I’d heard that the title essay of Jonathan Franzen’s new collection was about his punishing experiences on a rough and tiny island. Some of what happened there is by now well known. The inhabitants of the UK welcomed him by printing the wrong version of his novel Freedom, necessitating the pulping of its entire first print run. Then at the party — marked, as a consequence of this error, by the absence of the book it was intended to launch — a gatecrasher plucked Franzen’s glasses from his face, ran off into the night and demanded a ransom of several thousand pounds. (He’s blind as a mole without his specs, apparently; probably the result of having subjected his peepers to every page of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and about half of his JR.)
When the plane lifted off from Heathrow, Franzen must have breathed a sigh of relief and said to himself that it would be a cold day in hell before he’d set foot on that loud-dump again. So I admired the courage it took to revisit the site of these serial traumas in print.
Except, it turns out, the essay is about another, less ferocious place: Mas Afuera, the island way down in the South Pacific where Alexander Selkirk (the model for Robinson Crusoe) was a castaway. Franzen retreats there after months of promoting his book, armed with a tent, a copy of Defoe’s novel and some of the ashes of his friend David Foster Wallace. Once installed on the island — installed in the sense of barely able to erect his tent — Franzen reflects on the ludicrousness of the endeavor (“I hadn’t felt so homesick since, possibly, the last time I’d camped by myself”), the rise of the novel in the age of Defoe and on his “friendship of compare and contrast and (in a brotherly way) compete” with Wallace.
By Jonathan Franzen
A tremendous essay in Franzen’s earlier collection, How To Be Alone, had seen him “alone and unprepared on [the] steep-sided, frigid, airless, poorly mapped mountain” of The Recognitions. This time round, the actual topography in which he finds himself serves as a kind of parallel map of the condition in which Wallace — “a lifelong prisoner of the island of himself”— washed up. It’s a splendid essay and a nuanced tribute, but as Franzen wrestles with this issue of death and survival in the thin air of high-altitude literary endeavor, something in the reader’s soul starts to recoil.
The centerpiece of that earlier collection was an essay in which Franzen lamented, analyzed and ended up surmounting the difficulties of writing novels in an age when everyone had better (ie worse) things to do than read ‘em. For an individual described by the father of Joshua Cody in his son’s memoir [sic] as “just about the cagiest guy I’ve ever met,” Franzen has been distinctly uncagey about the agonies of being nailed to the vocational cross of the novel. He suffers so you don’t have to! In a state of “unmanageable misery,” Wallace evidently suffered far more than Franzen. And so, “when his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.” Well, okaaay... But I couldn’t help thinking that maybe there was a third way. Like, couldn’t he have just kicked a ball around for a bit? Also, while we’re at it, has no one considered the long-term — potentially lethal — health consequences for a writer of wearing a bandana?