Jonathan Franzen: How To Be Alone: Essays

Jonathan Franzen: How To Be Alone: Essays

From his quizzical essays on the fate of fiction to anecdotes casting him as a blindfolded novelist quivering before the blank page, Jonathan Franzen is better-suited than most for the role of the model writer. But as evidenced by the uproar that surrounded The Corrections' aborted bid as an Oprah's Book Club tome, the model-writer role is a curse as much as a blessing. In countless screeds by reporters and otherwise-thoughtful critics, Franzen was derided as an evil elitist, when in truth he was guilty of little more than a lack of media savvy. Still, the stupidity of the whole episode lends rich subtext to How To Be Alone, a perfectly titled essay collection that follows Franzen's rise and fall through the atmosphere of the written word. Compiling magazine pieces written for The New Yorker, Harper's, and Details over the past eight years, the book casts Franzen as both a restlessly questioning novelist and a reporter whose ostensible journalistic aims mostly point back to his novelistic lot in life. In "My Father's Brain," an essay about his father's fight with Alzheimer's, he stretches a heartbreaking family story into a meditation on the illusory narratives through which we divine notions of self. Written after the release of the Starr Report, "Imperial Bedroom" crawls under conventional erosion-of-privacy wisdom by exposing the flimsy promise lurking in workable definitions of privacy. Full of contradictions, Franzen revisits such private/public concerns from a number of angles, ultimately circling around the isolated communalism inherent to the practice of reading and writing. In "Why Bother," a revised version of the infamous Harper's essay invoked by many reviews of The Corrections, Franzen thinks out loud about fiction's waning ability to engage the social landscape. His conclusion, as much as one exists, is a lot more heartening than might be expected, especially as it evolves through the tale of a blocked depressive winding his way toward inspiration. Less appealing in its journalistic mode, How To Be Alone features a handful of inconsequential and overreaching essays. (A piece on lousy Chicago mail service, for example, portends the imminent death of American cities.) But Franzen distinguishes himself when he ditches his reasoned reporter's guise and dives into details. At the end of a gutsy piece about the hypocritical demonization of the tobacco industry, he pines over the vision of a woman hanging out of her New York apartment window with a cigarette. "I fell in love at first sight as she stood there, both inside and outside, inhaling contradiction and breathing out ambivalence," he writes. Defiant in its romantic yearning for steely solitude, that image is perfectly suited to Franzen's tone, hinting at the ethereal writerly tug that How To Be Alone goes a long way toward realizing.

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