Book of the Week: 'How To Be Alone'

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Jonathan Franzen is credited or despised (by the People Who Care About Such Things) for the demise of Oprah's Book Club. That might or might not be the case. Perhaps Oprah was simply tired of it all. Yet shortly after Franzen's sprawling 2001 novel "The Corrections" was selected as a member of her club, and he made remarks in public to the effect this would cheapen his book, Oprah was finished with literary authors.

Such a pity. Those authors were finally making some real money from the publicity of Oprah's warm and vast spotlight.


Franzen seemed not to suffer a bit, aside from a few angry denunciations of him as an "elitist." Despite the lofty insults, critics and readers agreed the guy really could write. His novel topped the best-seller charts and won the National Book Award -- an honor he was careful not to disparage.


Whenever a writer succeeds with a "breakthrough" novel, publishers are eager to follow up with ... something. The problem is literary authors tend not to be on the production treadmill of a John Grisham or Sue Grafton, who seem able to spill a novel off their personal assembly lines every year. Certain writers require more time to dream and seasons to ripen.

So, as filler and as a sop to their demanding yet possibly fickle readers, newly successful literary writers tend to clean out their files and put out collections of short stories and essays, almost all of which have appeared previously in various small magazines or university journals. Such collections are supposed to calm the appetites of the fans until the writer comes up with another meaty novel -- the real deal -- similar to the way a mother throws Cheerios on the tray of a squalling toddler as she runs around the kitchen, frantically preparing the real meal.

Thus we have Franzen's current offering, "How to Be Alone: Essays," consisting of 13 journalism pieces covering a range of subjects from his father's Alzheimer's disease to the Chicago Post Office to prisons to the state of literary fiction in America. The collection, including a few stale Cheerios, presents itself in no chronological or thematic order. In a useful introduction, Franzen tells us he intends this book "as a record of a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance -- even a celebration -- of being a reader and a writer."


OK, we can all use more of that. He also wants to take a crack at "the problems of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone."

I like Franzen. I liked his brassy denunciation of a dubious honor and I liked his big novel and the fact it was a huge success. He's tortured and funny and angry (still) and incredulous. You kind of wonder where it all comes from, however, as he recounts his fairly normal, happy Midwestern boyhood, guarded by affectionate parents and marred only by typical adolescent embarrassments. He possesses not only a retentive memory for everything he has seen, heard, smelled or read, but also humor and a killer vocabulary.

Ten of his essays are worth reading, but three should have been discarded. For this sort of book, that is a fine ratio. Franzen's secret is speaking truth.

He speaks, for instance, about privacy and how as a country we worry we are being watched and invaded and we have nowhere to hide. Franzen turns this around, making the common sense observation that we are isolated emotionally with too little genuine interaction. We must listen constantly to the cell phone conversations of strangers. We are flooded with information about the sexual indiscretions of public figures. Yet such information is meaningless to us personally. Television has made so many intimate subjects a part of public discourse there is little shame. Nothing is taboo. "Privacy," Franzen tells us, "loses its value unless there's something it can be defined against."


It is interesting to engage with the mind of someone who thinks if we threw out our TV sets, we might read more Henry James and be better off for it. He despairs over the apparent death of the social novel, yet offers a clear-eyed, unsentimental observation, a " ... simple truth, if unpretty. The novel is dying because the consumer doesn't want it anymore."

If true, how devastating to conclude your chosen life's work, your passion is dismissed by the people you must reach. No wonder Franzen is, as he admits, frequently depressed. Thank goodness he soldiers on, holding together that small community of readers and writers who are trying to "preserve a tradition of precise, expressive language, a habit of looking past surfaces into interiors." Thank goodness Franzen is humble enough to want his work to be "enjoyed, not taken as medicine." In the most forthright statement I've read on the subject, he declares, "Ultimately, if novelists want their work to be read, the responsibility for making it attractive and imperative is solely their own."

Yes! No more blaming the fact that people do not read on the culture, television, drugs, or the distractions of mass materialism and shopping. No more expecting Oprah to select books and spoon-feed them to us. If novelists want readers to be transformed and rescued (Franzen's word) by literature, they must make it indispensable.


Does the author achieve his purpose? Does he instruct us on how to be alone? Not quite, though he makes it pleasant to be alone with him for awhile. His unique voice, conversational and alert, draws us close.

While reading "How to Be Alone," I imagined an unusual friend from the past had called and talked on and on, catching up on a lifetime of thought and experience. Even after hours and hours, I was thinking: "Don't hang up. Keep going."

("How to Be Alone: Essays" by Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 278 pages, $24)

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