Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to be Alone - Jonathan Franzen (2002)

I picked up How to be Alone at the Printer's Row Lit Fest, so it shares the dubious honor of being the second book after Rick Moody's Purple America to be purchased there and reviewed here.  I liked Purple America and I liked How to be Alone but for different reasons.  How to be Alone is a book of essays, and I don't know, I just kind of like reading essays.  Let me put it this way: I prefer to read "essays" over "articles," and I hope that my posts on Flying Houses are considered "essay-like reviews" rather than "article-like reviews."  But I digress - we must discuss the author.

The only time I read anything by Jonathan Franzen before was when I read a chapter from The Corrections that was re-printed in an anthology released for the 50th anniversary of The Paris Review (ironically, also purchased at the Printer's Row Lit Fest(!) - a decade ago when it was called the Printer's Row Book Fair).  I didn't really get into it.  So I never checked out that novel, or anything else by him.  But he seemed like the real deal after Freedom got so much attention so I figured I should give him a chance when I saw this book for $5.00.  And after reading it I will definitely check out more of his work.

But I can't go on without mentioning that I was put off by him before because he seemed like a kind of vanilla great writer--doing everything right, but lacking the ability to really engage the reader--from that little excerpt I read in that Paris Review anthology.  Mainly I compared that with "Little Expressionless Animals," a short story by David Foster Wallace that was also in there and is probably the best (and only) thing I have finished by him, and decided that Franzen just wrote pretentiously.
The book starts off on an almost impossibly high note with "My Father's Brain."  This is a remarkable essay that should be anthologized for any collection of 20th or 21st century writers studied by high school students (it could almost be an essay by Richard Selzer).  Franzen ties together autobiography and science to produce an extraordinary tribute to his father that is highly emotional as well as educational.  Having lost a grandmother to Alzheimer's disease, it was especially poignant for me when he mentioned how his father could still recognize the people around him as familiar, but could not identify their relationship to him.  To be clear, the last time I saw her before she went to a nursing home, she referred to her son and his wife (who had moved in with her to care for her) as two nice people who were letting her stay with them for some unknown reason.  Franzen's father similarly retained familiarity with his family members, but probably only thanked them for coming to visit in the nursing home because (apparently) Alzheimer's patients retain their manners and politeness, and other learned, ingrained social pleasantries.  This, along with several other observations and scientific hypotheses, tells the reader everything they need to know about Alzheimer's.  But what makes this essay even more amazing is the way Franzen branches off to discuss the nature of memory, and how writers employ it:
Before I go on, a confession: it has taken me a very long time to write this review.  Not because I have complicated feelings about it, but because I've been lazy.  Also I couldn't find a good quote from the first essay, so we move on.

"Imperial Bedroom" comes next and at this point I need to say several things: (1) that is the title of an Elvis Costello album; (2) that is almost the title of a Bret Easton Ellis novel; (3) a few days after starting this book on June 30, 2014, Bret Easton Ellis linked to an old interview he did on Facebook which referenced the most infamous essay in this book and also commented on Donna Tartt in June 1999; (4) this essay is about the Starr Report and was published in 1998; (5) this essay references the "zone of privacy" codified by the Supreme Court in the late 1800's, (6) this essay feels dated in a very charming way, like many of the other pieces in this book.  I will get more into this later.  But basically, this essay was o.k.:

"Walking up Third Avenue on a Saturday night, I feel bereft.  All around me, attractive young people are hunched over their StarTacs [!] and Nokias with preoccupied expressions, as if probing a sore tooth, or adjusting a hearing aid, or squeezing a pulled muscle; personal technology has begun to look like a personal handicap.  All I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen, but even this modest ideal is thwarted by cell-phone users and their unwelcome privacy.  They say things like 'Should we have couscous with that?' and 'I'm on my way to Blockbuster.'  They aren't breaking any law by broadcasting these breakfast-nook conversations.  There's no PublicityGuard that I can buy, no expensive preserve of public life to which I can flee.  Seclusion, whether in a suite at the Plaza or in a cabin in the Catskills, is comparatively effortless to achieve.  Privacy is protected as both commodity and right; public forums are protected as neither.  Like old-growth forests, they're few and irreplaceable and should be held in trust by everyone.  The work of maintaining them gets only harder as the private sector grows ever more demanding, distracting, and disheartening.  Who has the time and energy to stand up for the public sphere?  What rhetoric can possibly compete with the American love of 'privacy?'" (53)

Okay, I'll admit sometimes I don't get exactly what point Franzen is trying to make, but let's just say he sounds like a curmudgeon in 1998 and he must totally want to kill himself with the state of things in 2014, as do I.  So I make this offer to him: the next time he is in Chicago, he should contact me and we should take the El together and yell at everyone staring down at their phones.  [Note: I have absolutely no problem with people reading Flying Houses on personal electronic devices].

The aforementioned infamous essay comes next.  "Why Bother? (The Harper's Essay)" is one of the main attractions of this book, but not for the right reasons.  I am sure there are plenty of people that would defend this essay as a "tour de force" and one of the finest essays about literature in the 1990's, but most people (and Franzen himself) probably consider it embarrassing and pretentious.  Originally titled "Perchance to Dream" and published in April 1996, Franzen writes that when he actually opened up the magazine to read it, "I found an essay, evidently written by me, that began with a five-thousand-word complaint of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldn't quite follow it." (4) He "cut the essay by a quarter" and retitled it, and hoped "it's less taxing to read now, more straightforward in its movement." (5) It is 43 pages long and only wasn't taxing for me to read because I was stuck on an airline commute from hell that majorly comprised a 15 hour travel day. Also, it was not taxing because I kept waiting to see what ridiculous thing Franzen was going to write next.  It is a gold mine for ridiculousness, but some valid points are made along the way.

As is the case for most of the essays here, it is spurred by something Franzen recently read.  In this case it is the short novel Desperate Characters by Paula Fox published in 1970. (As a side note, Franzen name-checks many, many writers throughout this book, most of them a bit more obscure than the usual names mentioned.  So it can be helpful also in terms of discovering new writers.) He writes a lot about how simple and beautiful this novel is and how symbolic it all is.  He also writes about his first novel The Twenty-Seventh City and how his ideas of what literature should be shifted throughout the years.  Now, I kind of want to read his first novel now, and I kind of get where he's coming from, even though I don't agree entirely with his stance.  But maybe I'm confusing this with the later essay "Mr. Difficult," which I think is probably the strongest essay in this book ("Why Bother?" done right).

He writes a lot about Shirley Brice Heath and the observations she made about the reading public.  He basically complains that nobody reads anymore.  There's a lot of confessional stuff about his own writing, and he is usually pretty funny and occasionally lands solid moments of truth:

"Unfortunately, there's also evidence that young writers today feel imprisoned by their ethnic or gender identities--discouraged from speaking across boundaries by a culture in which television has conditioned us to accept only the literal testimony of the Self.  And the problem is aggravated when fiction writers take refuge in university creative-writing programs.  Any given issue of the typical small literary magazine, edited by MFA candidates aware that the MFA candidates submitting manuscripts need to publish in order to obtain or hold on to teaching jobs, reliably contains variations on three generic short stories: 'My Interesting Childhood,' 'My Interesting Life in a College Town,' and 'My Interesting Year Abroad.'  Fiction writers in the Academy do serve the important function of teaching literature for its own sake, and some of them also produce strong work teaching, but as a reader I miss the days when more novelists lived and worked in big cities.  I mourn the retreat into the Self and the decline of the broad-canvas novel for the same reason I mourn the rise of suburbs: I like maximum diversity and contrast packed into a single exciting experience.  Even though social reportage is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental by-product--Shirley Heath's observations confirm that serious readers aren't reading for instruction--I still like a novel that's alive and multivalent like a city." (80)

I can see what he's saying about the MFA contingent (and I've complained about them several times over the years here), but I have to admit that, even though I can't consider myself part of that group (because I didn't get in to one of those programs, I'm more of the novelist that lives and works in a big city), I feel like I have to retreat into the Self, at least for the first couple major works.  I feel like you can't truly understand the world until you've thoroughly examined yourself, and to give an idea of your perspective, you should publish at least a couple books that present it.    

I seriously could write an entire blog post about each essay--and this one is a doozy for sure.  But I have to move on as I'm doing the entire book and I think I've given an idea about the notoriety of this essay.  Bret Easton Ellis said it wasn't a good essay in its original form, and I'm not sure if he thinks it's any better in its revised form, but it's certainly worth reading because you can't help but have strong feelings about it.

"Lost in the Mail" is an essay about the decline of the U.S. Post Office in Chicago in 1994.  I loved it because so much of it is about Chicago, but as I was reading it I was paranoid that my city sticker wouldn't arrive that day in the mail, and that I'd get penalized for not having a new one on my windshield on July 1, but in reality they didn't start enforcing that until July 17th this year (and ironically, my city sticker arrived right after I finished the essay).  As is the case for most of the essays here, it feels dated, but then again I don't live on the South Side.  I feel like the Post Office has cleaned up its act over the past 20 years, but this is still an entertaining read because it is the first "live reportage" type essay here and feels like it's "from the front lines" and "an insider's look."

"Erika Imports" is probably the strangest thing in the book, but it's nice.  It's like four pages long and is a brief nostalgia trip about the first summer job Franzen ever had, working for his neighbors.  Maybe I only thought it was nice because it was so short though, and was such a counterpoint to the 30 page essay I was expecting.

"Sifting the Ashes" is a great essay about cigarettes.  However, I was confused at the beginning as to whether Franzen had actually quit at the time he was writing it.  Again, he references a recent book he read, Smoke Screen by Philip J. Hilts.  Though this essay was published in 1996, it doesn't feel that dated.  The only thing that's changed is that cigarettes have become subject to much higher taxation and have been banned from most indoor establishments across the country.  I feel like somebody needs to write an essay about marijuana right now so that in 18 years we can consider whether it feels dated.

"The Reader in Exile" is the 2nd example of the "quintessential Franzen essay" in this book, after "Why Bother?"  You can guess what it is about.  He references A is for Ox by Barry Sanders, but mostly talks about Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte.  I mainly remember this essay for Negroponte's relentless positivity about the rise of technology, and Franzen's skepticism.  It makes me feel like Negroponte was an early proponent of the robo basilisk paranoia, but I digress.

"First City" is an essay about New York City.  It is also about the nature of cities, and how they differ in Europe from the U.S.  Some interesting comments are made about urban planning.  He references Witold Rybczysnki's book City Life.  Further comments are made about The Encyclopedia of New York City, which are entertaining.  In general, this is a paean to New York as the most European city in the U.S. and it makes me want to write an essay titled "Second City."

"Scavenging" is probably the 2nd strangest thing in the book.  He also gripes about new technology here, waxing nostalgic about his rotary phone.  He kind of jumps all over the place in this essay, but he mostly writes about using outdated technology.  And it is here that we reach a milestone.  For I read this essay right before I accidentally destroyed my old laptop's screen, and felt very sad, but then felt very proud like I would blog on a semi-broken machine.  And I did that for a while, but at this moment, this post is the first post being written on my new laptop.

"Control Units" is about super maximum security prisons, and is a really great essay, actually.  It's not quite on the level of "My Father's Brain," but it's like a more compelling "Lost in the Mail."  Basically, Franzen is in full-on journalist mode here again, and he makes some great comments about the prison system in a particular Colorado town, and though it was published in 1995, this is another essay that has only grown more true as time has gone on.

"Mr. Difficult" is my favorite essay in this book.  It is mainly about William Gaddis.  I have never read anything by Gaddis but it made me want to--sort of.  Franzen gives Gaddis the highest compliments imaginable, but also openly admits that some of his later work is a mess.  This is one of the most fascinating essays in the book because Franzen seems openly enthusiastic about the material, and his opportunity to make a statement about it.  There is also the interesting revelation that the title of The Corrections is meant as a nod to The Recognitions.  Franzen also writes about his failed attempt to write a screenplay, because somebody told him that his movie seemed to plagiarize Fun with Dick and Jane (which seems weird for some reason).  He also talks about books that he couldn't finish.  He references The Sot-Weed Factor, and that is another notable example of a book that I tried to read while starting this blog, but failed to review as "incomplete." I guess this is about a certain period of American authors.  Franzen says he didn't particularly like any of them that much except for Don DeLillo and Gaddis.  Generally, I liked what he did with this essay.  Franzen seems to have a deep understanding of Gaddis's oeuvre, and I can appreciate an essay on this sort of subject matter.

"Books in Bed" is another essay that is kind of like "Imperial Bedroom" but is mostly about sex rather privacy.  It is also about watching CNN in airports.  He again references recent books he has read  This time it is The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict, which is a compilation of sex scenes in literature.  Franzen seems to view the culture's obsession with sex, and literary sex scenes, as another indication of the sad state of the modern world.  But along the way, as usual, he is entertaining:

"Until the Rules become universal, though, such comfort as can be found in the market economy comes principally from norms.  Are you worried about the size of your penis?  According to Sex: A Man's Guide, most men's erections are between five and seven inches long.  Worried about the architecture of your clitoris?  According to Betty Dodson, in the revised edition of her Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, the variations are 'astounding.'  Worried about frequency?  'Americans do not have a secret life of abundant sex,' the researchers in Sex in America concluded.  Worried about how long it takes you to come?  On average, says Sydney Barrows, it takes a woman eighteen minutes, a man just three."  (273)

"Meet Me in St. Louis" is the last longer essay in the book, and is about Franzen's experience becoming a member of "Oprah's Book Club" and how a promotional movie was shot in St. Louis about his life.  It's awkward and is one of the other major highlights of this book.  In a way, it is similar to "My Father's Brain" because it delves into personal details about his life and his parents.  It's entertaining and emotionally engaging to see how a bigger promotional machine can twist the meaning of a work of art into something different than its meant to be in search of a bigger return.

The collection ends with a trip that Franzen took to see the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001.  It's breezy and short--only "Erika Imports" is shorter.  But it makes a stronger impression than that essay.  It reads like a combination of "Journalist Franzen" and "Skeptical Franzen."  It seems like a reactionary piece to the Bush v. Gore decision, and it feels very raw and angry.  Obviously your political views may tint how you view this essay, but it seems like the vast majority of Frazen's fans will not take issue.

On the whole, How to be Alone is a nice collection, and was worth buying for $5.  I'm not sure I'll revisit it anytime soon (maybe in a decade, who knows), but it was a thoroughly entertaining collection that made me feel very literary for reading.  Anybody that wants to be a well-respected author that sells a lot of copies should read this to see inside the mind of one of them.  Franzen is generous in that regard.  Still, I can't help but feel that 50% or more of modern-day writers may claim he is full of it and you don't need to live the way he does to write great books.  I'm not sure how I'll review his fiction, but I hope to have the chance soon.


Anonymous said...

This is, as usual, a highly intelligent review, and it's made me want to read the book. Books of essays by fiction writers always seem like just easily collected previously published pieces without a coherent center or point of view (and a lot of them are, usually the more famous the writer is, the more they're just random stuff thrown together), but this sounds good.

I read Franzen's first novel when he was very young (I'm older than he is) or so: "The Twenty-Seventh City," and though I admired some of it, it's not very good, something Franzen would no doubt say himself now.

You can see, though, he was a very young kid and he was ambitious, not writing anything about his own life in a disguised version that seems what at least younger writers want: something like this, by a writer who said in an interview that he'd "read, like, fifteen books in my life for pleasure" and who thinks Tao Lin is the master of fiction who "can do anything" (no, he can't create believable characters not based on himself and his friends, and even his friend-characters don't seem more than ciphers; he can't create a real story with a plot; etc.).

You know, sometimes curmudgeons are needed. If you don't become a bit of one by the time you're 50, you're probably doing something wrong. You have the makings of a great curmudgeon and I thank you for taking the time to write this so thoughtfully.

JK said...

What's weird about the example you link to is that I believe that writer is now a student at my old law school. Still it looks like an interesting read...

Maybe I won't start with The 27th City, though sometimes I feel like I want to read an author's entire oeuvre in chronological order...something I've never really made it a point to do. Franzen could be a good one to do just because he seems relatively manageable.

Thank you for the comment as always, I really appreciate them!