“How To Be Alone”
I wonder if our current cultural susceptibility to the charms of materialism – our increasing willingness to see psychology as chemical, identity as genetic, and behavior as the product of bygone exigencies of human evolution – isn’t intimately related to the postmodern resurgence of the oral and the eclipse of the written: our incessant telephoning, our ephemeral e-mailing, our steadfast devotion to the flickering tube.
In 1996, Harper’s published a 5,000 word essay entitled Perchance to Dream which many readers and critics took to be a major rant of all things wrong with our culture including the demise of the novel. Written by Jonathan Franzen, Perchance to Dream was still on interviewers’ minds five years later when his award-winning novel, The Corrections was published which led to questions of how the essay relates to the novel.
Franzen is well-known for his strong opinions on literature, technology and consumerism – topics he wrote about in the essay – although he claims he intended the essay “to document a stalled novelist’s escape from the prison of his angry thoughts” by abandoning his “sense of social responsiblity as a novelist and learning to write fiction for the fun and entertainment of it.” But, people (not necessarily readers) didn’t see it that way. Critics wondered if the new book would be “the big social novel that would engage with mainstream culture and rejuvenate American literature” that Franzen promised in the essay he wrote five years prior (the only problem being that Franzen never made that promise in the essay). Understandably, Franzen felt misunderstood.
In How To Be Alone, Franzen includes a re-write of Perchance to Dream renaming the essay Why Bother in hopes that the reader will understand his true intentions as it relates to him moving forward as a novelist. If we consider many of the troublesome aspects of our society – the preponderance of violence and cruelty, the damage to the environment, population growth, consumerism, inequities, and the world’s preference for the internet over books – we can become seriously depressed and unable to move; paralyzed.
Franzen seems to be telling the reader, as he did the graduates of Kenyon College in his 2011 commencement speech (Pain Won’t Kill You which was published in Farther Away) that “the world and its problems are impossibly daunting” but only overwhelming if the choice is isolation. Retreat from the world when you have to but don’t disengage. Literature needs to be written; the environment needs to be saved; and animals need our help.
In several essays – The Reader in Exile, Mr. Difficult, and Scavenging, Franzen looks at technology and the decline of the novel in different ways. In The Reader in Exile, Franzen blames the digital revolution for the decline of the novel noting that “for every reader that dies today, a viewer is born.” Lamenting about a pile of critical mail he received after writing The Corrections regarding vocabulary, Franzen explains both the writer’s and reader’s responsibility in Mr. Difficult. Most telling of all though is Scavenging in which Franzen links obsolescence and technology with drug use, noting:
…the pain of consciousness, the pain of knowing, grows apace with the information we have about the degradation of our planet and the insufficiency of our political system and the incivility of our society and the insolvency of our treasury and the injustice in the one-fifth of our country and the four-fifths of our world that isn’t rich like us. Given this increasing pain, it’s understandable that a large and growing segment of the population should take comfort in the powerful narcotics that technology offers. The more popular these narcotics become, the more socially acceptable their use – and the lonelier the tiny core of people who are temperamentally incapable of deluding themselves that the “culture” of technology is anything but a malignant drug.
Franzen looks at television, the media, exotic lingerie, and erotica in Books in Bed to explain why “writing about sex is at once effective and boring.” As he duly notes, there is no real news on sex, whose doing it, when, and how although the media would have you think otherwise.
The difference between the abstract and reality are front and center in several essays beginning with The Imperial Bedroom, in which Franzen writes of privacy – “the new American obsession” – noting “the panic about privacy has all the finger-pointing and paranoia of a good old American scare, but it’s missing one vital ingredient: a genuinely alarmed public.” Citing several examples, he makes a strong argument that “privacy proves to be the Cheshire cat of values: not much substance, but a very winning smile,” which reminds me of Americans who voice a blanket distaste for socialized medicine while supporting Medicare. What is Medicare if not a socialized medical program? People are slapped on the back or high-fived for supporting or abhorring an issue in the abstract but the reality is quite different.
In Sifting the Ashes, Franzen notes another disparity in American culture: the United States is “in the forefront of the war on cigarettes” yet “the tobacco industry would not still be flourishing, thirty years after the first Surgeon General’s report, if our legislatures weren’t purchasable, if the concepts of honor and personal responsibility hadn’t largely given way to the power of litigation and the dollar, and if the country didn’t generally endorse the idea of corporations whose ultimate responsibility is not to society but to the bottom line.” That ten states have not yet enacted any statewide ban in non-government-owned spaces speaks strongly to this disparity.
Three essays: My Father’s Brain, Erika Imports, and Meet Me In St. Louis are personal essays drawn from Franzen’s experiences. In My Father’s Brain, Franzen writes about his father’s illness and the impact it had his family. And, in Erika Imports, Franzen recounts his high school job as a packing boy for a German couple who imported handmade giftware from Communist East Germany. Meet Me in St Louis is the hilarious account of Franzen’s pained attempts at working with Oprah Winfrey’s producer, cameraman, and book club staff and how he came to be disinvited from Oprah’s show.
Lost In The Mail is altogether different that Franzen’s other essays in that he seems to be writing a piece for Atlantic Monthly about the United States Postal Service (USPS). Several years ago parts of Chicago – the poorer districts – were having problems with mail delivery. Franzen writes of the huge bureaucratic machine:
With its mission of universal service, the Postal Service is like an urban emergency room contractually obligated to accept every sore throat, pregnancy, and parent that comes its way. You may have to wait for hours in a dimly lit corridor. The staff may be short-tempered and dilatory. But eventually you will get treated.
An essay that makes the reader think Franzen is writing about government services in a third world country and not the United States, Lost In The Mail reminds the reader that the US is not always the profit-centered, most efficient country it sees itself as.
Control Units reads like a journalistic piece with the author going to the Federal Correctional Complex in Colorado to report on both the positive and negative aspects of having a federal penitentiary in a struggling town. An eye-opening piece in which Franzen learns that “apparently, its genuinely feasible simply to lock away the problem.” Ironically, Franzen’s finds himself thinking “this would be an excellent place to read and write.”
In First City:, Franzen wonders why cities like New York still exist and concludes “for better or worse, the most reliable measure of a city’s vitality is whether rich people are willing to live in the center of it.” Life isn’t easy in a city with expensive rents, crowds, the “Disneyfication” of certain areas, the noise, distraction, neighbors and yet, he chooses to live in Manhattan because no one asks him “Why here?”
It’s Inauguration Day, January 2001 and Franzen has traded in his New York clothes for a pair of beat up old Red Wings and lots of layers of wool before he steps on a bus with a group from the Harlem branch of the International Socialist Organization. Headed to Washington, DC to attend an outdoor protest, Franzen recounts a miserable rainy day where “few pleasures compare with that of riding on a bus….with people you violently agree with.”
How To Be Alone may have been published eleven years ago (2002) but times have not changed that much to make the essays any less relevant today. Comprised of 15 essays, How To Be Alone is first and foremost an entertaining read where readers won’t mind being alone until the very last page is read.
But the first lesson that reading teaches us is how to be alone.