Review: How to Be Alone

08Feb10

Essays by Jonathan Franzen

Originally published in Books in Canada, 2002.

In How To Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen begins with a title that, were it not for the addition of Essays, would sound like some kind of guide to anti-social behaviour.  But what Franzen wants is to be out of step in a world where few people are asking questions, where we’ve given the cultural authority over to passive mediums like television.  He isn’t comfortable with a digital age that allows access to a great deal while sacrificing depth, or “instead of wisdom, data.”  I can’t say that I blame him.  Preparing for the cry of elitism, he prefers to describe it as “the efforts of the individual to secure a small space within the prevailing din.  All people should be elitists – and keep it to themselves.”

But this is no series of heavy-handed lectures.  Franzen is good company.  He doesn’t construct airtight arguments as much as he examines from various angles.  Bertrand Russell used to say that a personal opinion should be held the same way we hold scientific opinion – we should be willing to change it if some better piece of evidence is offered.  I suspect Franzen would agree with this.  In “Lost in the Mail,” about breakdowns in the postal service in Chicago, he offers a list of excuses given by postal workers who often blame the public, but follows this up almost immediately with another list of public mistakes: “I see street numbers in the seventy thousands… addresses that consist of the description of a building.”

This is not to say he doesn’t reach conclusions, though he does offer the reader a lot along the way.  “Scavenging” considers the idea of fiction as “taking up whatever the world has abandoned by the road and making something beautiful out of it.”  His old rotary phone and typewriter are described in loving detail, and he concludes that despite our consumer culture and our apparent love for the new, it is actually the “use and abandonment” of objects that gives them character.  And after all, what’s special about mass production?  Why do we think something is only worthy after it’s validated by the consumption of many?  “Imaginative writing is fundamentally amateur.  It’s the lone person scouring the trash heap, not the skilled team assembling an entertainment.”

For the most part, this is Franzen before his huge success.  This is the man who, in the same essay, pulls a chair from a “delicious trash pile,” and grabs a two by four to clean chunks of plaster off.  His friend asks, “This is what my life will be like if I write fiction?”  As a struggling writer Franzen watched earlier fiction sink into what felt like “the silence of irrelevance,” and his questioning of the cultural weight the novel still carries fuels and permeates a lot of the work here.  More generally, he wonders how the quiet, slow struggle to build individuals can happen in a world of consumer distractions.  His essay on privacy, “Imperial Bedroom,” stops to note “We need both a home that’s not like a public space and a public space that’s not like a home.”  In “The Reader in Exile,” an observation about an old television becomes a pointed remark: “Its wood look veneer recalled an era when TV sets were trying, however feebly, to pass as furniture – an era when their designers could still imagine them in a state of not being turned on.”  It’s in this essay and in “Why Bother?” (a shortened version of an essay more commonly called “The Harper’s Essay”) that he tackles these issues most directly.  He considers how writers have a responsibility to make novels “attractive and imperative,” for the sake of the “muscle tone” of our imaginations.  In a consumer world, a classic work of literature is “inexpensive, infinitely reusable, and, worst of all, unimprovable.”  But ultimately, and thankfully, he isn’t tempted to suggest novels try to compete directly.  Preferably, poets and novelists can be “voices of conscience in times of religious or political fanaticism.”  And Don DeLillo, when quoted by Franzen here, made me picture a large rock that forces a stream to move around it: “we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation.”  But what if no one is listening?  The answer most often reached here is that all you can do is the best you can.  Ultimately, Franzen has a solid faith in the novel: “To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them.  Isn’t this enough?  Isn’t it a lot?”

As a collection of his magazine journalism, some of the pieces have fairly tenuous connections to the overall theme.  When the first essay after his introduction, “My Father’s Brain,” is about his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, it’s a bit of a surprise, but more importantly, he’s written a moving piece about his father’s struggle.  It’s curious, given that Franzen will return to the weakened cultural authority of the novel, that he describes a memory of his father in film terms.  The memory is “set in a hospital room,” and “lit by a dreamlike indoor twilight.”  Out of nowhere, and “as if he’s had enough of all the nonsense,” his father cries out “I have always loved your mother.  Always.”  Franzen remembers his mother burying her face in her hands and sobbing, though later when they speak about it, she won’t remember the incident at all.  The brief essay “Erika Imports” is the only weak essay in the collection – a fragment of his past with a message that feels tacked on at the end.

Readers looking for details about his cancelled appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show will be disappointed.  Franzen doesn’t have much to say about it, nor is it his purpose here.  The memorable moments from his essay on newfound fame and coverage (“Meet me in St Louis”) concern the “artificiality” of his trip home, to be filmed hanging around in his old neighbourhood: “For the second take, I stay in the far right lane and poke along at half the legal speed limit, trying to appear – what? writerly? curious? nostalgic? – while the trucker behind me looses blast after blast on his air horn.”  And we also find, when he returns home, a beautifully written moment on the loss of his parents.

The tone of his writing strengthens his arguments – it’s difficult to dismiss an author as a mere elitist or a lofty theorist when he’s so human, so much more interested in remembering his parents than his big shot at TV.  In addition, he’s willing to paint the occasional humble moment for the reader.  Franzen is no distant academic pretending to have an infallible amount of knowledge – he lives in the real world and has concerns about it.  His conclusions are the work of a talented writer who’s alert and intelligent.  If his major concern was to reassert the value of the book, it’s difficult to think of a better way of doing it than by writing a book of essays that are as accessible as they are worthwhile.  And at the same time he provides an example of the pursuit of individuality in a “noisy and distracting mass culture.”

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