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Home Reviews Dispatches from the Island

Dispatches from the Island

Luna Dolezal
Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, 352 pp, €16,99, ISBN: 978-0007459513 Jonathan Franzen is well-known as a serious writer of literary fiction, and his last two novels, The Corrections and Freedom, have deservedly launched him to the forefront of American literature. Franzen writes the Great American Novel, employing narrative realism to execute ambitious and expansive plotlines exploring the disintegration of American life ‑ as Franzen sees it ‑ through narratives grounded in the minutiae of ordinary family relationships and suburban life. The novels are full of complex and conflicted characters enmeshed in suffocating mid-Western families and grappling with the most universal of human experiences ‑ shame, guilt, love, betrayal ‑ all of which Franzen describes with engrossing and almost pathological exactness. Beyond his novels, of which there are four, he has published two other works of non-fiction: a collection of essays, How To Be Alone, and an autobiographical book, The Discomfort Zone. His latest collection of essays, Farther Away, consists of twenty-two essays, reviews and speeches spanning thirteen years. As with his previous collection, he visits an array of topics, always treating his subject matter intelligently, his prose unfailingly precise and personal. Farther Away contains a broad spectrum of writing including lengthy critical book reviews of the work of writers such as Alice Munro, Christina Stead and Frank Wedekind, a playful mock interview with New York State, autobiographical essays and two lengthy eco-travel reportage pieces (on China and Cypus) about his unbashed passion, bird conservation. Arranged in reverse chronology, the collection starts with Franzen’s commencement address to the class of 2011 at Kenyon College, Ohio, an honour previously awarded to his friend and contemporary David Foster Wallace, whose writing and untimely death inspire two of the best essays in the collection. In this address, “Pain Won’t Kill You”, Franzen is emphatic about what he sees as the emotion-numbing and narcissistic perils of technology: “the ultimate goal of technology,” he argues, “is to replace the 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”. As we become increasingly enamoured with our mobile phones and Facebook profiles, life, Franzen argues, becomes an emotionally sterile and solipsistic love affair with our social media gadgets, an empty narcissism in a Facebookesque “private hall of flattering mirrors”. These entreaties are familiar…



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