Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book Review Pt. 2: How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen

Note: this was originally published at

An Overview of How to Be Alone

1) 'A Word About This Book'
Authors' prefaces are nigh upon universally self-indulgent; it's hard not to masturbatory and derivative be when you're writing about your own writing. If the original writing was well-done in the first place, what more could there be to say? So Franzen's introduction is not the best piece in this collection. That said, it's interesting (in a Behind the Scenes EXCLUSIVE! kinda way) to hear his straightforward lament of being a novelist in a world where novels are obsolete and irrelevant, where interviewers "hadn't read the essay, and...the few who had read it seemed to have mis-understood it," and where "Americans seem to be asking even fewer questions about their government today [circa 2002] than in 1991."

2) 'My Father's Brain'
One payoff of reading a novelist's non-fiction essays is that it lets you see how autobiographical his fiction is. Per 'My Father's Brain,' the patriarch of The Correction appears to be more or less based on his own father, whose death from dementia is every bit as slow as slow and horrific as Alfred Lambert's.

3) 'Imperial Bedroom'

Contra the much-bemoaned 'Death of Privacy,' Franzen writes that privacy is flourishing. What the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal illustrates is the death of the public space:

The last big, steep-walled bastion of public life in America is Washington, D.C. Hence the particular violation I felt when the Starr Report crashed in. Hence the feeling of being intruded on. It was privacy invasion, all right: private life brutally invading the most public of public spaces. I don't want to see sex on the news from Washington. There's sex everywhere else I look...Can't there be just one thing in the national landscape that isn't about the bedroom?

4) 'Why Bother?'
With the rise of television and now the internet, novels are becoming obscure. Why, then, write them? Why novelize?

Basically, because sitting still and thinking hard is better than perpetual infantile stimulation. Reading and writing is a kind of ritualized conversation which has the depth and patience to think carefully about important stuff. Because novels put demands on readers, novels can give us more substantial pleasure and even push us to become better, more mature people. Novels can do tragedy in a way that instant-gratification media just can't:

I hope it's clear that by "tragic" I mean just about any fiction that raises more questions than it answers: anything in which conflict doesn't resolve into cant. (Indeed, the most reliable indicator of a tragic perspective in a work of fiction is comedy.) The point of calling serious fiction tragic is to highlight its distance from the rhetoric of optimism that so pervades our culture. 

5) 'Lost in the Mail'
A funny, fascinating, sorrowful look at the decline of the US Post Office, as a case-study in the decline of American public institutions.

6) 'Erika Imports'
A snapshot of a crap job Franzen held in highschool.

In twenty-five years I have yet to find a work situation that isn't somehow about family, or loyalty, or sex, or guilt, or all four. I'm beginning to think I never will.

7) 'Sifting the Ashes'
A review of Ashes to Ashes, Richard Klugar's history of the tobacco industry. Franzen teases out the hypocrisy in the attacks on Big Tobacco in the past few decades. While tobacco executives' hands are far from clean, Franzen argues that the puritan hysteria against tobacco companies serves the same function as all witchhunts: to efface broad, complex community guilt and systemic dysfunction by piling all sins upon a single actor.

The sixty law firms that have pooled their assets for a class-action suit on behalf of all American smokers do not seem to me substantially less predatory than the suit's corporate defendants.

8) Does techno-progress spell the end of the novel, and is this a bad thing? Franzen reviews arguments from both sides, and concludes:

The electronic apotheosis of mass culture has merely reconfirmed the elitism of literary reading, which was briefly obscured in the novel's heyday. I mourn the eclipse of the cultural authority that literature once possessed, and I rue the onset of an age so anxious that the pleasure of text becomes difficult to sustain...But the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.

9) 'First City'
Cities are interesting artifacts. Discuss.

10) 'Scavenging'
Returning to one of his favorite themes, Franzen discusses the problem of how far he'll be seduced by sexy, fun, easy techno-consumerist culture, and how much he'll be a vitriol-spewing contrarian. Also the related problem of, Where is the line between vehement cultural criticism and plain old depression? Answer: write books and steal trash.

11) 'Control Units'
Franzen recounts his visit a couple supermax prisons, and discusses the larger social/political/economic implications of their expansion (e.g. the small town that thought it was going to profit from the new prison, but got shafted by big-business contracts on supplies, uniforms, etc.) The horror of the modern prison industry needs a novel rather an essay, but Franzen does his best:

Ray Levasseur's description of [the supermax prison] as a "proto-techno-fascist's architectural wetdream" sounds like tired agitprop hyperbole. But consider fascism in its original (Italian) sense of getting government to work with the bloodless efficiency of a corporation; of making the trains run on time. Fascism's real essence is a patriotic corporatism that presents itself as beneficent and effective.

12) 'Books in Bed'
At his most wonderfully crabby, Franzen scornfully reviews books on how to have or write about sex.

However manfully I resist nostalgia, Victorian silences appeal to me. Dr. Block, in an uncharacteristic fit of wisdom, observes, "The irony of creating a taboo is that, once something is forbidden, it often becomes very interesting." Sex in a time of ostensible repression at least had the benefit of carving out a space of privacy. Lovers defined themselves in opposition to the official culture, which had the effect of making every discovery personal.

13) 'Meet Me In St. Louis'
Franzen on being videotaped for the Oprah Winfrey Show, and subsequently being dropped as a guest.

Apparently I'm failing to emote.

"You're looking up at the tree," [the producer] coaches. "You're thinking about your father."

14) 'Inauguration Day, January 2001'
Franzen recalls protesting Dubya's inauguration, and become one with the crowd.

But then you peel off the thermal layers, still damp, of the long day's costume, and you see a wholly different kind of costume hanging in your closet; and in the shower you're naked and alone.

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