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Author Jonathan Franzen at home in New York.

Michael Falco/Michael Falco/The Globe and Mail

Farther Away


By Jonathan Franzen

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HarperCollins, 321 pages, $29.99

It's tempting, really tempting, to call Jonathan Franzen the Sally Field of American letters. ("You like me, you really like me!") But in his personal essays and commentary, the earnest and painfully self-conscious author of The Corrections and Freedom continually subverts his palpable yearning to be liked by coming across as the possibly most unlikeable living American writer. It's not so much what he says, but how he says it. Farther Away could have been titled Crankypants, and not in a fun, Tina Fey way.

The essays in Franzen's first collection, How To Be Alone – published in the wake of his brilliant and successful novel The Corrections – were, read individually, in the main intelligent and passionate. I recalled reading his take on literature in a TV-obsessed world, The Reader in Exile, in Harper's and Post-it-noting several passages ("Uh huh. Right on!"). But lumped together, the cumulative effect was one of indecorous whining and anguished breast-beating about the death of the novel and the irrelevance of contemporary literature in the digital age, among other grievances.

Now, in the plumy wake of Freedom, a good, but not great novel that got more attention than it deserved, comes another collection of Franzen essays – an even less alluring bundle of fretting and pensées than How To Be Alone, which at least had some thematic unity.

Farther Away is more product than artistic enterprise. Capitalizing on his bestseller and Time cover-boy status (and Oprah's and the President's raves about Freedom – her: "this book is a masterpiece"; him: "terrific"), his publisher has gathered almost every piece of non-fiction Franzen has written over the past decade, from a couple of very good New Yorker articles to a grouchy commencement address, to bits and bobs of ephemera, and slapped them in chronological order between covers.

And you can't blame HarperCollins; the publishing business is in a bad way, as we keep hearing, and a product that sells itself is a no-brainer. But someone who has been touted as the next great American writer should have more self-respect than to allow this indiscriminate mélange to be published as a book.

The title essay, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, is meant to be the centrepiece. In 2010, Franzen headed to a deserted island to escape the onslaught that is contemporary life for a successful Manhattan-based writer and contemplated birds, Robinson Crusoe, the fiction enterprise, and the 2008 death by suicide of his long-time friend, David Foster Wallace.

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But Franzen is no modern-day Daniel Defoe, and his bitterness over DFW's posthumous adulation overshadows the personal grief over his friend's death. Franzen admits to a "brotherly" competition, and what appears to have been a non-ending schoolboy crush (he tried to make Wallace laugh; tried to prove to Wallace he was smart), but his sense of rivalry continues in an unseemly way beyond the grave. Dead or alive, Wallace's work and sensibility and perceived honesty are/were loved so intensely by his fans that it must rankle Franzen no end. Franzen made the big bucks; Wallace got the love.

Franzen writes, in a comment clearly intended to undermine Wallace, "I will pass over the question of how such a beautiful human being had come by such intimate knowledge of the thoughts of hideous." Besides the barely veiled insult, for a major fiction writer to even raise such a question is ludicrous. And for a guy concerned about what's cool and uncool, very uncool, JF.

In addition to Farther Away, and David Foster Wallace, Franzen's October, 2008, memorial service remarks, the ghost of DFW also shadows the opening piece here, Pain Won't Kill You, Franzen's commencement address at Kenyon College in 2011. It was at Kenyon that Wallace gave his own now-famous commencement remarks, This is Water, in 2005, which was published as a slim book after his death, a speech that is as close to a religious tract as many people will get these days.

What was evident in How To Be Alone and again in Farther Away is that Franzen does not have a strong non-fiction persona. He's awkward writing in the first person, but when the spotlight is elsewhere, he shines. The two long articles here on endangered migratory birds are excellent, as are a number of short reviews about forgotten novels and their authors, like Paula Fox's Desperate Characters and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Had the reviews been gathered in one section and allowed to resonate off each other, along with Franzen's interesting and lengthy piece on Alice Munro, this collection would've had something resembling an anchor.

Franzen came late, but with utter passion, to birdwatching (a big part of Freedom involves the protagonist's efforts to save endangered birds). In The Ugly Mediterranean, he travels to Cyprus and southern Europe to report on the horrendous poaching of migratory songbirds and heroic efforts by various groups to save them. And in The Chinese Puffin, he investigates environmental degradation and factory conditions in China with fascinating results. It's as good as any of Peter Hessler's or Evan Osnos's dispatches to The New Yorker on the tensions between the ancient and the very new in the Middle Kingdom.

These two pieces of long-form narrative journalism combined with other explorations of the aviary and environmental kind would have made for an important contribution to contemporary writing about the natural world and the global industrial complex, as well as a book worthy of a novelist of Franzen's stature and ambition.

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While Jonathan Franzen's essay collections disappoint, there are other great contemporary novelists who move effortlessly from fiction to non-fiction with thrilling results:

Jonathan Lethem

The Disappointment Artist (2005)

The author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude dishes eloquently about his influences – from his parents, to old westerns and Star Wars and John Cassavetes, to Philip K. Dick, to Robert Fripp. Lethem's 2011 collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, is good, but this one is the keeper.

Zadie Smith

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Changing My Mind (2009)

The author of White Teeth and On Beauty may well be the best literary essayist of her generation. The lengthy pieces here include looks at Roland Barthes and Vladimir Nabokov, Middlemarch, her beloved E.M. Forster, and a brilliant exegesis on David Foster Wallace that should make Franzen hang his head in shame.

David Foster Wallace

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997)

This collection of "essays and arguments" forms part of the holy trinity of DFW's oeuvre, along with his first story collection, The Girl With Curious Hair, and the infinite Infinite Jest. Cruise ships, fiction in the age of TV, tennis, David Lynch – nothing DFW touches on ever looks the same again. Consider the Lobster (2006) is very good, but A Supposedly Fun Thing broke the mould.

Julian Barnes

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Something to Declare (2002)

This protean master British novelist's collection of essays about his spiritual home, France, includes multiple brilliant pieces on the Tour de France and Flaubert. The prose is unerringly elegant and penetrating and there's even a thorough index.

Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner's two story collections, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and All the Anxious Girls on Earth, are just out in paperback.

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