What We’re Reading: Sam Hockley-Smith

May 04, 2012

Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen: Through some weird, shitty magic, I always end up reading Jonathan Franzen at times of personal life crisis or change. I remember reading Freedom in Los Angeles on a particularly lonely trip that was mostly spent eating trail mix, writing at a weird-shaped desk, and trying to figure out why the mirror in my hotel also doubled as a television. It's fitting though—Franzen, however you might feel about him, is defining a generation. It's not my generation, I don't think, and it's not my dad's generation either. It's some in-between world I can't quite put a finger on yet. If Franzen were a lesser writer, I'd say he was the real human being equivalent of that tiny doorway in Being John Malkovitch, just hidden away where no one can find him, but when you do find him, he flips your whole life upside down. But Franzen is such an American Treasure that, at this point, people hate him for representing something that no one's even put a finger on yet. Freedom and The Corrections were both great, culture-defining works—but Farther Away? Technically, it's minor, I guess? It's a collection of essays gathered from various publications and speeches from over the years, and, for me, it includes some of Franzen's deepest, most revelatory work. Stripped of having to identify with any of the characters in his novels—who are often used as totems for anyone remotely like them, and as such, sometimes relating to one of them feels like a human being attempting to relate to an entire ocean—Franzen is able to blow apart the way we interact with each other, why we obsess, and how we get through life. Of particular note is "Pain Won't Kill You," a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College last May, which you can read in full here. It's mostly about technology, and how Facebook lets us present our best selves, instead of our real selves, and how that fucks up the concept of love and our understanding of it. But it's also about being a real person—being unafraid to love and be loved. That's maybe a cliche idea or a corny idea, but Franzen is great at flipping those universal truths into something new. "Farther Away," the second essay in the book, is nominally about Robinson Crusoe and isolation, but it's also about how Franzen coped with David Foster Wallace's suicide. This line, in particular, stuck out:

"She knew, because I had told her, that my current state of flight from myself had begun soon after David's death, two years earlier. At the time, I'd made a decision not to deal with the hideous suicide of someone I'd loved so much but instead to take refuge in anger and work. 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? The promise that, after I'd finished my book project, I would allow myself to feel more than fleeting grief and enduring anger at David's death?"

Then, about a page later, Franzen describes a backpacking trip he went on when he was 16. Feeling desperately alone in the woods, he hid in his tent in the middle of a bright day.

"What enabled me to stick it out—and to feel, moreover, that I could have stayed alone for longer than a day—was writing."

Finding solace in something you love to do is not a new idea, but it's an important one, and throughout the book, Franzen explores this idea—running through his out-of-nowhere hobbies (birdwatching) to his favorite underrated books. The essays stand alone, but taken as a patchwork look at his own life, they become about what was going on for him. A veiled autobiography where Franzen can't separate what he loves from who he is. I'm not sure he needs to.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf: When my parents got a divorce in the mid-’90s, I took refuge in my uncle's comic book collection. Only, instead of exploring superheroes, I skewed toward the new underground: Daniel Clowes' Ghostworld, Peter Bagge's Hate were like a look into what my life growing up in Seattle would be like (or so I thought—Bagge's grungy cynicism outlasted Seattle actually being that way. Looking back at those old issues of Hate it's hard to imagine that the blooming technological metropolis was once so bleak. Actually, nevermind. No it isn't. Seattle can be a bleak place as much as it can be a shining beacon of the future. Bagge just dwelled on a specific facet of slacker malaise that is very much still present—but that's a whole other thing). Anyway, one of the other comics in the box was My Friend Dahmer a brief one-off about how cartoonist Derf Backderf actually grew up with legendary serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. If anything, it was too brief, providing a glimpse into what it was like for Backderf to grow up with and actually know someone that would ultimately become known for horrifically killing people. Now, years and years and years later, Backderf has expanded My Friend Dahmer into a complete book. Pulling from not only his own memories, Backderf did tireless research—even going as far as scrapping his original work, and redrawing it. More than anything, it's almost pure reporting, but with the added personal experience. It's a tricky line to walk, too, Backderf wasn't exactly friends with Dahmer, but they weren't enemies either. How do you tell the story of this person without seeming like you're being too sympathetic? Too understanding of the mental problems and shitty homelife that Dahmer had? Backderf pulls it off by remaining slightly detached. It's a tricky line to walk—but mostly, what Backderf does is tell a story about a severely disturbed person. He's not sympathetic, but he's not cold either.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: What Karen Russell does with language in this book is amazing. It's the kind of book that blows wide open the possibilities for how words are used. Set against an uneasy swamp backdrop, the book is mostly about loss and grief and the stupid things we do to try to cope with those feelings. But it's so much deeper and weirder than that. There's kidnapping and alligator wrestling and competing carnivals, but mostly Swamplandia! is about growing up before you're ready. It's not something you can cope with, but it's something you can write about. Russell does it beautifully.

From The Collection:

What We're Reading
What We’re Reading: Sam Hockley-Smith