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Brilliant writer shines again

Collection of stories worthy of readers’ time and respect

By Drew Gallagher

For The Free Lance-Star

IHAVE a love–hate relationship with the writer Jonathan Franzen.  I am confident that the relationship is unrequited on both fronts.

The love part is simple with Franzen—he is an incredibly gifted writer who has written two best-selling literary novels, “The Corrections” and “Freedom.”

If Ladbrokes of London were setting odds on the contemporary writer most likely to write the “Great American Novel,” Franzen would probably be the favorite.  His talents are equaled by his ambition to write great big expansive novels, and it is in this ambition that the hate part of my relationship with him comes into evidence.

To write perfect great big expansive novels is nearly impossible, so I try not to judge too harshly, but with Franzen there always seems to be a moment when the misstep is born of the author’s hubris: He’s going to sing and you’re going to sit there and listen whether you like it or not.

Franzen’s new collection of essays, “Farther Away,” played out this dichotomy on a lesser scale, but lest anyone think I did not enjoy the essays, I always enjoy reading Franzen and would argue that his essay on Alice Munro may be the crowning achievement of his oeuvre to this point.  It is funny, brilliant and an inspired testimonial to Munro’s immense talents.  That modest essay alone is worth the price of admission even if one isn’t a Munro fan (which everyone should be, dammit).

“Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life:  about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death.  She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.”

The collection features a number of book reviews in which Franzen touches upon some little-known novels that have been forgotten and seem worthy of finding and reading for a first time.  “Farther Away” also includes a few essays on his love of birding and his assorted efforts to protect birds throughout the world—an admirable use of fame of fortune.

Franzen also writes about the loss of his good friend the writer David Foster Wallace.  The essays that reflect upon Wallace are touching and offer a perspective on Wallace’s suicide that could not come from the obit pages.

Toward the end of his Alice Munro essay/review he exhorts the reader to “Read Munro!”  The same should be said of Franzen.

 Drew Gallagher is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.

FARTHER AWAY    

By Jonathan Franzen

(F, S&G, $2, 336 pp.)

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/books/2012/05/13/brilliant-writer-shines-again/

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