Farther Awayby Jonathan Franzen
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/i>/i>… See more details below
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 is without doubt a first-rate critic . . . It's worth the purchase price just to read him on Alice Munro. His reflections on Christina Stead, Donald Atrim and the Swedish detective classic The Laughing Policeman are all essayistic in the best sense: both deeply thought out and wonderfully argued.
American writer Jonathan Franzen has established a pattern of taking almost a decade between novels. That's one reason his new essay collection, Farther Away, comes as a welcome treat. Another reason is his always probing, and earnestly Midwestern, self-examination.
Ultimately, Farther Away is a meditation on the obscure other half of a world right in front of our faces--the private horror of a public figure struggling with depression, the unspoken loneliness of an individual living in a world of people perpetually turned off because their devices are turned on, the perils of a bird in flight, and cherished pages of well-written fiction that enable us 'to embrace, even celebrate, the dark fact that an individual's life consists, finally, of an accelerating march toward decay and death.' Franzen brings the reader close (uncomfortably, at times) to facets of life not usually examined, and it becomes clear that he is not just talking about songbirds when he writes, 'It felt wrong to be seeing at such close range a species that ordinarily requires careful work with binoculars to get a decent view.'
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“[Franzen’s] new collection takes the reader on a closely guided tour of his private concerns . . . the miscorrelation between merit and fame, the breakdown of a marriage, birds, the waning relevance of the novel in popular culture . . . Franzen rewards the reader with extended meditations on common phenomena we might otherwise consider unremarkable . . . the observations [he] makes regarding subjects like cell phone etiquette, the ever-evolving face of modern love and technology are trenchant . . . With Farther Away, Mr. Franzen demonstrates his ability to dissect the kinds of quotidian concerns that so often evade scrutiny . . . It may be eight years before he releases his next shimmering novel; in the meantime Mr. Franzen seems intent on keeping the conversation going. Farther Away at least achieves that.” —Alex Fankuchen, The New York Observer
“Throughout the book, Franzen suggests that storytelling is a way to interpret and relieve our collective suffering—a vehicle for social connection—and that apathy can be challenged with Molotov cocktails of ‘bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are’ . . . Combining personal history with cultural events and the minutiae of daily life, Franzen evokes Joan Didion’s tone of rigorous self-examination, and [David Foster] Wallace’s wit and philosophical prowess. Whether he is writing about technologies’ assault on sincerity or analyzing Alice Munro’s short stories, what emerges are works of literary theory and cultural critique that are ambitious, brooding and charmingly funny . . . The essays in Farther Away are rigorous, artful devotions navigating morally complex topics. At the heart of this collection are the ways ‘engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are.’ Collectively, they are a source of authenticity and refuge—a way out of loneliness.” —Kathryn Savage, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Together, the short pieces take a deep, often tangled look at the relationship between writing and self . . . [Franzen’s] persistent questioning rings genuine and honest . . . Part of the joy in reading these essays is in their variety: Franzen has thrown together a buffet of essays, speeches, lectures, bits of memoir and journalism, and a few oddballs, like an extended fictional interview with New York State and her entourage (publicist, attorney, historian, geologist) . . . Each finds a home in the collection because, in the end, each informs Franzen’s capabilities as a writer . . . The material all fits together as an eclectic mix of Franzen’s fiction-style prose—that plain language rendered rich by its novel construction and telling detail—and a candid, earnest investigation of what makes for great writing. It’s inspiring on two levels: the quality of the writing, and the content about the quality of writing . . . a collection of thought-provoking, potent essays that rouse a renewed desire to read good books in a culture that is, as Franzen says, marked by its ‘saturation in entertainment.’ The texts are both a testament to and an illustration of what attracts people to books—a delicate play between writer, text, character, and reader that prompts excellent questions and provides surprising answers.” —Emily Withrow, The A.V. Club
“Farther Away is, from beginning to end, a celebration of love: what provokes it and what endangers it, what joys it brings and what terrors it produces . . . Farther Away takes its title from the New Yorker essay in which Franzen first discussed the suicide of his friend the novelist David Foster Wallace . . . art elegy, part literary criticism, part travelogue . . . “Farther Away” is one of the strangest, most powerful documents of mourning that I’ve ever read. Farther Away reveals a kinder Franzen, a writer who has no truck with sentimentality but is a clear-eyed defender of sentiment. At one point, Franzen lists the many things that he is against: ‘weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence . . .’ The list goes on. But Farther Away is such a wonderful collection because of the things Franzen is for—the ennobling effects of love and imaginative experience, our need to escape from the isolated self and journey farther away, toward other places and other people. Like the best fiction, Farther Away charts a way out of loneliness.” —Anthony Domestico, Christian Science Monitor
“Franzen captivates readers whether ranting about such everyday concerns as bad cellphone manners or lamenting the diminishing relevance of the novel or examining the talented, troubled life and suicide of his close friend and literary brother, David Foster Wallace . . . At his best, Franzen exposes himself. He does so often and unapologetically, with understated humor, level-headed alienation and rare insight, typically at the nexus of self-analysis and self-indulgence.” —Don Oldenburg, USA Today
“[Franzen’s] essays are riddled with aphorisms (‘One half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love’) and, surprisingly, humour (theory and sex prove incompatible bedfellows when his wife-to-be declares: ‘You can’t deconstruct and undress at the same time’). A multifaceted and revealing collection, Farther Away actually brings the reader closer to the author.” —The Economist
“[Franzen is] after something more elusive: identity, we might call it, which he understands to be not fixed but fluid, a set of reactions or impressions in evolution, a constant variation on the self. ‘[W]hat this means, in practice,’ he notes in the text of a lecture called ‘On Autobiographical Fiction,’ ‘is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself. Without, in other words, working on the story of your own life. Which is to say: your autobiography.’
This is an essential point, the heart of everything, made all the more so because Franzen’s fiction is not autobiographical in any overt way. And yet, what else could it be when literature is, must be, the result of ‘a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author's story of his or her own life’? Such an intention runs throughout these essays, whether critical (takes on Paula Fox, Christina Snead, Donald Antrim, Dostoevsky) or experiential (an account of bird preservation efforts in the Mediterranean, a tirade about the effect of cellphones on urban life) . . . On the surface, these pieces have nothing to do with each other, yet what is either one about if not authenticity? Again and again, that's the question Franzen raises in this collection . . . What Franzen is getting at is the concept of being ‘islanded,’ the notion that—no matter what—we are on our own, all the time . . . In that sense, all of it—from the kid in that car to the teenager wandering New York to the birder on Robinson Crusoe's island—is of a piece with David Foster Wallace and even Neil Armstrong: isolated dots of consciousness in a capricious universe, trying to find a point of real connection before time runs out.” —David Ulin, Los Angeles Times
“This book of essays by Jonathan Franzen covers various subjects but the unifying theme is truthfulness. He stands for lucidity of expression, which is not the same thing as ease. The lesson of Franzen is that honesty and excellence come from blood, sweat and tears . . . This is Franzen at his finest . . . Narcissism must never be confused with love. This is Franzen’s distilled wisdom . . . He is unflinching about the price of empathy . . . This is a book for those interested in how to live as well as how to write.” —Sarah Sands, London Evening Standard
“Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen’s recent collection of essays, proves to be a deeply personal portrait of a contemporary writer at work . . . Many of Farther Away’s features explore creativity and craftsmanship: their tensions and intersections and how those forces can be used together to create a beautiful object . . . The book, while full of intellect, is also full of puns, anecdotes, and self-effacing jokes about being a cranky, old-fashioned Luddite. In other words, Jonathan Franzen knows what some people think about him, and he couldn’t care less, an attitude in keeping with his public personality. Because, despite the fiery exchanges that can erupt around him, Franzen usually appears untouched by the conflagration, reacting with detached humor or insightful observation . . . The most personal moments in Farther Away come in the essays about Franzen’s passions . . . These essays have sentiment but also clear-eyed pragmatism. Franzen relates the situations he encounters with the objective eye of a scientist, even though you can clearly feel his emotion just under the surface . . . With Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen has proved once again why his intelligence, empathy, and humor have earned him widespread acclaim—and also why, whether you love him or hate him, we need his voice as a catalyst for literary conversations in the 21st century.” —Ben Pfeiffer, The Rumpus
“Ultimately, Farther Away is a meditation on the obscure other half of a world right in front of our faces—the private horror of a public figure struggling with depression, the unspoken loneliness of an individual living in a world of people perpetually turned off because their devices are turned on, the perils of a bird in flight, and cherished pages of well-written fiction that enable us ‘to embrace, even celebrate, the dark fact that an individual’s life consists, finally, of an accelerating march toward decay and death.’ Franzen brings the reader close (uncomfortably, at times) to facets of life not usually examined, and it becomes clear that he is not just talking about songbirds when he writes, ‘It felt wrong to be seeing at such close range a species that ordinarily requires careful work with binoculars to get a decent view.’” —Noah Stayton, The Millions
“One way or another, the essays in Farther Away are attempts to enlarge the place where literature, and the responsiveness to it, can be preserved.” —Geoff Dyer, The Guardian
“It takes great courage to ask the annoying questions that everyone else would prefer to ignore . . . What is right action, and how does one live a morally justifiable life? . . . The questions matter almost more than the answers. And Franzen is virtually alone among the crop of American fiction writers of his generation to pose these moral questions to society at large in such a way as to challenge and indict us.” —Joshua Furst, Forward
“American writer Jonathan Franzen has established a pattern of taking almost a decade between novels. That's one reason his new essay collection, Farther Away, comes as a welcome treat. Another reason is his always probing, and earnestly Midwestern, self-examination.” —Morley Walker, Winnipeg Free Press
“Franzen’s position in literary debates is by now well staked—engrossing plots and characters are king—and here he maintains his ground with characteristic intelligence and earnestness . . . But what distinguishes Franzen’s treatment of these matters in Farther Away is the frequency with which he appeals to love . . . Love now suffuses Franzen’s writing as it hasn’t before, in a manner intertwined with his newly tragicomic outlook. As the world outside of Franzen’s window grows grimmer—as America’s politics become more dysfunctional, digitization more irrevocable, humanity’s adverse effects on the planet more profound—his writing has increasingly located salvation in turning to the worthiest thing you can find and loving the hell out of it . . . Farther Away is a reminder not only of Franzen’s greatness as a sentence-by-sentence writer, but also of how much he cares about literature.” —James Santel, The Los Angeles Review of Books
“[Farther Away] provide[s] a glimpse into the critical faculties of one of our most celebrated contemporary novelists. Franzen’s views on technology and writing are particularly salient: The Internet’s expansiveness is a kind of prison, and postmodernism actually leads us back to the primitive.” —Dan Lopez, Time Out New York
“Franzen is without doubt a first-rate critic . . . It’s worth the purchase price just to read him on Alice Munro. His reflections on Christina Stead, Donald Atrim and the Swedish detective classic The Laughing Policeman are all essayistic in the best sense: both deeply thought out and wonderfully argued.” —Richard Warnica, Maclean’s
“In that opening address to Kenyon graduates, Franzen said: ‘What love is really about is a bottomless empathy, born out of the heart's revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.’ At their very best, his essays live up to this definition, crossing divides of form, time and space to speak as wisely and warmly as a close, clever and eminently real friend.” —James Kidd, The Independent
“[Franzen’s] fans will . . . be delighted with Farther Away, a collection of his non-fiction that reveals he is an unfairly talented writer and thinker. These essays, memoirs, reviews and pieces of social criticism give Franzen a wide platform from which to show off his artistry with words and, again, his deep concern for environmental issues . . . Franzen is a man of immense intelligence, and a writer of uncommon talent. Farther Away reflects both.” —Hayden Meikle, Otago Daily Times
“Farther Away, a fine collection of essays so well crafted they have the power to grab you and hold you—right there—in the moment . . . It’s safe to say that in Farther Away Franzen offers some of his most compelling work. It is a luscious literary assembly of soulful observations and otherwise thought-provoking musings that cover a diverse range of subjects . . . what a treat it is to have the author pull down the blanket from the head of the big bad wolf of our fears and doubts and stare them down, eye to tormenting eye. Fears, doubts, emotions from which humans run away. And not just run away from, but screaming ad nauseum, because their discomfort so pains them. But these themes of grief and loss—and the art of leaning into them as opposed to crying after some other arrangement—play so well with others here, too. For every brilliant, sobering look at the disconnectedness modern technology often spawns, Franzen also touches upon the possibility of tracing one’s own footsteps toward personal progress.” —Greg Archer, Good Times
“In both these essays and his own fiction, his words betray an immense amount of care. He’s a keen-eyed reader, too. . . it’s when Franzen writes about the things he loves that this collection soars.” —John Baily, The Sydney Morning Herald
“The world of literature, besieged as he believes it is, needs authors who care. And Franzen really cares. His attitude might be aggressively highbrow, but his underlying concerns are simple and humane: family, age, grief, love.” —Tim Walker, The Independent
“You suddenly feel . . . like you’re in the company of someone with real insights into modern life, real compassion for people, and formidable tools of communication to get it all across—a bit, in fact, like you’re seeing one of his country’s best fiction writers successfully transfer his skills into the non-fiction realm . . . Taking Franzen’s words to heart, and paraphrasing what he writes about Munro, I’ll end by saying “Just read these essays.” Franzen takes a long time between novels—nine years between The Corrections and Freedom–but if collections like Farther Away are part of the process he requires, it’s a small price to pay.” —Ian McGillis, The Montreal Gazette
“At heart, [Farther Away] is a defense of the difficult, both within ourselves and in our art. In a culture where forces like Facebook are constantly conspiring to reshape us into more marketable versions of ourselves, Franzen preaches that our salvation depends on not losing touch with the ‘authentic but horrible’ . . . If you were feeling uncharitable, you could make the argument that Farther Away is less a philosophical treatise than an exercise in self-defense. But that’s unfair . . . If Franzen is guilty of anything it’s a refusal to compromise his truth in the name of popularity. And lucky for us, because it is this very willingness to brave our bad opinion that makes his fiction so uncompromisingly alive. It’s also what qualifies him to lecture us on embracing our own flawed natures . . . In Farther Away, Franzen has made it his mission to penetrate what he terms the ‘dense modern fog of sentimentality’ to get at the ugly truths underneath. He does this not because he enjoys dwelling in the dark, but because the dark is a necessary and rich component of the human experience, one that he believes is being forced more and more underground . . . If you are not convinced of his point of view by the more pedantic pieces in the book, you likely will be by the treatments of some of his favorite writers. The authors he showcases in Farther Away range from Paula Fox and Frank Wedekind to Christina Stead and Dostoyevsky; each utterly singular, all gloriously difficult. Franzen’s near reverential reviews of their work serve as vivid reminders that great fiction is about much more than entertainment; it’s about bringing communion to people stranded on the island of the self—something that can only be accomplished with a faithful recounting of what it really means to be human, warts and all.” —Orli Van Mourik, The Brooklyn Rail
[Franzen's] essays are riddled with aphorisms ('One half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love') and, surprisingly, humour (theory and sex prove incompatible bedfellows when his wife-to-be declares: 'You can't deconstruct and undress at the same time'). A multifaceted and revealing collection, Farther Away actually brings the reader closer to the author.
This book of essays by Jonathan Franzen covers various subjects but the unifying theme is truthfulness. He stands for lucidity of expression, which is not the same thing as ease. The lesson of Franzen is that honesty and excellence come from blood, sweat and tears . . . This is Franzen at his finest . . . Narcissism must never be confused with love. This is Franzen's distilled wisdom . . . He is unflinching about the price of empathy . . . This is a book for those interested in how to live as well as how to write.
The world of literature, besieged as he believes it is, needs authors who care. And Franzen really cares. His attitude might be aggressively highbrow, but his underlying concerns are simple and humane: family, age, grief, love.
At heart, [Farther Away] is a defense of the difficult, both within ourselves and in our art. In a culture where forces like Facebook are constantly conspiring to reshape us into more marketable versions of ourselves, Franzen preaches that our salvation depends on not losing touch with the 'authentic but horrible' . . . If you were feeling uncharitable, you could make the argument that Farther Away is less a philosophical treatise than an exercise in self-defense. But that's unfair . . . If Franzen is guilty of anything it's a refusal to compromise his truth in the name of popularity. And lucky for us, because it is this very willingness to brave our bad opinion that makes his fiction so uncompromisingly alive. It's also what qualifies him to lecture us on embracing our own flawed natures . . . In Farther Away, Franzen has made it his mission to penetrate what he terms the 'dense modern fog of sentimentality' to get at the ugly truths underneath. He does this not because he enjoys dwelling in the dark, but because the dark is a necessary and rich component of the human experience, one that he believes is being forced more and more underground . . . If you are not convinced of his point of view by the more pedantic pieces in the book, you likely will be by the treatments of some of his favorite writers. The authors he showcases in Farther Away range from Paula Fox and Frank Wedekind to Christina Stead and Dostoyevsky; each utterly singular, all gloriously difficult. Franzen's near reverential reviews of their work serve as vivid reminders that great fiction is about much more than entertainment; it's about bringing communion to people stranded on the island of the self--something that can only be accomplished with a faithful recounting of what it really means to be human, warts and all.
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Meet the Author
Jonathan Franzen is the author of four novels (Freedom, The Corrections, Strong Motion, and The Twenty-Seventh City), a collection of essays (How to Be Alone), a personal history (The Discomfort Zone), and a translation of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, all published by FSG. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- Place of Birth:
- Western Springs, Illinois
- B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
PAIN WON’T KILL YOU
[commencement address, Kenyon College, May 2011]
Good morning, Class of 2011. Good morning, relatives and faculty. It’s a great honor and pleasure to be here today.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that you all knew what you were getting into when you chose a literary writer to deliver this address. I’m going to do what literary writers do, which is to talk about themselves, in the hope that my experience has some resonance with your own. 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.
A couple of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold, with a five-megapixel camera and 3G capability. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its tiny track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics. I was, in short, infatuated with my new device. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old device, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship. I’d developed trust issues with my Pearl, accountability issues, compatibility issues, and even, toward the end, some doubts about my Pearl’s very sanity, until I’d finally had to admit to myself that I’d outgrown the relationship.
Do I need to point out that—absent some wild, anthropomorphizing projection in which my old BlackBerry felt sad about the waning of my love for it—our relationship was entirely one-sided? Let me point it out anyway. Let me further point out how ubiquitously the word sexy is used to describe late-model gadgets; and how the extremely cool things that we can do now with these gadgets—like impelling them to action by speaking incantations, or doing that spreading-the-fingers iPhone thing that makes images get bigger—would have looked, to people a hundred years ago, like a magician’s incantations, a magician’s hand gestures; and how, when we want to describe an erotic relationship that’s working perfectly, we speak, indeed, of magic. Let me toss out the idea that, according to the logic of technoconsumerism, in which markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all-powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer: that (to speak more generally) the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, 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. Let me suggest, finally, that the world of technoconsumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include the wedding industry, TV ads that feature cute young children or the giving of automobiles as Christmas presents, and the particularly grotesque equation of diamond jewelry with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should buy stuff.
A related phenomenon is the ongoing transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb to like from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse: from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products—and none more so than electronic devices and applications—is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist—a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. Those people exist to make you feel good about yourself, but how good can your feeling be when it’s provided by people you don’t respect? You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
Consumer-technology products, of course, would never do anything this unattractive, because they’re not people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery. And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability, the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.
I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media dissed by cranky fifty-one-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love. My friend Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” She has in mind the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard. The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life. Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person: Does this person love me? There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the technoconsumerist order: it exposes the lie.
One of the heartening things about the plague of cell phones in my Manhattan neighborhood is that, among all the texting zombies and the party-planning yakkers on the sidewalks, I sometimes get to walk alongside somebody who’s having an honest-to-God fight with a person they love. I’m sure they’d prefer not to be having the fight on a public sidewalk, but here it’s happening to them anyway, and they’re behaving in a very, very uncool way. Shouting, accusing, pleading, abusing. This is the kind of thing that gives me hope for the world.
Which is not to say that love is only about fighting, or that radically self-involved people aren’t capable of accusing and abusing. What love is really about is a bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with their struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.
When I was a senior in college, I took the first seminar the college had ever offered in literary theory, and I fell in love with the most brilliant student in that seminar. Both of us liked how instantly powerful literary theory made us feel—it’s similar to modern consumer technology in this regard—and we flattered ourselves on how much more sophisticated we were than the kids who were still doing those tedious old close-textual readings. For various theoretical reasons, we also thought it would be cool to get married. My mother, who had spent twenty years making me into a person who craved full-commitment love, now turned around and advocated that I spend my twenties, as she put it, “footloose and fancy-free.” Naturally, since I thought she was wrong about everything, I assumed she was wrong about this. I had to find out the hard way what a messy business commitment is.
The first thing we jettisoned was theory. As my soon-to-be wife once memorably remarked, after an unhappy scene in bed, “You can’t deconstruct and undress at the same time.” We spent a year on different continents and pretty quickly discovered that, although it was fun to fill the pages of our letters to each other with theoretical riffs, it wasn’t so fun to read these pages. But what really killed theory for me—and began to cure me, more generally, of my obsession with how I appeared to other people—was my love of fiction. There may be a superficial similarity between revising a piece of fiction and revising your Web page or your Facebook profile; but a page of prose doesn’t have those slick graphics to help bolster your self-image. If you’re moved to try to return the gift that other people’s fiction represents for you, you eventually can’t ignore what’s fraudulent or secondhand in your own pages. These pages are a mirror, too, and if you really love fiction you’ll find that the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect you as you really are.
The risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking. My wife and I, having married too young, eventually surrendered so much of ourselves and caused each other so much pain that we each had reason to regret ever having taken the plunge.
And yet I can’t quite make myself regret it. For one thing, our struggle to honor our commitment actively came to constitute who we were as people; we weren’t helium molecules, floating inertly through life; we bonded and we changed. For another thing—and this may be my main message to you all today—pain hurts, but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative—an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology—pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is not to have lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my thirties,” is to consign yourself to ten years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.
What I said earlier, about how engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are, may apply particularly to fiction writing, but it’s true of just about any work you undertake in love. I’d like to conclude here by talking about another love of mine.
When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I’d been fired up by critical theory, and was looking for things to find wrong with the world and reasons to hate the people who ran it, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong—an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests—the angrier and more people-hating I became. Finally, around the time my marriage was breaking up and I was deciding that pain was one thing but spending the rest of my life feeling ever angrier and more unhappy was quite another, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.
But then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love. And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a sparrow, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.
Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it—was considerably worse, in fact—but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved. And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became, strangely, easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.
How does this happen? I think, for one thing, my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject. Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.
Like I said, the bird thing was very unexpected to me. For most of my life, I hadn’t given much thought to animals. And maybe I was unlucky to find my way to birds so relatively late in life, or maybe I was lucky to find my way to them at all. But once you’re hit with a love like that, however late or early, it changes your relation to the world. In my case, for example, I’d abandoned doing journalism after a few early experiments, because the world of facts didn’t excite me the way the world of fiction did. But after my avian conversion experience had taught me to run toward my pain and anger and despair, rather than away from them, I started taking on a new kind of journalistic assignment. Whatever I most hated, at a particular moment, became the thing I wanted to write about. I went to Washington in the summer of 2003, when the Bush administration was doing things to the country that enraged me. I went to China a few years later, because I was being kept awake at night by my anger about the havoc the Chinese are wreaking on the environment. I went to the Mediterranean to interview the hunters and poachers who were slaughtering migratory songbirds. In each case, when meeting the enemy, I found people whom I really liked—in some cases outright loved. Hilarious, generous, brilliant gay Republican staffers. Fearless, miraculous young Chinese nature lovers. A gun-crazy Italian legislator who had very soft eyes and who quoted the animal-rights advocate Peter Singer to me. In each case, the blanket antipathy that had come so easily to me wasn’t so easy anymore.
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might end up loving some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?
Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Franzen
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