Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1954
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 Winfrey which did him more good than harm. He modestly describes his conflicted feelings during the Winfrey affair in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” He may be remembered as the brash young idealist who was “disinvited” to appear on Winfrey’s popular television talk show because he told many interviewers that he did not think much of her literary taste.
His public disparagement of Winfrey’s club may have been directly responsible for her decision to abolish it. Many critics felt that she may have promoted some mediocre writers but at least was getting couch potatoes to read. Franzen has been called everything from “sensitive” to “arrogant.” He unflinchingly quotes some of the strongest epithets in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” including “spoiled, whiny little brat” and “ego-blinded snob.” In his defense, it should be pointed out that he was not merely idealistic but dealing in his third novel with the most intimate autobiographical matters, including the lingering illness and death of his father, chronicled in the second essay in the collection, “My Father’s Brain.”
Without The Corrections, there would have been no market for a potpourri of essays, articles, and memoirs such as How to Be Alone; and since Franzen worked on his big novel for eight years, it would have been too much for his publisher to hope for a quick follow-up in the form of another work of fiction. How to Be Alone might be called a Franzen sampler. It shows his intelligence and talent along with some of his faults, perhaps the greatest of which is—or was—an overinflated ego. The pieces are only remotely interrelated. In “Cigarettes,” for example, Franzen blames his love-hate addiction to smoking on the big tobacco companies and their advertising agencies. “Lost in the Mail” is a solid piece of reportage about the deplorable deterioration of the postal service in Chicago in the 1990’s. “Control Units” reads like more commissioned journalism. It deals sensitively and intelligently with conditions in modern American prisons. Franzen’s other faults, pointed out by many critics, are that he tends to overwrite and show off his vocabulary. As a sampler, How to Be Alone reveals an exceptionally gifted writer, no longer young, who may or may not have the necessary endurance, creativity, and luck to become one of the most important writers of his generation.
The pièce de résistance of Franzen’s collection is “the Harper’s essay,” revised and shortened (most of what Franzen writes, including The Corrections, could stand shortening) and given the revealing new title of “Why Bother?” In “A Word About This Book,” Franzen explains what he revised and eliminated from the original Harper’s essay, “Perchance to Dream” (1996), which had provoked so much controversy. When he looked at the original, he says,
I found an essay . . . of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldn’t quite follow it. . . . I used to consider it apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James. . . . I used to think that our American political economy was a vast cabal whose specific aim was to thwart my artistic ambitions, exterminate all that I found lovely in civilization, and also rape and murder the planet in the process. . . . What goes for the Harper’s essay goes for this collection as a whole. I intend this book, in part, 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.
Franzen is standing on the pinnacle of success, but as every creative writer knows, that is a slippery pinnacle. Having used up his most intimate family memories in The Corrections, he may have a hard time finding another theme that will suit his aspirations to write in what he calls the “high-art literary tradition.” Franzen considers himself a postmodernist and speaks admiringly of Don DeLillo. Novelists, like everyone else, are allowed only one set of biological parents, and after they have killed them off or exorcized them in a work of fiction they are faced with the problem of what to do for an encore. Although Franzen’s writings all show his talent and his dedication, he may or may not be able to stick to his principles for the long life he still has ahead; he may or may not run out of ideas; he may or may not become the great social novelist he aspires to be.
There is a remarkable contrast between most of the pieces in How to Be Alone that were written during the 1990’s and the three pieces written after the turn of the century. Franzen suddenly sounds less like a professional bad boy, less like a fire-eating revolutionary who blames “upbeat techno- corporatism” for his personal troubles. Success has made him serious, modest, chastened, humble, middle-aged. He is conscious that he is no longer addressing a select audience of cognoscenti but is now playing at the big table. Unlike the vast majority of aspiring artists who come out of college every year and encounter the dog-eat-dog competition of the real world, his dreams have come true. His photo on the back flap of the cover shows a man with uncombed hair and a three-day growth of beard, standing in the twilight zone between youth and middle age. He is wearing a denim jacket with the collar rakishly turned up. It is as if he is trying to proclaim that he is still a renegade, but his later essays belie that assertion.
Professor Stephen Cox, who reviewed How to Be Alone for the San Diego Union-Tribune, wrote that Franzen was “like many other cultural conservatives who mistake themselves for liberals.” Franzen’s fairy-tale release from poverty and obscurity may not be making him politically conservative so much as revealing his innate conservative values to himself. Success may spoil Franzen. His 1990’s essays sound like rumblings of a passing storm; he sounds like Hal denouncing Falstaff on the day of his coronation in William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part II(pr. 1598). In “Inauguration Day, January, 2001,” Franzen seems to be repudiating the radical malcontents of his youth. He tells how, “lacking any better invitation,” he participated in a cold, wet, socialist demonstration against George W. Bush “even if [he] didn’t actually believe that George Bush was a bigot or that he’d stolen any votes that day.” This last entry ends with these words:
You may still be one version of yourself, the version from the bus, the younger and redder version, as long as you’re waiting for the subway and riding home. 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.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 99 (September 1, 2002): 47.
The Guardian, October 5, 2002, p. 36.
Kirkus Reviews 70 (August 1, 2002): 1093.
Library Journal 127 (October 1, 2002): 94.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (November 10, 2002): 7.
Publishers Weekly 249 (September 2, 2002): 65.
San Diego Union-Tribune Book Review, October 6, 2002, p. 8.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, October 13, 2002, p. 2.
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