Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Review #33: How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

I enjoy Jonathan Franzen's essays, which can address any number of wide-ranging subjects, but I can't bear his novels. I had to stop reading The Corrections after about 100+ pages. He seems to despise his own characters. Many of these fourteen essays, by the author of the 2001 novel, The Corrections, first appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and elsewhere. Franzen is smart and brash, the kind of person you want as your social critic but not as a brother-in-law. A long, much-discussed essay on the American novel, titled ‘Why Bother?’, is included, as well as essays on privacy obsession, the U.S. post office, New York City, big tobacco and new prisons. At his best, as in ‘My Father’s Brain’, on his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, (a piece reminiscent of the masterly John McPhee), Franzen can make the ordinary world utterly riveting. At times, however, it can be difficult to discern where Franzen stands on any particular subject as he often seems to take both sides of an argument. Valid attempts to reflect ambiguity sometimes lead to obfuscation, especially in his essays on privacy and tobacco, although his belief that small town America of years gone by offered the individual little privacy certainly rings true. Franzen can write with panache, as in this comment after he watched, without headphones, a TV show during a flight: “(It) became an expose of the hydraulics of insincere smiles.” A few of the shorter pieces here appear to be filler. But Franzen shines brightest when he gets edgy and a little angry, as in ‘The Reader in Exile’: “Instead of Manassas battlefield, a historical theme park. Instead of organizing narratives, a map of the world as complex as the world itself. Instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data.”