How to be Alone Paperback – 2 Jul 2007
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Novelist Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone is a collection of 14 essays that take the preservation of individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture as its main theme. Franzen sees himself, rightly, as one of a dying breed of reader/writers coming to terms with the fact that his world (or at least his audience) is shrinking and struggles with the temptation to give in to the techno world for the sake of health and happiness. We're told that "individuality and complexity" is the main theme but in truth the book is much more interesting than it sounds.
The opening essay entitled "My Father's Brain" is a fascinating and deeply poignant story about Alzheimer's disease that begins with a letter--sent by his mother--containing the autopsy of his father's brain. Instead of a self-regarding piece of "feel-my-pain" sentimentality Franzen describes in minute detail the mechanics of the disease itself, the history of its discovery and its effect on his father's personality and behaviour. It's also about the history of a marriage; a reflection on our need to think of ourselves and our loved ones as a distinct personality and the corresponding need to resist the idea--suggested to us by the progress of the disease--that personality is the function of a lump of grey meat: the brain. It ends with Franzen's post-humous discovery of his father's letters that reveal his secret attempt to stay in the light through force of will.
Besides marriage, memory, disease and death, Franzen also deals with subjects as different as smoking, the sex-advice industry, the workings of maximum security prisons, the fall of the Chicago Mail service and his brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author. The collection also includes a revised version of the famously misunderstood "Harper's Essay"--Franzen's 1996 look at the fate of the novel. Those expecting a series of naval-gazing, deadly earnest essays from a snobbish elitist who turns his nose up at popular culture and the benefits of electronic communication should think again. What's refreshing and unusual about these essays is that they are serious, funny, poignant, unpredictable and unashamedly elitist--but not in the way you might expect. --Larry Brown --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
‘Compelling and invigorating.’
‘A passionate and compelling piece of work … Each page is studded with irresistible writing which leaves you breathless for more. Franzen’s strength is his ability to combine a rigorous intellectual appraoch with an upbeat energy, using language which touches the heart as surely as the head.’
‘Oprah was right. Franzen is conflicted. That’s what makes him a trustworthy, sceptical essayist.’
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Some essays cover Franzen's life, including an excellent first essay about his father's decline and death from Alzheimer's. These are a foretaste of Franzen's excellent memoir the Discomfort Zone.
Some essays cover the themes of writing novels and reading them. About these I would say that Franzen only gradually sketches out an interesting and coherent position - the 2002 essay about William Gaddis is reflective, persuasive and entirely coherent. In the Foreword, Franzen says he made substantial cuts to one of the earlier essays on this theme - he could see with the benefit of hindsight that the argument wasn't clear and the tone was ranting. I would say that this remained true of that essay even it is edited form...but it does have interest, as you can see Franzen struggle towards a theoretical position that supports the kind of novel that he would like to write - and that he has certainly since written.
A third group of essays cover topics such as the Chicago Post Office and its shortcomings; and maxmimum security prisons in the US...Maximum security prisoners may need to learn how to be alone, in that they are mostly in continuous solitary confinement, but the thematic links here to the first two groups of essays are forced or obscure. And ater reading Franzen's essay Lost In the Post, I've learned that I'm just not THAT interested in the shortcoming of the Chicago Post Office in and of itself...
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.
Quite simply, he is one of a group of very few writers in this world who can write almost anything and give the reader such a truthful, objective and entertaining insight that the subject matter is opened out like a route to understanding. This is an excellent read from one of the major writers of his generation.
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