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