable thirst for it.  To counter the download culture every movie needs hours of extras for the Blu-Ray release.  Every piece of music needs a deluxe CD editon with gatefold cover and extra tunes that gives new meaning to the term B-side.  Even literature is not immune - any popular writer needs new "stuff" available:  annually if possible.  I think this is one of the reasons that novels with recurring characters (particularly crime )  are popular with publishers and bookshops: a new one with the same  people in it.

What then to do with Jonathan Franzen? - his two defining novels (out of four) The Corrections and Freedom each took the best part of a decade to write.  He even wrote a memoir in between and a bespoke collection of essays. Yet for the voracious marketing machines that surround books now this (shockingly) is pretty slim pickings.

Farther Away as a collection, I think, represents an uneasy compromise between writer and demanding markets.  Unlike How to Be Alone, the first grouping of essays, this is not a hermetically sealed piece of work but a fairly scattergun gathering of various writings in the last 15 years.

Much already published with an everlasting digital footprint - you can Google and get the full text of some of these pieces easily - in some ways this is like a tidying up, a filing of miscellaneous  by Mr. F.

And yet, and yet.  If this is all it was - a stocking filler for the fan of alienated American literature in your life - you would tell.  And despite it all this is still a powerful piece of work because, of course, the common thread is Franzen's writing itself.

Such is the strength of Franzen's "New Journalism" pieces  - represented in How to Be Alone and his memoir - that I had thought he would give up fiction for it.  Proved dramatically wrong by Freedom which fused his skills in this with the power of fiction.

The title piece here is an account of Franzen's self imposed exile in the aftermath of Freedom to an uninhabited South Pacific Island on his own.  Except he took some of his friend David Foster Wallace's ashes to scatter and Robinson Crusoe to read.  The work then becomes a fusion  of travelogue, reflection and regret over Wallace's suicide and  a history of the novel (Crusoe in some circles being considered the first ever novel).  It is an amazing piece of work and to be honest worthy of buying the book on its own - it was originally in the New Yorker.

Although the work is relatively ad hoc there are some common themes  - the death of Wallace in 2008 looms large in the later pieces as does the digital age and the creation of false identity.  The laugh out loud piece in the work "I Just Called to Say I Love You" on the horrors of mobile phone communication shows how much of a part humour plays in Franzen's writing.   Yet the two which are almost an ever present are Birds and Books.

A self-confessed obsessive ornithologist - here his tracking of bird hunters in the Mediterranean and his uncovering of a cult-like Chinese birdwatching group communicate his enthusiasm.  The latter piece on China stems from his attempt to discover where a puffin golf club cover was manufactured.Along with Farther Away these are the strongest pieces of work.

The power of literature is expressed throughout.  Unsurprisingly, as a number of these essays were introductions to re-prints of novels admired by Franzen.  He even has a good word  to say about Scandinavian Crime Fiction with his piece on "The Laughing Policeman" - series available in generic covers now!  His efffervescent prose on some writers almost makes you want to put down the book and go and seek them out immediately.  Following this I want to find some Alice Munro and Christina Stead in particular.  These are no identikit letters of reference but passionate advocacy from an avid reader.  That is infectious.

There are some off-cuts here - fairly short mostly - that you can pass over quickly but unusually these are the exception. On balance then this a worthy addition to my shelf of Franzen's writing.

Both the Smiths and Morrissey have released strong albums that were collections of work available elsewhere - the collection proved to be even stronger than the estimable single tracks.  Farther Away is not quite there but it is far from a Telstar Greatest Hits Collection, even if it is product.