[Review] How to be Alone

How to be Alone: CoverI don't recall now how Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections first fell into my hands. I suspect it was a book that I picked up in an airport or bookstore in a city I was visiting when I'd run out of reading material. (A practice that has been obsoleted by owning a Kindle. This is good at 11 p.m. in a hotel with nothing to do, but bad in that I find fewer books through chance.)

What I do recall of The Corrections is that I tore through it obsessively, and enjoyed it immensely. So I picked up some of his other works (The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion) hoping to revisit the feeling I had reading The Corrections.

The Twenty-Seventh City had a cooling effect on my interest in Franzen. It's a decent novel, and set in my home town (St. Louis) but it's not quite the book that The Corrections is. It's more of a suspense title, and much more impersonal than The Corrections.

After picking up How to be Alone a while back, it sat gathering dust because I wanted to check back in with Franzen,  but was a little less motivated to do so.  As it turns out, that was a mistake.

This collection of essays is a must-read for anyone who still loves reading, and cares about the novel. (A first- or second-hand familiarity with depression, or at least Weltschmerz, will also come in handy.)

The essays run the gamut, from deeply personal (such as "My Father's Brain," which deals with his father's decline and death, suffering from Alzheimer's) to the journalistic ("Lost in the Mail," which examines the declining postal service through the lens of Chicago's troubled postal system), to the academic and literary (such as "The Reader in Exile.")

It felt many times like Franzen had written a book for me personally. "Why Bother," is really the core of the book. Originally it was published in Harper's with the title "Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels." Franzen re-worked the essay for the book and re-titled it, because many people mistook the intention of the original essay.

"Why Bother" wrestles with Franzen's "despair about the American novel." Any reader of fiction will find this essay simultaneously satisfying, depressing, and enjoyable. Satisfying and enjoyable because Franzen articulates what most of us already think about the the novel and its place in today's world. Depressing because there's no likelihood that the novel, or writing in general, will ever reclaim its position as a pre-eminent form of discourse.

I also heartily enjoyed "Mr. Difficult," which discusses the difference between schools of thought of how fiction relates to its audience. The "Status" model, which finds "difficult" works of fiction to have value even if the average audience finds it impenetrable and unenjoyable. The "Contract" model assumes that the writer has a contract with their audience to provide an enjoyable work that they can connect with.  (As with Franzen, I find myself firmly in the "Contract" camp, though I feel the "reader-response" school takes this a wee bit too far.)

The writing and arguments put forward in How to be Alone are excellent. I would recommend it to anyone who cares about fiction, reading, and to any fans of Franzen's fiction.