I recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s latest personal reflection in the April 18 New Yorker, titled “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude.” Franzen, whom I obviously love, has been accused of often turning out what I call “Personal Narratives of Great Importance.” I once heard a reader who was upset enough over these essay state he wrote Franzen to complain, only to follow up his story with the fact that he received a postcard from Franzen stating the reader could rest easy, Franzen didn’t have any more essays like that “in the can.” “Farther Away” begins like one of those narratives. Franzen tells us he needs to escape his busy life as a successful author on a celebrated book tour, and that “substantial swaths of my personal history were going dead from within, from my talking about them too often.” To escape this business, Franzen flees to a deserted island, which was the basis for the novel Robinson Crusoe, as well as a home to the exteremly rare bird, the rayadito. Franzen, a celebrated bird-watcher, hopes to relish the solitude the opportunity will afford him. A beginning like this seems to justify the above reader’s complaints.
Farther into the article, however, one finds a truly exquisite and moving tribute to both novels and David Foster Wallace, as well as a beautiful discussion of the power of “close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning,” the “infinite divisibility of a single instant of time,” and our complex relationship with that thing we call “boredom.” Several of Franzen’s essays have stirred deep emotions in me, and while I cannot call myself a fan of DFW, I felt, reading the essay, the pain and frustration of not only losing a friend, but of grappling with frustration of that thing inside us that keeps most of us on the side of connection, but also keeps a select few isolated, alone, and unable to see the rare birds in our company. Franzen, stranded on a remote island himself, is able to come to terms with such a duality. Standing on what he calls the most “dramatically beautiful spot I’d ever seen,” he begins to spread a handful of Wallace’s ashes, given to him by the dead writers widow. Here is Franzen’s searing description of that moment:
“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, as taking my camera out of my pocket and trying to capture the celestial beauty of the light and the landscape, 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 is 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 is writing like that (the phrase “and leave certain birds forever unseen” is as powerful as any I have read) that separates Franzen from other writers of today. In fact, I can think of no other working writer today who could write such a wondrous sentence. This reader hopes that Franzen gives us more of himself, and soon.