Franzen Essays Focus on Favourite Books, Birds

Winnipeg Free Press, May 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

Franzen Essays Focus on Favourite Books, Birds


Jonathan Franzen's new essay collection presents an engaging grab bag of pieces, many focusing on the star American novelist's twin preoccupations, books and birds.

Those who've devoured his two best-known novels, Freedom (2010), and The Corrections (2001), already have a good sense of Franzen's tortured Midwestern ethos -- songbirds being the obsession of a main character in Freedom -- but he gets close and personal in several of these 22 entries.

As in his previous essay collection, How to Be Alone (2002), some of them are well-researched pieces of long-form personal journalism. Others are short knock-offs. He orders them chronologically, from most recent to oldest, rather than by theme.

This is a defensible strategy. The non-environmentalists among his fan base could think that the three extended essays focusing on the threatened extinction of bird species -- one that takes him to Cyprus and another to China -- are more than anyone needs.

His essays on various aspects of literary fiction are another issue. Why would you read think pieces by a great American novelist if you don't like fiction and writers?

The title essay combines a couple of his favourite subjects. Originally published in The New Yorker in 2011, it finds Franzen journeying to the obscure Chilean island of Masafuera to decompress after his Freedom book tour and to scatter the ashes of his late friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace.

The island, he explains off the hop, was probably the model Daniel Defoe used for the setting of his classic novel Robinson Crusoe, and the name Masafuera translates to "farther away."

It's a fine piece, a moving meditation on friendship, loneliness, nature and literature. Franzen was clearly shaken by Wallace's suicide in 2008, and he works through his feelings in a few other essays as well. …

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