How to be Alone
by Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate £16.99, pp278
The essays in this collection act as what Hollywood scriptwriters love to refer to as a 'back story'. They constitute the intellectual hinterland and personal archaeology behind the most remarkable novel of our century to date, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.
Some of them ask to make their relationship to the fiction explicit. It is impossible, for example, to read the author's forensic memoir of his father's neurone-by-neurone submission to Alzheimer's without thinking of the slow decline of Earl Lambert, a victim of Parkinson's, that occupied the heart of the novel.
Others - an examination of what it might mean to live in New York, 'First City', or a deconstruction of the American love affair with sex manuals, 'Books in Bed' - find Franzen testing the geographical and comic grid references that locate his fiction. And a couple, 'Why Bother?' and 'The Reader in Exile', state a tentative case for the purpose of the novel itself in a mass culture: a manifesto which the author subsequently, triumphantly justified.
Taken together the essays are, as the title archly suggests, a self-help manual of sorts. They find Franzen, over the past decade or so, creating for himself a space in which to write, and laying the foundations, moreover, for a place in which writing might be made to be heard. Given his run-in with Oprah Winfrey, who infamously 'deselected' The Corrections as one of her books of the month, on the grounds that its author seemed 'conflicted' about her largesse, there is something apposite about this coolly evangelical tone. In many ways, How to be Alone is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, for grown-ups.
Certainly, as Oprah might have suggested, Franzen has 'issues'. He has issues about the ways in which America seems 'hopelessly unmoored from reality - dreaming [in 1991 as now] of glory in the massacre of faceless Iraqis... dreaming of exemption from the rules of history'. Issues, too, about the breakdown of public society, a dislocation which finds expression everywhere he looks: in the failures of the Chicago postal service - sacks of mail routinely stashed in warehouses - and in the atomisation of cellphone users, broadcasting domesticity - 'should we have couscous with that?' - in the train carriage or on the sidewalk.
Franzen is chief mourner for the loss of public space. He sees American - our - culture not as a place in which privacy has been eclipsed, but as an arena in which it has exploded to fill every civilised area: an autocracy of confession and emotion. 'Privacy is protected as both a commodity and a right; public forums are protected as neither...'
The most insidious culprit in this is, of course, television, 'an enormous, extension of the billion living rooms and bedrooms in which it is consumed...' For as long as television has existed, the novel, and novelists, Franzen believes, have felt themselves in decline. Still, his one redeeming faith, hard won, lies in the marginalised republic of readers and writers 'united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-increasing evanescence: in their reach inward, via print, of a way out of loneliness'.
For a long time, Franzen felt these issues almost too keenly on his own pulse. His need to write, and his despair at not being heard, manifested itself in depression and solitude. At his lowest point, Franzen wrote to Don DeLillo, and the novelist responded with a little manifesto for our times: 'writing... frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.' The author of Underworld also added an apocalyptic PS: 'If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that that thing we're talking about when we use the word "identity" has reached an end.'
Taking these words to heart, Franzen's fiction became an assertion of that singular voice, and these indispensable essays trace the ways in which anyone serious about writing or reading might stutter towards that kind of individuality. The clearing of the throat has rarely seemed more heroic.
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