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Pre-Oprah Franzen

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003
How to Be Alone, By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.00.

How to Be Alone is a collection of Jonathan Franzen’s essays commenting on contemporary values, manners, tastes, customs and morals. His assessments are often negative, conveying the impression of a man not only critical of, but rejecting the society in which he lives. As he put it: “Nothing more reliably bolsters my faith in humanity than the dyspepsia of letters to the Times.” His most famous rejection was of the Oprah Book Club seal of approval for his novel The Corrections, and while he later recanted, at the time it brought him instant publicity, boosting the sales of his novel.

These essays, originally published in different publications such as Harper’s and The New Yorker between 1994 and 2001, cover a broad range of subjects, some personal, others more general commentaries. Franzen can turn to almost any subject, examine it, and expound on it at length. There are essays on such subjects as privacy in America, television’s effect on literacy, scavenging, and a job he had as a teenager. One essay titled “Books in Bed” immediately caught my interest because I assumed it would be about the joys of reading in bed before going to sleep. It turned out to be a survey of sex manuals.

The opening essay, “My Father’s Brain,” tells of the Valentine’s Day card he received from his mother in which she enclosed two Mr. Goodbars, along with a “copy of the neuropathologist’s report on his father’s brain.” It is a touching essay about his mother, and his father, who had Alzheimer’s, written with love, and with all the objectivity he could manage.

His detailed exposé of the Chicago postal system, “Lost in the Mail,” published in 1994, recounts the dereliction of duty on the part of some postal carriers who, without supervision by lax management, made their own rules. One weary carrier, unable to deliver his entire load of mail by the end of the day, simply took the overflow home and stashed it away in a closet. Other carriers had similar creative solutions for disposing of undelivered mail, such as stuffing it in the trunk of a car, or simply burning it. Franzen covers this ten-year disaster in such detail that after reading all 40 pages the weary reader might begin to feel uneasy about the imaginative carriers in their city.

“Control Units” was written after he’d been given a tour of the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado. It is a vivid description of the “state-of-the-art warehouse” for the “worst of the worst” criminals, a subject about which most of us know little.

During the years when these essays were being published, Franzen had published two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, both favorably reviewed, but generally ignored by the public and the media. But after the success of The Corrections, he found he was granting numerous interviews. The reporters made reference to what had come to be called the “Harper’s essay,” and he realized that it had been misinterpreted. His determination to correct this misunderstanding led him to “decide to pull together an essay collection that would include the complete text” of the essay. In rereading it, however, he was struck by the fact “that I used to be a very angry and theory-minded person.” The essay, drastically cut, much revised, and retitled “Why Bother?” is published in this collection,

If I have a favorite, it is “Sifting the Ashes,” a carefully researched examination of the dangers to one’s health as a result of smoking cigarettes. It opens with this sentence: “Cigarettes are the last thing in the world I want to think about.” But as you read on, you realize it is ALL he thinks about. Published in 1996, his careful exploration of the serious physical damages resulting from smoking was apparently written as Franzen smoked one cigarette after another, trying to convince himself to quit. At one point during his struggle, when he looked up and glanced out of his window, he saw a woman leaning out of hers, smoking. He “fell in love at first sight as she stood there, both inside and outside, inhaling contradiction and breathing out ambivalence.” What that means, I’m not sure, but I wonder if the woman smoking at the window realized what she was breathing in and out. However serious Franzen is about quitting, he has managed to come up with some inventive theories about the beneficial effects of smoking, such as: “Time stops for the duration of a cigarette: when you’re smoking, you’re acutely present to yourself: you step outside the unconscious forward rush of life.” With such self-indulgent rationalizations about the advantages of smoking, I doubt if Franzen will ever quit.

His essay on New York City, his adopted home, also has some questionable theories. For instance, as to how “life in New York . . . can be so much less beholden to the world of consumerism than life in the suburbs.” He concludes that: “. . . cities represent an older, less advanced stage in the development of buying and selling,” and thus there is “less susceptibility” to “sales pitches.” How many New Yorkers would agree with him, I don’t know. Finally, he maintains that “there’s something in the very nature of cities which enforces adult responsibility.” Anyone who has ever lived in a large, heavily populated city knows that the cloak of anonymity provided by a large city enforces no such thing.

“Imperial Bedroom” is a general discourse on the subject of privacy in America. He pointedly concludes the essay, tongue-in-cheek, with a scene that causes the reader to wonder if there is such a thing as privacy, for he describes himself observing, from his apartment, every detail of his neighbors in their apartment across the way, as they dress to go out for the evening.

“Why Bother?” is the retitled, completely revised version of the Harper’s essay, originally titled “Perchance to Dream.” In preparation for publication of this book, his rereading of that essay made him realize that he “used to consider it apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James.” He could see that at the time, he was writing from a “place of anger and despair.” Despite the ways in which that essay was interpreted, Franzen insists that he had not expressed any intention of writing a “big social novel.” The new title indicates that what he was saying was: “Why bother to write a novel at all?”

These essays were written before the author was catapulted into a high income bracket, so that the message Franzen seemed eager to convey in some essays, his borderline state of poverty, no longer obtains. He described his modest style of living, rejecting unnecessary newfangled gadgets such as a touch-tone telephone. He prefers his “basic black AT&T with a rotary dial. One reporter, who interviewed him at home, described his two-room apartment, a third-floor walk-up above a real-estate office, furnished with things he had scavenged. Whether or not his recent rise to fame has altered his style of living (no video and no CDs) we may find out in his next essay.

The most touching essay in the collection is “Meet Me in St. Louis.” A less negative, modest, sensitive young man emerges as Franzen describes a return visit to his home town. The purpose of the visit was to provide film footage to be used on the Oprah Show. As the filming went on, he began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the phoney set-up shots, especially the many retakes he was asked to do. He felt as though he’d been asked to take part in and contribute to something dishonest. When he was told that the producers tried to arrange with the present owners of his old house for him to be filmed there, he refused. Not because he rejected his home, but because it was no longer his home. Finally he was asked to stand in the shadow of the famous Arch, a symbol that meant nothing to him. After they did two takes, he finally exploded at the producer: “This is so fundamentally bogus.” To which the producer nodded and said, “You’re right.”

In “The Reader in Exile” he laments the loss of readers to television, voicing his concern for “the shift from a culture based on the printed word” to one “based on virtual images.” He concludes the essay: “The first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.”

His novel The Corrections won the 2001 National Book Award, but Franzen has, nevertheless, admitted his anxiety as to where it falls in the hierarchy of literature. He insisted that he had no intention of writing a “big social novel,” and he would probably not be pleased to hear it called a “popular novel.” Perhaps after the flurry of interest subsides, more thoughtful critics might reevaluate it as a well-written but over-written book

Franzen is a fine writer with an uncanny eye for detail, the rhythm of conversation, and an admirable command of the English language. What is impressive about this essay collection is not only his range of subject matter, and his lucid, articulate, elegant writing style, but the depth of his examination of each subject. Whether or not you’re interested in postal or prison systems, his research is exhaustive, and he is so scrupulous about recording details, that with each essay one has the impression that the subject on which he’s writing is his area of expertise. But excessive detail can be overload, and perhaps in his next book, a good editor will suggest restraint.


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