The notably unsentimental Jonathan Franzen offers a clear-eyed defense of sentiment in this essay collection.
In the first essay in his new collection, Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen rails against “technocapitalism,” arguing that “consumer-technology products” like the BlackBerry are “great allies and enablers of narcissism.” At this point, such pronouncements are standard Franzen fare: Not a week seems to go by without the author of “The Corrections” and “Freedom” launching a jeremiad against Twitter or bemoaning how Facebook has changed the meaning of “like.” Franzen is American literature’s grouch in chief, and he seems to relish the role.
Given the prickly persona that Franzen cultivates, it may come as a surprise to find that the real subject of “Farther Away” isn’t technocapitalism, but that which it most threatens: love. The collection opens with a defense of love as “bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are”; it ends with Franzen finishing Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters” for the “sixth or seventh time,” finding that the novel retains its power to move him: “suddenly I’m in love all over again.” “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.
There is an interesting tension between Franzen’s crisp, clear prose – even intensely self-reflexive passages are crisply, clearly so – and the digressive form his essays often take. The best pieces in “Farther Away” are loose, baggy monsters, combining personal reflection, cultural analysis, and philosophical introspection. (There are also several excellent travel essays.)
“I Just Called to Say I Love You,” an essay that considers the increasing frequency with which people publicly declare “I love you” into their cellphones, is a perfect example. In a mere 20 pages, Franzen manages to shift from a consideration of privacy and technology to a description of the events of Sept. 11 and the “disastrous sentimentalization of American public discourse” that it brought about to a close reading of a love letter his father sent to his mother in 1944. The essay shouldn’t work – there are too many shifts in register and tone – but somehow it does.