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How to Be Alone
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B+ : well-written, often entertaining, but very loose collection
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
How to Be Alone collects much of Jonathan Franzen's non-fiction from the past decade.
The centerpiece, in a way, remains his 1996 Harper's piece, Perchance to Dream.
In that essay Franzen famously ponders the role of the novelist (and specifically: his role as a novelist) in contemporary American society.
It was an essay much referred to in reviews of Franzen's breakout novel, The Corrections.
I intend this book, in part, as a record of a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance -- even a celebration -- of being a reader and a writer.Curiously, then -- for a book recording "a movement" -- the pieces are not presented in chronological order but rather both begin and end with pieces from 2001. (Pretty hard to discern movements away and toward anything under these circumstances .....)
The "underlying investigation in all these essays", so Franzen, is:
the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.Sounds fairly interesting -- and it sounds like Franzen might be the man to do it. But then the first piece has almost nothing to do with noisy and distracting mass culture. Rather, it is a very personal look at Franzen's father's decline and death ("My Father's Brain").
This piece apparently won some vaguely prestigious magazine and it is perfectly fine for what it is: a poignant contribution to the burgeoning (indeed, to us already overwhelming) field of dementia-lit. Franzen's father apparently had Alzheimer's, and Franzen relates the consequences of this: on his father and mother, and on him. Franzen writes well and tells this story well, conveying the difficulty this particular form of mental decline and disease has on all who are affected by it. (It is also of some interest because of The Corrections, which features a father-figure in similar decline.)
This piece contrasts neatly with the one that follows, "Imperial Bedroom", in which Franzen laments a certain loss of privacy, as private lives and deeds (the Monica Lewinsky scandal etc.) are trumpeted all around (while in other respects "we're flat-out drowning in privacy"). Franzen notes: "Reticence has become an obsolete virtue". Yet in the preceding piece (originally published, admittedly, three years after this one) he reveals a great deal of the personal -- and not just about himself, but also about his dead parents. To us, that is exactly the unreserved making-public of the private that he complains about in this essay, a public laundering of private affairs we'd rather not know about. (Worse yet is another piece, the mercifully brief "Erika Imports".) He'll have had his reasons (one of which, no doubt, was to make himself look more sympathetic to the reader -- perhaps another reason why the tear-jerker essay opens the collection) -- and perhaps the reason was even to make this jarring contrast between the pieces.
In any case, "Imperial Bedroom" is the far better piece, a neat discussion of private and public in modern society -- though it too, like almost all the pieces in the collection, relies too much on the personal and Franzen's own experiences and activities.
Franzen's journalism -- and many of the pieces here are decidedly journalistic (rather than essayistic) -- likes to use the personal. Franzen likes to meet people and let them have some say, often focussing on someone with expertise where he is obviously only the amateur. In "Lost in the Mail" he looks at the Chicago post office system, offering a fascinating overview as he explores many aspects of the problems there -- but he still feels the need to anchor it around a specific person (a Gayle Campbell, trying to right things, in this case). It's much the same in "Control Units", where he considers aspects of the American prison system.
Other pieces examine broader issues but are anchored around discussions of specific books. "Sifting the Ashes" considers smoking (which Franzen did at the time he wrote the piece), and Richard Kluger's Ashes to Ashes seems to be a sort of springboard to allow him to go on his own smoking riffs. "The Reader in Exile" could pass for a book review, of Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital and Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies, and "City Life" for one of Witold Rybczynski's City Life -- though Franzen nicely expands on the subjects to turn these pieces into more-than-reviews. Modestly amusing, but among the poorest pieces is "Books in Bed", considering sex manuals and the like.
"Lost in the Mail" is the best of these journalistic lot -- a good story, well told -- but also among the most strikingly journalistic. It's just the sort of thing one wants to find in The New Yorker -- but it feels oddly out of place between hard-covers.
There are disappointingly few really literarily-oriented pieces. Franzen's love of books and reading is emphasized throughout -- he can't get away from it, noting even in the prisons he visits what books are available to the inmates -- but is rarely front and centre. One of the exceptions is also one of the best pieces, "Scavenging". Here Franzen bares his quaint self again, revelling in obsolescence (and understanding the madness of it) -- but it is very entertaining (and funny). Unfortunately, however, there is no indication of how the new Franzen (post-Corrections a very, very wealthy man (at least compared to most writers of semi-serious fiction)) now feels and acts .....
It is this that most disappoints about the book: that the new Franzen -- who, let's face it, is the only Franzen readers know (only the cognoscenti knew who the hell this guy was pre-Corrections) -- doesn't appear except in mawkish personal portraits that largely ignore his new-found success ("My Father's Brain", "Erika Imports", and "Inauguration Day, January 2001" were all written in 2001, and yet they all present an image of Franzen that pointedly ignores his new-found success). The one exception is "Meet me in St.Louis", also written in 2001, which acknowledges the Oprah-selection of his book and indeed revolves around an attempt to film some the material that was to be used in presenting the author on the show. Even here, however, the perspective is determinedly retrospective. A page here is devoted to the Oprah-fiasco (see our piece, A Book, an Author, and a Talk Show Host at the complete review Quarterly for a more thorough discussion of that episode): it reads the same as it did when Franzen published it in The New Yorker (issue of 24 December 2001). He writes about the Oprah-episode (and the fallout) prospectively, as though it had not yet happened to him (though he does faithfully list many of the things that did then happen), finishing that section: "But this is all still in the future". The future is now, of course, -- indeed, that future he wrote of is long-past, and was already when he wrote the piece -- but though he revised some of his essays he did not revise this, nor add to it.
It's unfortunate. The most interesting thing about Franzen, perhaps the only interesting thing (about Franzen as a person that is, not of his writing) is Franzen-as-failed-Oprah !-author. This was clearly the defining moment for Franzen as a public figure (in the guise of an author), and it was also a significant moment in American letters. Franzen's public image remains that -- failed-Oprah !-author (or: typical elitist "literary" author) -- and the debate sparked by the episode remains unresolved.
Perhaps Franzen has not yet come to terms with it, as well as with the success he achieved with The Corrections (financial, critical, and popular). Still, it's a shame that he didn't write anything about the episode beyond this one page, nor, more broadly, anything about what it means to have found success (in the way he has) as an author. Really, it's the only thing we would be truly interested in hearing about from him.
And it's also relevant -- relevant to many of Franzen's own concerns. He famously complained in his Harper's essay about the reaction to his first novel:
I'd intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum.He does not note that most writers would kill for sixty reviews of their book (and a good number would be overjoyed to get one-tenth that number). As to provoking ... well, as James Wood wrote in his review of The Corrections in The New Republic (15 October 2001):
Aesthetic success is measured in leagues of posterity. In this sense every great novel is published in a vacuum; it teaches the empty space around it.But Franzen did provoke -- oh, boy, did he ever. Not with his book, admittedly, at least not directly, but he did provoke ... and then he backed away (with his odd statements and non-explanations). And he still hasn't addressed it and it remains a puzzling episode.
Why bother ? is the new title he gives the edited version of the Harper's piece printed here. Most of the introduction to the book is devoted to it, and he mentions his own surprise at what he found when he turned back to it, having forgotten "that I used to be a very angry and theory-minded person". We're not sure the new, happier version is preferable .....
Why bother ? begins, revealingly, with Franzen's "despair about the American novel". Why the national label ? What is about the American novel that separates it from the novel per se -- and are the questions related to it unique or do they apply to all novels ? Franzen never considers these issues: it's just the American novel for him. He does worry about the tribes in America -- fiction for specific demographics, for certain ethnicities or localities ("Southern literature", "literature of the sunny fertile, peaceful West Coast"). But he puts an odd spin on literature, and it seems one of the biggest flaws in the essay. True literature transcends all these boundaries -- easily, too (look at all the still-read classics, describing worlds that bear on most levels hardly any resemblance at all to our own).
Franzen considers reading, and what makes people readers (referring even to empirical studies at some length). And he wonders, sensibly, what place the novel might have in contemporary American society. But honestly: it remains a muddled set of arguments. It might have helped him find his way (getting this out of his system), but it is not particularly helpful to the reader. (Still, its worth reading -- there are enough interesting bits to it.)
Amusing also his exhilaration:
Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.Amusing, of course, because in the Oprah-fiasco Franzen managed nothing so well but to confuse his audiences with his many statements and pseudo-explanations. It's unclear whether he was ever truly misunderstood, but he certainly made a good impression of being misunderstood. (It is our contention that all his mis-statements and the confusion was sown deliberately, creating the image of the misunderstood artist rather than the actual misunderstood artist.)
How to Be Alone is a modestly interesting collection. Franzen is a very good writer, and many of the pieces are entertaining. Most, however, read simply as magazine pieces, and gathered all together here make for a somewhat clumsy fit. The very personal pieces -- memories of family, of a high-school job, a bus trip to D.C. -- didn't appeal to us at all: it's the sort of stuff he does in his fiction and would work better as part of a novel than as "essays" here.
The jump from the Franzen nobody knew to the famous, wealthy Franzen (a figure barely a year old) is not addressed in these pieces, which is unfortunate. He doesn't seem entirely comfortable with this new persona, but the old ignored and scavenging author of many of these pieces no longer sounds quite as believable.
A motley collection, certainly of some interest -- but not nearly as much as we had hoped for.
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American author Jonathan Franzen was born in 1959.
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