Jonathan Franzen visits "Robinson Crusoe" island


Cappi Williamson says: "In this week's issue of The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen travels to the remote island that was likely the setting for Robinson Crusoe, where he thinks about his friend, the late David Foster Wallace, and reflects on the meaning of solitude."

At the end of last fall, after promoting his novel [Freedom] non-stop for four months, Franzen decided to take himself out of the whirl and to strand himself on the remote, essentially uninhabited island. Before embarking on his journey, Franzen visits his friend Karen, Foster Wallace's widow, who gives him some of her late husband's ashes to scatter on the island. Franzen writes that his current state of flight from himself had begun soon after Foster Wallace's death. "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." Foster Wallace had loved writing fiction, "and he'd been very explicit, in our many discussions of the purpose of novels, about his belief that fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude," Franzen writes. But his hope for fiction faded, after years of struggling with the new novel. Though suicide itself was painful to contemplate, "it became . . . a sort of present to himself." Franzen compares Foster Wallace to Crusoe and concludes that "Robinson is able to survive his solitude because he's lucky; he makes peace with his condition because he's ordinary and his island is concrete. David, who was extraordinary, and whose island was virtual, finally had nothing but his own interesting self to survive on, and the problem with making a virtual world of oneself is akin to the problem with projecting ourselves onto a cyberworld: there's no end of virtual spaces in which to seek stimulation, but their very endlessness, the perpetual stimulation without satisfaction, becomes imprisoning."

For Franzen, writing has been a refuge from the loneliness and despair that can come with solitude. He writes of a camping trip he took when he was a teen-ager, during which he wrote in a journal every day and thereby acquired "some halfway secure sense of my own identity, a sense achieved in solitude by putting first-person words on a page." On Selkirk Island (known by locals by its older name, Masafuera, or "Farther Away"), however, "when I thought about writing confessionally, in an 'I' voice, I found that I was too self-conscious. Apparently, in the past thirty-five years, I'd become so accustomed to narrativizing myself, to experiencing my life as a story, that I could now use journals only for problem-solving and self-investigation. Even at fifteen . . . I hadn't written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it." Immersed in "Robinson Crusoe," Franzen begins contemplating what, exactly, a novel is. We now understand a novel to be "a mapping of a writer's experience onto a waking dream." As for Daniel Defoe -- and his Crusoe -- "he gave us the first realistic portrait of the radically isolated individual, and then, as if impelled by novelistic truth, he showed us how sick and crazy radical individualism really is." Franzen looks at the part of Robinson Crusoe in which Crusoe, who has been alone for fifteen years, discovers a human footprint on the beach and is literally made crazy by "the fear of man." No matter how carefully we defend ourselves, Franzen writes, "all it takes is one footprint of another real person to recall us to the endlessly interesting hazards of living relationships."

ILLUSTRATION: ZOHAR LAZAR "Robinson Crusoe," David Foster Wallace, and the Island of Solitude


  1. Franzen’s “current state of flight from himself” really caught me. I lost my 13+ year old son in an accidental moment last July. He was my oldest, my namesake, we journeyed together through my divorce (even though he was only 5 at the time, he was my partner) and his loss just hammers at me sometimes. I am still struggling to reground myself, and I hope Jonathan can find his peace.

  2. My heart goes out to you, Creesto. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to lose a child.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I tried to get my ass outa bed to come see you speak at OSU recently, but no go. Franzen’s words about Wallace’s passing has given me a more indepth understanding of DFW’s demon. Personally, I have found the last 6 weeks to be the hardest of all. OK, enough thread-hijacking! B¬)

  3. David Foster Wallace speaks to me on a very basic level. I truly love his work.

    And, I just finished reading Robinson Crusoe last week.

    Guess I should read that New Yorker article….

  4. “fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude”

    This is an important insight. While there is no fault in being a professional fiction writer, I think the only “real” writers are those who do it because they need to do it.

    1. That quote/insight stood out for me as welll, anon (#5).
      Coincidentally enough, a pal invoked the old desert island scenario the other day, asking me which 3 books I’d take if I could only have 3 for all time. I told him I’d have to think about it. The truth is, my immediate thought was of my favorite two novels, and I took the lack of dense treatises in my top 3 as a confirmation of my fundamental silliness.

  5. My Granpa lives in Lundin Links which is a five minute walk from Selkirk’s statue in Lower Largo, I spent a lot of time there growing up. He had a pile of videos for me and one of my favourites was an animated version of Robison Crusoe. I also had my 21st birthday party in a converted factory in Lower Largo, called Cardy Net House, which was built by one of Selkirk’s descendants.

    It’s a lovely place to visit if you’re ever in Fife, there’s a little permanent exhibit on Selkirk in the Crusoe hotel two minutes from the statue, and try the Irn Bru sausages from the butcher in Lundin Links!

  6. the thought of infinite heaven as told to me during a moderately religious childhood frightened me to the point of insomnia– sitting up in bed, envisioning increasingly starless space– so i think i get the existential loneliness part, but doesn’t the ‘extraordinary’ part come from brain chemistry? that’s the x factor that makes one defeat the natural biological imperative to stay alive despite any number of horrors or fits of boredom.

    the banalities of married/city/socially-networked life would be distracting enough to keep one at least alive and miserable if chemistry were not a factor… so condolences are sincerely offered, but i would shy away from romanticizing the genius of a man who was unable to fix his brain no matter how hard he tried. it’s just sad, and it’s over; the last word is written by the one who finds the body and the stash of self-help books; if those had worked (or if meds worked 100% of the time), /that/ would be extraordinary.

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