Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review Pt. 1: How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen

Note: originally published at


Jonathan Franzen has been accused of exorbitant grumpitude, for example here (and here and here and sort-of here too). One gets the idea that he just sort of crouches in his artist's garret, chainsmoking and brainstorming lists of what's wrong with the world, muttering and spitting on cats like that guy in Camus' The Plague.

It's a safe guess that Franzen is so widely crankified because so much of his writing consists of elegantly whinging about the slummy decline of contemporary culture. Strong Motion, The Corrections, and Freedom are each largely driven by people (sweaty, moving, pitiful humanity) vs. capitalism (corporate malfeasance, globalist looting, war profiteering, corporate appropriation of environmentalism, consumer culture, etc. etc.). Franzen doesn't manufacture villains; he just takes soul-devouring elements of the actual, real world and convincingly places them within his fiction. This has the effect of making his stories into polemics. His novels are dangerously relevant.

How to Be Alone, Franzen's 2002 nonfiction essay collection, is pretty dour, too. If the title didn't tip you to its ethos, read Franzen's explanation of same:

With so much fresh outrageousness being manufactured daily, I've chosen to do only minimal tinkering with the...essays in this book...(T)he local particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays: the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.

Franzen's How to Be Alone is an extended, collected complaint against the political and cultural decline of America and the world. By his own admission, this book is a How-To manual for becoming a Luddite contrarian of the lone-goat, 'Get off my lawn!' style.

So if you're shopping for delight, may I suggest some  P.J. O'Rourke (or Dennis Leary, or Al Franken, or some such interchangeable wag)? Or perhaps Paulo Coelho? Or Dave Eggers? Maybe do an Amazon search for "life-affirming + redemptive + funny + cute"?

Okay, fine. You caught me. I'm rhetorically casting 'delightful' as a euphemism for 'shallow,' and contrasting 'delightful' works against Franzen's 'grumpy' (i.e. 'serious') work. I'm sorry. This is a crass, manipulative tactic. I'm being both an intellectual elitist (by looking down my nose at 'delightful' fiction) and anti-intellectual (by deploying straw-man opponents like P.J. O'Rourke). I haven't even read Paulo Coelho; maybe he's brilliant. I'm sorry for this shitty, sneaky shame-tactic.

But here's why I love Franzen. 1) As a writer, he is nearly peerless; or rather, his peers are mostly dead guys who've entered the literary canon. To read Freedom is to understand contemporary America in the same way that to read The Brothers Karamazov is to understand late nineteenth century Russia. 

And 2) Franzen's writing is the opposite of escapism. This is kind of a big deal: most media, especially profitable media, excels at enabling readers' fantasies. One don't watch television or surf Youtube for edification, but to relax. To escape the Self. In pretty much the same way as drug and alcohol use, most modern media allows the viewer to escape from their own life into a fantasy world, where they become e.g. James Bond. 

Franzen doesn't do that. Nobody wants to escape into the seductive, fun life of Denise Lambert or Walter Berglund. Nobody wants to slowly die from Alzheimer's, or spend their entire life recovering from rape, or pledge their soul to Art as Art sells itself to business. Nobody wants to be the guy who helped Bush et al raid Iraq. Nobody wants to face hard truths.

Which is what fiction is for. In the elitist, high-falutin', moralistic, edifying sense, fiction is for making us face hard truths. Face them, see them, accept them, know them. Fiction integrates what we would simply ignore into a comprehensive narrative of human life: we might not forgive Patty Bergland's atrocious behavior as a mother and partner, but neither can we condemn it out of hand. And of course Patty is just a stand-in for you and me. This is one of the ways in which fiction is supposed to Be Good For You. It will Raise Your Soul and Reflect Our Common Humanity, in sort of the same way that sports Teach You Citizenship and broccoli Strengthens Your Immune System. Serious, good fiction is the opposite of escapist: rather than enabling self-flight, it forces self-confrontation. (Franzen, by the way, abhors the idea that Fiction Is Good For You.)

Ditto for good essays. What fiction says in metaphor, essay can say explicitly. The same death that we read in The Corrections in the ironic mask of a fictional character gets discussed in terms of real-world-connected facts in 'My Father's Brain.' The same death of Serious Culture at the hands of Fun Entertainment which hangs heavy on professor Chip Lambert and musician Richard Katz gets tortured and dissected in 'Why Bother?' (originally 'Perchance to Dream'). In these essays as in his novels, Franzen tries to force the reader, basically, to be a grownup. To not take solace in fantasy. To not reconcile herself to the world by ignoring it.

Later this week I'll post a more citation-heavy discussion of the actual content of How To Be Alone, and add a link from this post. Stay tuned.

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