Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Franzen essays focus on favourite books, birds
Jonathan Franzen's new essay collection presents an engaging grab bag of pieces, many focusing on the star American novelist's twin preoccupations, books and birds.
Those who've devoured his two best-known novels, Freedom (2010), and The Corrections (2001), already have a good sense of Franzen's tortured Midwestern ethos -- songbirds being the obsession of a main character in Freedom -- but he gets close and personal in several of these 22 entries.
As in his previous essay collection, How to Be Alone (2002), some of them are well-researched pieces of long-form personal journalism. Others are short knock-offs. He orders them chronologically, from most recent to oldest, rather than by theme.
This is a defensible strategy. The non-environmentalists among his fan base could think that the three extended essays focusing on the threatened extinction of bird species -- one that takes him to Cyprus and another to China -- are more than anyone needs.
His essays on various aspects of literary fiction are another issue. Why would you read think pieces by a great American novelist if you don't like fiction and writers?
The title essay combines a couple of his favourite subjects. Originally published in The New Yorker in 2011, it finds Franzen journeying to the obscure Chilean island of Masafuera to decompress after his Freedom book tour and to scatter the ashes of his late friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace.
The island, he explains off the hop, was probably the model Daniel Defoe used for the setting of his classic novel Robinson Crusoe, and the name Masafuera translates to "farther away."
It's a fine piece, a moving meditation on friendship, loneliness, nature and literature. Franzen was clearly shaken by Wallace's suicide in 2008, and he works through his feelings in a few other essays as well.
Canadians will get a warm glow of self-congratulation from Franzen's tribute to our celebrated short story writer Alice Munro, commissioned as a review of her collection Runaway in 2004 by the New York Times.
"Munro has a strong claim on being the best fiction writer now working in North America," he begins. "She is one of the handful of writers ... I have in mind when I say fiction is my religion."
He also persuasively extols the virtues of the little-known Australian novelist Christina Stead and her 1940 masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children: "the book operates at a pitch of psychological violence that makes Revolutionary Road look like Everybody Loves Raymond."
Franzen's strength as a novelist is not his prose but the critical yet affectionate eye he casts on his characters. In these essays, too, his sentences can be clunky and wordy; no one will accuse him of being as elegant as Updike.
Yet when he finds his groove, Franzen's honesty and frankness are admirable. An essay complaining about cellphone abusers morphs into a heartfelt examination of his parents' marriage. A lecture examining the place of autobiography in fiction turns into a revealing account of the circumstances that allowed him to complete The Corrections.
"The first thing I had to do in the early '90s, he confesses, "was get out of my marriage."
Franzen's pace as a writer is closer to that of the tortoise than the hare. If he can fill the gaps between novels with personal journalism, most of his readers will be glad to have it.
Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J11
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