Monday, April 11, 2011

Farther Away

The New Yorker released Jonathan Franzen's latest essay this morning on Facebook, of all places. (Were they commenting on the NYT's wall? Or maybe on Franzen's FB line at the end there? What's going on?) I read it this morning in one big bite, while my friend Lauren--two thousand miles away in Seattle-- patiently waited for me to finish so that we could discuss it.

Farther Away starts out as a sort of overly romanticized adventure story--- all 'I feel like it would be a good idea to find my footing again by being completely alone on a tropical island for a while, and to pack nothing but some iodine tablets and “Robinson Crusoe.”' My favorite part in the essay is actually when Franzen discovers a fully functioning cabin on his campsite with food and a bed and a stove and gets all annoyed and decides to ignore it.
'The refugio’s existence made my already somewhat artificial project of solitary self-sufficiency seem even more artificial, and I resolved to pretend that it didn’t exist.'

The essay eventually switches into another story all together, one that I wasn't quite prepared for. The intended Defoe/Crusoe literary criticism fest (no one does this better than Franzen, by the way. Franzen writes about books the way that duller people wax poetically along about food. Well, Zadie Smith does it pretty damn well too.) casually morphs into The Big Essay. The one about his dear friend's suicide and the eventual acknowledgement of his own grief.

Franzen's grief is palpably raw and understandably muddled. He writes almost clumsily around his own feelings of anger and regret, love and tension. When it finally comes time to scatter Wallace's ashes on one of the island's many cliffs (at the request of his late wife), he does so with a narrative so nervously honest and confused that it caused this reader to dig at her cuticles until they bled.

'It was late afternoon, and the wind was blowing out over the insanely blue ocean, and it was time. La Cuchara seemed more suspended in the air than attached to the earth. There was a feeling of near-infinity, the sun eliciting from the hillsides more shades of green and yellow than I’d suspected the visible spectrum of containing, a dazzling near-infinity of colors, and the sky so immense that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the mainland on the eastern horizon. White shreds of remnant cloud came barrelling down from the summit, whipped past me, and vanished. The wind was blowing out, and I began to cry, because I knew it was time and I hadn’t prepared myself; had managed to forget. I went to the refugio and got the little box of David’s ashes, the “booklet”—to use the term he’d amusingly applied to his not-short book about mathematical infinity—and walked back down the promontory with it, the wind at my back.

I was doing a lot of different things at every moment. Even as I was crying, I was also scanning the ground for the missing piece of my tent, and taking my camera out of my pocket and trying to capture the celestial beauty of the light and the landscape, and damning myself for doing this when I should have been purely mourning, and telling myself that it was O.K. that I’d failed in my attempt to see the rayadito in what would surely be my only visit to the island—that it was better this way, that it was time to accept finitude and incompleteness and leave certain birds forever unseen, that the ability to accept this was the gift I’d been given and my beloved dead friend had not.'

It takes great courage to write about a failed attempt at anything, and Franzen's pursuit of quietness and isolation gives us hope that perhaps our busy world is good enough as is. He returns to his 'girlfriend and a martini' back in California without regret but also without any clear revelation or spiritual understanding gained from such a dramatic little journey. But it's this lack of closure that gives the story weight and undeniable importance-- 'As long as we have such complications, how dare we be bored?'

1 comment:

David Henly said...

Loved the Franzen piece and your take on it. I find his embracing of complexity (the perpetual roller coaster of one's life) quite refreshing.
Also, speaking of food writers, have you read Calvin Trillin? And here's a new one i have on order from the library:
Keep writing - you have a faithful reader (likely many!!)