I really struggled with The Corrections, repeatedly described as the most remarkable novel of our century to date. And reports of Franzen's snooty sounding behaviour to Oprah Winfrey didn't send me rushing to his other work either. Luckily I came across a reprint of Franzen's famous 1996 "Harper's Essay" when I had nothing else to read, and everything changed. That essay is reprinted here, with fourteen others, equally provocative, densely yet lucidly written, and all with a quite unexpected layer of humour, wit and self-deprecation.
Although the essays cover a wide range of subjects, from a surprisingly gripping forty page account of the chaos facing Chicago's postal service, through to a very moving piece on his father's decline into Alzheimer's disease, Franzen underpins them all with his central concern - the status of contemporary fiction and the lives of those who need it, in a postmodern, mass media saturated world.
For those of us who immediately recognise Franzen's experience of reading and/or writing as a means of reaching inward for a way out of loneliness, the modern world can be a very hard place to inhabit. Again and again he returns to the fragility of any community of readers and writers, the decline of the social novel, the rise of what he calls the tyranny of the literal. No longer simply finding it "apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don't read Henry James", Franzen moves on to examine some disturbing possible reasons for the ascendance of what he calls "technological consumerism" at the expense of personal integrity and dignity.
One particularly unsettling suggestion is that "the average man or woman's entire life is increasingly structured to avoid the kinds of conflicts on which fiction . . has always thrived", with the finger being pointed at, among other targets, self-help literature, television and far too many prescriptions for anti-depressants. Well, clearly vast numbers of the world's population don't share the luxury of avoiding conflict with the average middle class white American male writer, but that just makes his point even more distressing in its implications.
His observations on the relationship between solitude, privacy, isolation and loneliness are thought provoking too. Although these are linked to his overall theme of the necessity of literature - "the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone" - they go much further than that, into the erosion of civic life and the meaninglessness of a shallow, consumerist definition of privacy which is purchased at the cost of meaningful shared human experience.
Does Franzen offer any ways forward out of this thoroughly depressing situation that he describes so exquisitely? Well, no, not really, more just a way of living with it. He calls this approach tragic realism and I find it strangely comforting to be sharing it with him.