How to be Alone
by Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate £16.99, pp278
The essays in this collection act as what Hollywood scriptwriters love to refer to as a 'back story'. They constitute the intellectual hinterland and personal archaeology behind the most remarkable novel of our century to date, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.
Some of them ask to make their relationship to the fiction explicit. It is impossible, for example, to read the author's forensic memoir of his father's neurone-by-neurone submission to Alzheimer's without thinking of the slow decline of Earl Lambert, a victim of Parkinson's, that occupied the heart of the novel.
Others - an examination of what it might mean to live in New York, 'First City', or a deconstruction of the American love affair with sex manuals, 'Books in Bed' - find Franzen testing the geographical and comic grid references that locate his fiction. And a couple, 'Why Bother?' and 'The Reader in Exile', state a tentative case for the purpose of the novel itself in a mass culture: a manifesto which the author subsequently, triumphantly justified.
Taken together the essays are, as the title archly suggests, a self-help manual of sorts. They find Franzen, over the past decade or so, creating for himself a space in which to write, and laying the foundations, moreover, for a place in which writing might be made to be heard. Given his run-in with Oprah Winfrey, who infamously 'deselected' The Corrections as one of her books of the month, on the grounds that its author seemed 'conflicted' about her largesse, there is something apposite about this coolly evangelical tone. In many ways, How to be Alone is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, for grown-ups.
Certainly, as Oprah might have suggested, Franzen has 'issues'. He has issues about the ways in which America seems 'hopelessly unmoored from reality - dreaming [in 1991 as now] of glory in the massacre of faceless Iraqis... dreaming of exemption from the rules of history'. Issues, too, about the breakdown of public society, a dislocation which finds expression everywhere he looks: in the failures of the Chicago postal service - sacks of mail routinely stashed in warehouses - and in the atomisation of cellphone users, broadcasting domesticity - 'should we have couscous with that?' - in the train carriage or on the sidewalk.
Franzen is chief mourner for the loss of public space. He sees American - our - culture not as a place in which privacy has been eclipsed, but as an arena in which it has exploded to fill every civilised area: an autocracy of confession and emotion. 'Privacy is protected as both a commodity and a right; public forums are protected as neither...'
The most insidious culprit in this is, of course, television, 'an enormous, extension of the billion living rooms and bedrooms in which it is consumed...' For as long as television has existed, the novel, and novelists, Franzen believes, have felt themselves in decline. Still, his one redeeming faith, hard won, lies in the marginalised republic of readers and writers 'united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-increasing evanescence: in their reach inward, via print, of a way out of loneliness'.
For a long time, Franzen felt these issues almost too keenly on his own pulse. His need to write, and his despair at not being heard, manifested itself in depression and solitude. At his lowest point, Franzen wrote to Don DeLillo, and the novelist responded with a little manifesto for our times: 'writing... frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.' The author of Underworld also added an apocalyptic PS: 'If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that that thing we're talking about when we use the word "identity" has reached an end.'
Taking these words to heart, Franzen's fiction became an assertion of that singular voice, and these indispensable essays trace the ways in which anyone serious about writing or reading might stutter towards that kind of individuality. The clearing of the throat has rarely seemed more heroic.
Jonathan Franzen shot to fame a year ago with the publication of his third novel, "The Corrections." Acclaimed as one of the most important works of fiction in more than a decade, it was nominated for every major literary prize and won the National Book Award.
|How to Be Alone|
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($24)
Before "The Corrections," Franzen was known among the small, serious literary community for two well-reviewed but not widely read novels, and even more for what was referred to as "the Harper's essay" from 1996.
This long piece, originally published in that magazine in 1996, forms the core of his new collection of essays and is by itself reason enough to read this book.
Here edited and retitled as "Why Bother?," the essay explores that title question. Franzen describes having begun to despair over whether fiction, and even art itself, has become irrelevant and obsolete in our age of technological consumerism, when television has replaced books as the "bringer of news."
At a time when Franzen said his alienation had rendered him all but incapable of writing his third novel, he encountered a social scientist who studies the reasons people read. She described for Franzen a class of readers for whom the "important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren't present, they become your community."
Franzen immediately identifies himself among this group, and this recognition restores his drive to write. Writers may not claim a central or dominant role in culture, but Franzen concludes that:
"Whether they think about it or not, novelists are preserving a tradition of precise, expressive language; a habit of looking past surfaces into interiors; maybe an understanding of private experience and public context as distinct but interpenetrating; maybe mystery, maybe manners.
"Above all, they are preserving a community of readers and writers, and the way in which members of this community recognize each other is that nothing in the world seems simple to them."
Why bother, indeed. Because serious fiction is still where many go to find a world that is more complex than contemporary culture -- from politics to movies to pop psychology to television -- tries to suggest.
Franzen often starts from a place of contradiction, whether admitting, in a scathing expose of the tobacco industry's suppressing research on the health hazards of nicotine, that he nevertheless smokes and enjoys it; or admitting that he craves the palpable comfort of the suburban mall, but prefers instead the anxiety of living in New York.
In "Imperial Bedroom" Franzen concludes that while our alarm over privacy tends to focus on intrusions into our home, we actually suffer from a greater loss of a truly public space where grown-ups dress and act civilly, and engage with those around them rather than with the person on their cell phone.
Franzen turns his restless, wry intelligence to an array of subjects, from state-of-the-art prisons to the sex manual industry to the hopelessly dysfunctional Chicago Post Office, but the most powerful essays here are personal, Franzen mining his own ambivalence as a way to make larger arguments about the culture.
In "Scavenging," half of which is itself a scavenged fragment of an essay begun years ago, he affectionately describes his "whole dysfunctional family of obsolete machines," which included a rotary telephone and a TV whose antenna he had to hold between his fingers to improve reception; he didn't own a VCR and didn't want to.
Explaining himself to be the uneasy inheritor of "two hopelessly obsolete value systems: the Depression-era thrift of my parents' generation and the sixties radicalism of my older brother's generation," Franzen is yet again a misfit in contemporary America, where "obsolescence is the leading product of our national infatuation with technology."
Yet even here, Franzen finds salvation, concluding finally that the fiction writer is the ultimate scavenger of what is discarded, essentially the amateur, the "lone person scouring the trash heap, not the skilled team assembling an entertainment."
"The Corrections" proved Franzen to be a brilliant novelist. In "How to Be Alone," he is by turns the friendly young curmudgeon, the perplexed and outraged critic, the slightly more articulate Everyman.
In their depth and complexity, these essays are as intelligent and important as his powerhouse of a novel.
Sherri Hallgren directed the graduate program in creative writing at Saint Mary's College of California and currently teaches writing workshops in the North Hills.