Cultural Critic or Complainer-in-Chief?

Jonathan Franzen Asks Questions No One Wants To Hear

By Joshua Furst

Published May 24, 2012, issue of June 01, 2012.
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Farther Away
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages, $26

In The Weeds: As well as being a writer, Jonathan Franzen is a bird-watcher.
Kathryn Chetkovich
In The Weeds: As well as being a writer, Jonathan Franzen is a bird-watcher.

On the last page of the last essay in his new collection, “Farther Away,” Jonathan Franzen bombards the reader with a rapid-fire list of provocative and typically Franzenian questions:

What is the point of meaning — especially literary meaning — in a rabid modern world? Why bother creating and preserving order if civilization is every bit as killing as the anarchy to which it’s opposed? Why not be rabid? Why torment ourselves with books?

The context for these questions is an exploration of Franzen’s deep admiration of Paula Fox’s novel “Desperate Characters,” but the context hardly matters. As with most of Franzen’s public statements, whether they’re made off the cuff or in print, what comes through is a whinging, nudging disappointment with the state of the world he has inherited. These questions may be rhetorical, but they beg for serious answers nonetheless. They point to a void in our jingoistic, consumer society and ask the reader to consider not only whether this void can be filled, but also if so, with what and to what end? Where’s the morality in a frivolous world? Does anyone even care to venture a guess?

These questions torture Franzen. They animate his fiction. They compel him to give voice to opinions in his nonfiction that alienate both his allies and his foes. They get him in trouble with Oprah Winfrey. And on, and on, and on. It’s easy to dismiss Franzen as an elitist and a narcissist who wants to be adored by the society he loathes. To dismiss him, though, proves his point, and it allows us to avoid the questions he’s asking. There’s an element of killing the messenger to it.

And so, I’d like to take Franzen at his word. He doesn’t so much want adoration as he wants his questions to be taken seriously, regardless of whether they’re answerable or not. If this earnestness reads to some as smugness, that’s a paradox he seems willing to live with.


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