Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 321 pages, $26. David Foster Wallace haunts this book of essays. But then, how could he not? Franzen and Wallace were friends -- loving literary siblings in the most volatile way (no Daddy for both to go Oedipal on).
Wallace's suicide brought forth a short 2008 remembrance but much more importantly for Franzen, this book and our memories of Wallace, the title essay in the book from the New Yorker follows Franzen's need for "flight from myself to Masafuera, where the inspiration for Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" once lived. It's in that essay (Masafuera means "far away" in Spanish) that Franzen confronts his rawest feelings about Wallace's suicide. "He was sick, yes, and in a sense the story of my friendship with him is simply that I loved a person who was mentally ill. The depressed person then killed himself in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took him away from us and made him a very public legend A literary establishment that had never so much as short-listed one of his books for a national prize now united to declare him a lost national treasure Part of him had chosen the admiration of strangers over the love of the people close to him."
This is, all through it, startling. It is no wonder that Oprah Winfrey cared so much about Franzen that she took his major (and bruisingly articulate) abuse in an essay explaining his refusal to be Oprahfied, swallowed her pride and invited him to be Oprahfied again in an orgy of "all is forgiven." Franzen -- writer, bird-lover, environmentalist -- travels to a lot of places (China, for one) but he's probably never so cogent as when he's writing about other writers -- Wallace, Christina Stead, Donald Antrim, Frank Wedekind, James Purdy, a motley lot to be sure. Asked to write about one state for an anthology, he pretends to conduct an "interview" with New York State? -- Jeff Simon