(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Almost all the selections in this book were written while Jonathan Franzen was in his thirties and still struggling to survive as a writer of what he repeatedly calls “serious fiction.” “Scavenging” gives a good picture of his mental and physical state. Not unlike the dedicated writers portrayed in George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) and in Knut Hamsun’s Sult(1890; Hunger, 1899), Franzen lived in cold and squalor, sustained by ideals and ambition. He furnished his transient rooms with orange crates, doors converted to tables, bookshelves made from cinder blocks and raw lumber, chairs and lamps salvaged from trash piles, mismatched dishes, laundry soaking in the bathtub, candles stuck in chianti bottles, and bullfight posters glued to the bare walls. His ancient television set showed nothing but snow unless he kept holding the bare antenna wire between his fingers. His antique typewriters were chronically breaking down. He repaired one using dental floss to replace the nylon cord that supplied tension to advance the carriage. When he acquired a computer, it was more of a challenge to repair, and it made such a racket that he had to wear earmuffs.

It is noteworthy that by 1996 Franzen had already published two novels which had been favorably reviewed. “No doubt about it,” wrote Laura Shapiro in her review of Strong Motion (1992) for Newsweek, “Jonathan Franzen is one of the most extraordinary writers around.” Richard Eder, covering Franzen’s first novel for the Los Angeles Times some four years earlier, called The Twenty-seventh City (1988) “a novel so imaginatively and expansively of our times that it seems ahead of them.” Succès d’estime and financial success are not synonymous. Many novelists earn barely enough from one novel to survive to finish the next.

Franzen was not unlike myriad other talented young people who discover a love for one of the arts and vow to dedicate their lives to literature, music, painting, sculpture, acting, singing, or dancing without realizing how depressing the hardships and disappointments will ultimately become. They see their erstwhile friends scrambling up the economic ladder, getting promotions and raises just for showing up, getting married, having babies, buying houses. They often remember how their parents advised them to go into medicine, dentistry, law, engineering, accounting, or some other practical profession—anything but art. Anton Chekhov describes three such naïve idealists in a story titled “Talent” (1916):

Like wolves in a cage, the three friends kept pacing to and fro from one end of the room to the other. They talked without ceasing, talked hotly and genuinely; all three were excited, carried away. To listen to them it would seem they had the future, fame, money, in their hands. And it never occurred to either of them that time was passing, that every day life was nearing its close, that they had lived at other people’s expense a great deal and nothing yet was accomplished; that they were all bound by the inexorable law by which of a hundred promising beginners only two or three rise to any position and all the others draw blanks in the lottery, perish playing the part of flesh for the cannon.

Franzen’s personal essays reveal his state of mind during his struggle to survive as a freelance writer. He lived in many cities but discovered that a person who moves from one poor neighborhood to another poor neighborhood is virtually living in the same city, no matter where it is. He ranted and raved against consumerism and capitalism until he became one of the few who catch the gold ring. The Corrections was a well-deserved turning point in his career. His misunderstanding with Oprah Winfrey was a side issue. His long, autobiographical novel won the National Book Award for fiction without her help, but its selection for her now-defunct book club certainly helped him earn many extra dollars, representing freedom to continue writing without worrying about landlords and bill collectors. Before The Corrections, Franzen was an angry (and hungry, lonely, frustrated, anxious) young man, an enfant terrible; after The Corrections, the tone of his prose changes dramatically. He is like the back-up quarterback when the starter breaks a leg. Suddenly everybody wants to be near him. He had so many interviews he could hardly keep up with them, and the warm attention was apparently just what was needed to thaw him.

How to Be Alone was obviously pieced together in order to capitalize on the unusual notoriety of The Corrections attributable to its critical success, his receipt of the prestigious National Book Award, and the highly publicized misunderstanding with Oprah...

(The entire section is 1954 words.)