Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was the runaway most-discussed novel of 2010, an ambitious and searching engagement with life in America in the twenty-first century. In The New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus proclaimed it "a masterpiece of American fiction" and lauded its illumination, "through the steady radiance of its author's profound moral intelligence, [of] the world we thought we knew."
In Farther Away, which gathers together essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years, Franzen returns with renewed vigor to the themes, both human and literary, that have long preoccupied him. Whether recounting his violent encounter with bird poachers in Cyprus, examining his mixed feelings about the suicide of his friend and rival David Foster Wallace, or offering a moving and witty take on the ways that technology has changed how people express their love, these pieces deliver on Franzen's implicit promise to conceal nothing. On a trip to China to see first-hand the environmental devastation there, he doesn't omit mention of his excitement and awe at the pace of China's economic development; the trip becomes a journey out of his own prejudice and moral condemnation. Taken together, these essays trace the progress of unique and mature mind wrestling with itself, with literature, and with some of the most important issues of our day. Farther Away is remarkable, provocative, and necessary.
Franzen (The Corrections) follows up his 2010 blockbuster novel, Freedom, with a collection of recent essays, speeches, and reviews, in which he lays out a view of literature in which storytelling and character development trump lyrical acrobatics, and unearths a few forgotten classics. Franzen's easy dismissal of a few canonical works, such as Ulysses, may invite contention, but when in his native realm books that revel in the frustrations, despairs, and near-blisses of human relationships he is an undeniably perceptive reader. In other essays, he confronts an epidemic of songbird hunting in the Mediterranean, tracks a novelty golf club cover back to a Chinese factory to investigate that nation's notoriously ambivalent stance toward environmental conservation, and withdraws to a remote South American island to meditate on Robinson Crusoe and the suicide of his friend and rival David Foster Wallace. He also weighs in on Facebook's narcissistic death spiral and the way the "sexy" new gadgets that never seem to leave our fingertips get in the way of real life and relationships, as well as the uneasy subject of autobiographical fiction and the effect a failed marriage had on his early novels. This intimate read is packed with provocative questions about technology, love, and the state of the contemporary novel.