In the early s, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace -- two of recent history's most influential American novelists -- agreed that fiction was a "neutral middle ground on which to make a deep connection with another human being," and that writing and reading literature were "a way out of loneliness. Franzen's eulogy for Wallace -- whose suicide ended the life of "as passionate and precise a punctuator of prose as has ever walked this earth" -- is anthologized in his latest collected nonfiction and depicts pain born from love. Throughout the book, Franzen suggests that storytelling is a way to interpret and relieve our collective suffering -- a vehicle for social connection -- and that apathy can be challenged with Molotov cocktails of "bottomless empathy, born out of the heart's revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. In "The Ugly Mediterranean," the author of "Freedom" witnesses the slaughter of migratory songbirds in Cyprus. In the title essay, he camps on a volcanic island in the South Pacific believed to be the setting for Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," wrestling with despair in the aftermath of Wallace's suicide.
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In the South Pacific Ocean, five hundred miles off the coast of central Chile, is a forbiddingly vertical volcanic island, seven miles long and four miles wide, that is populated by millions of seabirds and thousands of fur seals but is devoid of people, except in the warmer months, when a handful of fishermen come out to catch lobsters. To reach the island, which is officially called Alejandro Selkirk, you fly from Santiago in an eight-seater that makes twice-weekly flights to an island a hundred miles to the east.
By the end of last fall, I was in some need of being farther away. Substantial swaths of my personal history were going dead from within, from my talking about them too often. And every morning the same revving doses of nicotine and caffeine; every evening the same assault on my e-mail queue; every night the same drinking for the same brain-dulling pop of pleasure.
At a certain point, having read about Masafuera, I began to imagine running away and being alone there, like Selkirk, in the interior of the island, where nobody lives even seasonally. I also thought it might be good, while I was there, to reread the book generally considered to be the first English novel. In a very direct way, according to Watt, the English novel had risen from the ashes of boredom.
And boredom was what I was suffering from. My longest winning streak so far was eight. I made arrangements to hitch a ride to Masafuera on a small boat chartered by some adventurous botanists. Then I indulged in a little orgy of consumerism at R. Besides a new backpack, tent, and knife, I outfitted myself with certain late-model specialty items, such as a plastic plate with a silicone rim that flipped up to form a bowl, tablets to neutralize the taste of water sterilized with iodine, a microfibre towel that stowed in a marvellously small pouch, organic vegan freeze-dried chili, and an indestructible spork.
I said I would, and she found an antique wooden matchbox, a tiny book with a sliding drawer, and put some ashes in it, saying that she liked the thought of part of David coming to rest on a remote and uninhabited island. Now that the work was done, though, it was harder to ignore the circumstance that, arguably, in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels.
The desperate edge to my own recent boredom: might this be related to my having broken a promise to myself? And so, on the last morning of January, I arrived in heavy fog at a spot on Masafuera called La Cuchara The Spoon , three thousand feet above sea level.
Self-disciplined survival on a desert island surrounded by cannibals was the perfect romance for him. In our basement in St. Louis, he kept an orderly workshop in which he sharpened his tools, repaired his clothes he was a good seamster , and improvised, out of wood and metal and leather, sturdy solutions to home-maintenance problems.
He took my friends and me camping several times a year, organizing our campsite by himself while I ran in the woods with my friends, and making himself a bed out of rough old blankets beside our fibrefill sleeping bags. I think, to some extent, I was an excuse for him to go camping. My brother Tom, no less a do-it-yourselfer than my father, became a serious backpacker after he went away to college.
Because I was trying to emulate Tom in all things, I listened to his stories of ten-day solo treks in Colorado and Wyoming and yearned to be a backpacker myself. On the second day of a trek into the Sawtooth Wilderness, in Idaho, we were all invited to spend twenty-four hours by ourselves. My counsellor took me off to a sparse grove of ponderosa pine and left me alone there, and very soon, although the day was bright and unthreatening, I was cowering in my tent.
Apparently, all it took for me to become aware of the emptiness of life and the horror of existence was to be deprived of human company for a few hours. I learned, the next day, that Weidman, though eight months older than me, had been so lonely that he hiked back to within sight of the base camp. What enabled me to stick it out—and to feel, moreover, that I could have stayed alone for longer than a day—was writing:.
Thursday July 3 This evening I begin a notebook. As I came back to my fire after dinner this afternoon there was a moment when I felt my aluminum cup a friend, sitting on a rock, considering me. I had a certain fly at least I think it was the same one buzz around my head for a goodly long while this afternoon. Also this afternoon this was my main activity I sat out on a point of rock trying to set to words of a sonnet the different purposes of my life that I saw at different times 3—as in points of view.
However, as I did this, I became convinced that life was a waste of time, or something like that. I was so sad and screwed up at the time that every thought was of despair. I was coming close with my third point, but my next thought was a little off. I figured that the reason for the above was that time life is too short. All of a sudden it hit me: I missed my family. What had been missing was some halfway secure sense of my own identity, a sense achieved in solitude by putting first-person words on a page.
I was keen for years afterward to do more backpacking, but never quite keen enough to make it happen. I did hold on to his old Gerry backpack, although it was not a useful general-purpose piece of luggage, and I kept alive my dreams of wilderness by buying cheap non-essential camping gear, such as a jumbo bottle of Dr. When I took a bus back to college for my senior year, I put the Dr. When I tried to rinse out the backpack in a dormitory shower, its fabric disintegrated in my hands.
Masafuera, as the boat approached it, was not inviting. What had looked like steep hills were cliffs, and what had looked like gentle slopes were steep hills. The ocean, which had seemed reasonably calm on the trip out, was beating in big swells against a gap in the rocks below the shacks. To get ashore, the botanists and I jumped down into a lobster boat, which motored to within a hundred yards of shore.
There the boatmen hauled up the motor, and we took hold of a rope stretching out to a buoy and pulled ourselves farther in. As we neared the rocks, the boat lurched chaotically from side to side, water flooding into the stern, while the boatmen struggled to attach us to a cable that would drag us out.
Competing boom boxes pumped North and South American music through the open doors of several shacks, pushing back against the oppressive immensity of the gorge and the coldly heaving sea. Adding to the stricken atmospherics was a grove of large, dead trees, aged to the color of bone, behind the shacks. My companions for the trek to the interior were the young park ranger, Danilo, and a poker-faced mule. Under gray morning clouds that soon turned to fog, we hiked up interminable switchbacks and through a ravine lush with maquis, an introduced plant species that is used to repair lobster traps.
Very few people have ever seen one. Its roof was steep and tethered to the ground by cables, and inside it were a propane stove, two bunk beds with foam mattresses, an unappetizing but serviceable sleeping bag, and a cabinet stocked with dry pasta and canned foods; apparently, I could have brought along nothing but some iodine tablets and still survived here.
Danilo took my pack off the mule and led me down a foggy path to a stream with enough water trickling in it to form a little pool. I asked him if it was possible to walk from here to Los Inocentes. He departed with the mule and his gun, and I bent myself to my Crusovian tasks. The first of these was to gather and purify some drinking water. When I finally located the pool, after trying several paths, the tube on my pump cracked.
I filled up the skin with somewhat turbid water and, despite my resolution, entered the refugio and poured the water into a large cooking pot, along with some iodine tablets.
This simple task had somehow taken me an hour. I discovered that the G. A hawk dived right over my head; a cinclodes called pertly from a boulder. After much walking and weighing of pros and cons, I settled on a hollow that afforded some protection from the wind and no view of the refugio , and there I picnicked on cheese and salami.
I put up my tent, lashing the frame to boulders and weighing down the stakes with the heaviest rocks I could carry, and made some coffee on my little butane stove. Returning to the refugio , I worked on my footwear-drying project, pausing every few minutes to open windows and shoo out the flies that kept finding their way inside.
I fetched another skin of water and used the big pot and the propane stove to heat some bathwater, and it was simply much more pleasant , after my bath, to go back inside and dry off with the microfibre towel and get dressed than to do this in the dirt and the fog.
Since I was already so compromised, I went ahead and carried one of the foam mattresses down the promontory and put it in my tent. Except for the hum of flies and the occasional call of a cinclodes, the silence at my campsite was absolute. Sometimes the fog lifted a little, and I could see rocky hillsides and wet fern-filled valleys before the ceiling lowered again. My plan for the next day was to try to see a rayadito. Simply knowing that the bird was on the island made the island interesting to me.
The next morning, I decided, I would get up at dawn and devote, if necessary, the entire day to finding my way to Los Inocentes and getting back. But what really animates these adventureless adventures, and makes them surprisingly suspenseful, is their accessibility to the imagination of the ordinary reader.
I have no idea what I would do if I were enslaved by a Turk or menaced by wolves; I might very well be too scared to do what Robinson does. But to read about his practical solutions to the problems of hunger and exposure and illness and solitude is to be invited into the narrative, to imagine what I would do if I were similarly stranded, and to measure my own stamina and resourcefulness and industry against his.
A genre now definitely existed where none had before. So what exactly is a novel, and why did the genre appear when it did? The most persuasive account remains the political-economic one that Ian Watt advanced fifty years ago. At the same time, England was rapidly becoming more secular. Protestant theology had laid the foundations of the new economy by reimagining the social order as a collection of self-reliant individuals with a direct relationship with God, but by , as the British economy thrived, it was becoming less clear that individuals needed God at all.
Robinson finds God on the island, and he turns to Him repeatedly in moments of crisis, praying for deliverance and ecstatically thanking Him for providing the means of it.
And yet, as soon as each crisis has passed, he reverts to his practical self and forgets about God; by the end of the book, he seems to have been saved more by his own industry and ingenuity than by Providence. Enough other readers doubted its authenticity, however, that Defoe felt obliged to defend its truthfulness when he published the third and last of the volumes, the following year.
When business came to depend on investment, you had to weigh various possible future outcomes; when marriages ceased to be arranged, you had to speculate on the merits of potential mates.
And the novel, as it was developed in the eighteenth century, provided its readers with a field of play that was at once speculative and risk-free. While advertising its fictionality, it gave you protagonists who were typical enough to be experienced as possible versions of yourself and yet specific enough to remain, simultaneously, not you.
The great literary invention of the eighteenth century was, thus, not simply a genre but an attitude toward that genre. A number of recent scholarly studies have undermined the old notion that the epic is a central feature of all cultures, including oral cultures.
Fiction, whether fairy tale or fable, seems mainly to have been a thing for children. In pre-modern cultures, stories were read for information or edification or titillation, and the more serious literary forms, poetry and drama, required a certain degree of technical mastery. The novel, however, was within reach of anyone with pen and paper, and the kind of pleasure it afforded was uniquely modern. Experiencing a made-up story purely for pleasure became an activity in which adults, too, could now indulge freely if sometimes guiltily.
This historical shift toward reading for pleasure was so profound that we can hardly even see it anymore. The novel, as a duality of thing and attitude-toward-thing, has so thoroughly transformed our attitude that the thing itself is at risk of no longer being needed. Particularly evil-looking was the blackberry, which can overwhelm even tall native trees and which spreads in part by shooting out thick runners that look like thorny fibre-optic cables.
Two native plant species have already gone extinct, and unless a massive restoration project is undertaken many more will follow. But, as the novel has transformed the cultural environment, species of humanity have given way to a universal crowd of individuals whose most salient characteristic is their being identically entertained.
I 'd heard that the title essay of Jonathan Franzen's new collection was about his punishing experiences on a rough and tiny island. Some of what happened there is by now well known. The inhabitants of this island welcomed him by printing the wrong version of his novel Freedom , necessitating the pulping of its entire first print run. Then at the party — marked, as a consequence of this error, by the absence of the book it was intended to launch — a gatecrasher plucked Franzen's glasses from his face , ran off into the night and demanded a ransom of several thousand pounds.
Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen – review
In the South Pacific Ocean, five hundred miles off the coast of central Chile, is a forbiddingly vertical volcanic island, seven miles long and four miles wide, that is populated by millions of seabirds and thousands of fur seals but is devoid of people, except in the warmer months, when a handful of fishermen come out to catch lobsters. To reach the island, which is officially called Alejandro Selkirk, you fly from Santiago in an eight-seater that makes twice-weekly flights to an island a hundred miles to the east. By the end of last fall, I was in some need of being farther away. Substantial swaths of my personal history were going dead from within, from my talking about them too often. And every morning the same revving doses of nicotine and caffeine; every evening the same assault on my e-mail queue; every night the same drinking for the same brain-dulling pop of pleasure. At a certain point, having read about Masafuera, I began to imagine running away and being alone there, like Selkirk, in the interior of the island, where nobody lives even seasonally.
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The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures. This article was published more than 8 years ago. Some information in it may no longer be current. It's not so much what he says, but how he says it. Farther Away could have been titled Crankypants , and not in a fun, Tina Fey way. The essays in Franzen's first collection, How To Be Alone — published in the wake of his brilliant and successful novel The Corrections — were, read individually, in the main intelligent and passionate.