How To Be Alone: Essays

by Jonathan Franzen

ISBN: 0312422164

Jonathan Franzen may always be known for getting himself disinvited from the Oprah show and book club. He’s a relatively young man (early forties) as authors go, and no doubt has many more books and publically-recorded “misstatements” to come, so one can’t be sure. This book, as a collection of essays, gives Franzen the opportunity to explain himself, reveal his thinking in a more nuanced way than may be possible in an interview.

But he doesn’t say much about Oprah in these essays. I found this a bit of a disappointment as well as a relief: I had more than a sneaking suspicion that Franzen was an asshole, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted my suspicion confirmed. Generally, I don’t care to know much about writers as people. I care about what happens between the covers of their books, not what happens between their ears when they aren’t writing. So essay collections by fiction writers hold an odd attraction for me: do I want to know what they are thinking when they write, if it isn’t fiction?

Franzen says all the essays in this collection (over a dozen, the book weighs in at just over 300 pages) have the same “underlying investigation”: “the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.” This is a broad enough topic that it can be said to cover all the essays in this book, from the one about his father’s Alzheimer’s to the one about the Chicago post office, to the one about his reading of The Recognitions as well as the one about a supermax prison.

Being a writer, of course Franzen winds up saying a lot about writing:

“The will to record indelibly, to set down stories in print, seems to me akin to the conviction that we are larger than our biologies.” (“My Father’s Brain”)

“Because imaginative writing is fundamentally amateur. It’s the lone person scouring the trash heap, not the skilled team assembling an entertainment, and we Americans are lucky enough to live in the most wonderful world of junk.” (“Scavenging”)

“Fiction is the most fundamental human art. Fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves.” (“Mr. Difficult”)

These statements illustrate a difficulty I think Franzen has: he has desired to build his reputation as “serious” novelist, a writer of books of social import, but on the other hand, he wants to say “Hey, look, I’m not an asshole, just an expert trashpicker.” He wants to be liked, in spite of himself. This torn Franzen is most clearly on display in a revised version of “the Harper’s essay”, (now called “Why Bother?”) as he manages to raise both interesting questions (“How to design a craft that can float on history for as long as it takes to build it?”) and be ridiculously overblown (“The American writer today faces a cultural totalitarianism analogous to the political totalitarianism with which two generations of Eastern bloc writers had to contend.”)

In “Sifting the Ashes” Franzen notes that to “take control of their lives, people tell themselves stories about the person they want to be.” What to make of the stories he chooses to share in this collection? Is he being disingenuous? Possibly. And possibly he is just a cranky guy living in New York who is not yet ready to think in public about the varieties of success (critical, popular, financial) he has experienced. He comes across as smart, and a bit defensive. The packaging appeals to me: I’m not speaking here of the lack of an Oprah sticker, or the attractive blonde woman reading a book in Three Lives bookstore on the cover, but the promise of “aloneness.”

In fact, I was surprised at how caught up I was in working my way through this book, how interested I was in following Franzen’s chain of thought even when I didn’t agree with it. Recommended.

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