Friday, November 08, 2002

A SnobÕs Revenge

How to Be Alone: Essays by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 278 pages. $24.00

How To Be Alone is an intriguing title for an author who only a year ago gave such a painful demonstration of how not to be public. When Jonathan Franzen, hot on the success of his third novel, The Corrections, confessed to feeling a bit conflicted over the bookÕs selection for OprahÕs Book Club, he found himself looking ungrateful and ungracious -- as well as publicly disinvited by Queen Oprah herself from appearing on her show. As he recounts it here, ÒIÕll be called a `motherfuckerÕ by an anonymous source in New York magazine, a `pompous prickÕ in Newsweek, an `ego-blinded snobÕ in the Boston Globe, and a `spoiled, whiny little bratÕ in the Chicago Tribune. IÕll consider the possibility, and to some extent believe, that I am all of these things. IÕll repent and explain and qualify, to little avail.Ó

Indeed, anyone poking around on Internet book forums these days will quickly see that a good many self-consciously with-it readers regard Franzen the way their parents regarded Norman Mailer: they hate him personally, and they hate his book regardless of whether theyÕve read it. Granted, he does keep giving people fresh reasons. During the summer, the Today Show Book Club -- spawned, ironically, in the wake of the demise of OprahÕs Book Club, which the Franzen debacle probably helped kill -- selected him as its celebrity judge to choose the monthÕs book; he picked an obscure book of stories by one of his students. Then there was the business of a few weeks ago when it was revealed he blew a $20,000 National Endowment of the Arts grant on paintings by his artist friends. It didnÕt help that one of the NEA judges was a pal, the writer Rick Moody.

If the charge of spoiled child isnÕt completely unmerited, it can also be argued that part of FranzenÕs trouble is that thereÕs no deceit about him. Carrying the Oprah tag probably troubles a lot of its honorees, but they shut their mouths, play the game, and say they couldnÕt be happier. (Some, of course, are. ÒI have a little shrine to Oprah, a little picture,Ó says Oprah author Janet Fitch. ÒI change the flowers every day and put a little incense. I feel she's the patron saint of contemporary literature.Ó) Writers arenÕt any more unaccustomed to muting their private objections or spinning a potentially bad situation than presidents. Maybe Franzen is too frank for his own good, which also proves to be his strength as an essayist. ThereÕs no bullshit to him, just a lot of contradictions heÕs still working out. A good essay is often the product of confusion, distinguished less by how well it resolves an issue than how well it grapples with it.

Take, for example, the famous ÒHarperÕs EssayÓ (here retitled ÒWhy Bother?Ó) which preceded The Corrections by a few years. Franzen spends 40-plus pages worrying to death the problem of how a novelist connects with readers in an age where Òthe money, the hype, the limo ride to the Vogue shoot werenÕt simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to a culture.Ó How do you tell a story about today that is relevant tomorrow? Can you write a ÒrealisticÓ novel, or a Òsocial novelÓ in the manner of Dickens or Thackeray, when cable and the Internet are pumping reality into the country 24 hours a day? Who reads anymore anyway? (ÒYou mean linear reading?Ó an English major responds when he asks her what sheÕs been reading. ÒLike when you read a book from start to finish?Ó) Are readers, as one social scientist suggests to him, a somewhat isolated class of individual, and are writers similarly restricted to writing self-absorbed books that donÕt connect to the bigger world both reader and writer share? Or can you straddle the fence?

Franzen points out in the foreword that this essay was largely misinterpreted; reviewers thought he claimed that his next novel would Òengage with mainstream culture,Ó while he himself says it ends with him abandoning any such effort. Actually, you can make whatever you want of the ending; it rambles from point to point so much that itÕs rather a surprise to find him concluding an argument he never really launched. Franzen says of the original version that it was Òa five-thousand word complaint of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldnÕt quite follow it.Ó The revised version doesnÕt help much in that regard, but it does reveal a lot about the problems pestering any writer who feels (or imagines he feels) Tolstoy breathing down his neck.

The bookÕs best essay, ÒMy FatherÕs Brain,Ó also touches on last yearÕs novel -- which, among other things, was about an iron-fisted family patriarch dying with ParkinsonÕs Disease. In recounting and assessing his own fatherÕs decline from AlzheimerÕs, Franzen becomes increasingly aware of his own vulnerabilty, regarding both his own future and memoryÕs fragile hold on events. Writing itself, in PlatoÕs phrase, becomes a Òcrutch of memory.Ó

Franzen apparently kept himself afloat between or during books with fact-based journalism. As the bookÕs title attests, he is fascinated in particular by impersonality, whether that means big systems -- essays on the bizarrely incompetent Chicago Post Office and a modern prison system in Colorado are included -- or the shrnking distance between the public and private spheres. He can also be quite funny, whether addressing the erotica boom or his own troubles as a public personality. But the character that keeps burbling to the surface over the course of these essays is that of a man old before his time, still trying to communicate with a culture he canÕt quite embrace -- a thoroughgoing classicist (he canÕt even bring himself to buy CDs) who doesnÕt want to be too classical; hard to read but not too hard. HeÕs Mr. High Art one day and Mr. Man of the People the next -- a dutiful toiler in a vineyard thatÕs long begun to erode, hoping someone besides himself will notice.

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