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Jonathan Franzen's Collected Essays

Jonathan Franzen
HarperCollins, $24.99

A mere eight pages into this non-fiction collection, Franzen describes himself as a ''cranky 51-year-old''. By this point, the only piece of news there is his age. Since finding success, the acclaimed author has given himself firm permission to enter the card-carrying ranks of the grouchy white male writers who see a lot wrong with the modern world and would like to let us know all about it.

The only problem is, he's not the entertainingly grumpy sort of grandpa figure Maurice Sendak cut, or a foot-in-mouther like Martin Amis. Franzen's vitriol is all the worse for its pettiness. Here are just a few of the things to which he dedicates pages of scowl: Facebook, mobile phones, the Broadway adaptation of Spring Awakening, Microsoft Word, and having to say ''I love you'' to his mother.

All of this would make him dismissible at worst, if Franzen wasn't such a damned fine writer. In both these essays and his own fiction, his words betray an immense amount of care. He's a keen-eyed reader, too. And he's a fine thinker, of course.

Franzen has a problem with the way we are becoming a culture of insipid ''likes'' and how this diminishes our reservoir of real feeling; despite his stated preference for reserved displays of emotion, it's when Franzen writes about the things he loves that this collection soars.

Mostly, what he loves is that thing called the novel. He can perceive the ''optimism'' of the murder-mystery genre and the comedy in a play about teen suicide. He can convince you of the same.

He's a contrary kind of curmudgeon, however. The essential solitude of literature seems to be its source of attraction. In the title piece, he travels to one of the most remote islands in the world to escape the pressures of his life. This trek becomes an inquiry into the exact nature of the ''novel'', and a kind of last rites for his long-time friend, the late David Foster Wallace, whose own depression had led him to an even more distant shore.

Wallace reappears throughout this collection, and it's with him that Franzen happens upon the escape hatch from literature's solitude. The pair decided early on that the point of writing was ''a way out of loneliness''; gloss over the superficial grumpiness and here's a writer with a genuine desire to forge a connection with readers. Still, it's an uneasy formulation, as so many of the essays espouse the virtues of withdrawing from the constant communication of the modern world.

That unresolvable contradiction is what gives this collection the electricity of fiction - Franzen even surprises himself.