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'How to Be Alone' by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen's essays correct misperceptions

Sunday, December 15, 2002

By Sherri Hallgren

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.

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