Reviewed by Lynn Schneider
I admit to having a preconceived opinion of Jonathan Franzen, and after reading his collection of Essays, How To Be Alone, I believe that opinion was wrong. I was under the impression that he considered himself one of the elite, an ego-centric, introspective genius-type author with no time for the literary bourgeoisie, but after reading the collection of essays, I feel differently. I loved some of them, and I liked the rest of them, and through them he seemed approachable, with feelings and insecurities like anyone else.
The subject matter varied from the story of his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s, to an interesting discussion of privacy, to the chaos in the Chicago postal system, to an examination of a maximum-security penitentiary in Colorado, to a very humorous take on sex scenes in novels. The demise of literary fiction is the theme that surfaced over and over, that we are becoming a society of over-medicated, over-stimulated technologentsia — too lazy to read literary fiction anymore and inclined to anesthetize our brains with 24-hour news and Hollywood gossip shows.
The main theme, which surfaced more than once, was the decline of the novel, and technology vs. literature. Mr. Franzen says:
For every reader who dies today, a viewer is born, and we seem to be witnessing, here in the anxious mid-nineties, the final tipping of a balance.
The essays were written in the nineties mostly, and a couple of them in 2001, so I can only wonder how his views have changed since these were written. If he was frustrated then, he must be more so by now, as we are more inundated by technology than ever. What does he think about the reality shows of today, the newer and faster way to numb a brain?
These essays are not always easy to read, in that they are not simplistic, but contain the complex sentence structure that he is famous for. There were at least ten words he used that I had to look up. Some paragraphs needed to be reread to be properly understood, and some passages needed to be reread just because they were beautifully crafted, and so needed to be more fully examined.
It’s clear he wants to reinstate serious fiction to where it belongs, and has attempted to do that very thing, by writing engaging novels about dysfunctional families that will charm the masses. He really wishes people would read more, and rely on technology less, that through reading we can learn “how to be alone”.
The essays which are educational, emotional, wry, and funny are sometimes personal for the author, and I appreciated being allowed the experience of learning a bit more about a man whose writing I so admire.
This is my favorite quote from the book, about internet dating. I don’t know why it’s my favorite but it’s a thought I’ve had myself and when I read it, I knew I wanted to remember it:
…the only thing more dismal to imagine than virtual courtship is daily life in the marriage of two people who would court that way.