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How to Be Alone: Essays Paperback – October 1, 2003
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Jonathan Franzen is smart and brash, the kind of person you want as your social critic but not as a brother-in-law. Many of the 14 essays in How to Be Alone, by the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Corrections, first appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and elsewhere. A long, much-discussed rumination on the American novel, (newly) 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," a piece on his father's struggle with Alzheimer's, Franzen can make the ordinary world utterly riveting. But at times, it can be difficult to discern where Franzen stands on any particular subject, as he often takes both sides of an argument. Valid attempts to reflect ambiguity s! ometimes 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 exposé of the hydraulics of insincere smiles." A few of the shorter pieces appear to be filler. 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." --Mark Frutkin, Amazon.ca --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Bestselling and National Book Award- winning novelist Franzen (The Corrections) urges readers to say no to drugs, but not the pharmaceutical kind; his opiates are those "technology offers in the form of TV, pop culture, and endless gadgetry," soporifics that "are addictive and in the long run only make society's problems worse." Franzen's just as hard on intellectual conformity-on academe's canonization of third-rate but politically correct novels, for example. As a serious artist, he knows that the deck is stacked against him; after all, a great novel is a kind of antiproduct, one that is "inexpensive, infinitely reusable, and, worst of all, unimprovable." The problem, he says, is that instead of being allowed to enjoy our solitary uniqueness we are all being turned into one gigantic corporate-created entity, a point Franzen makes tellingly when he says that while a black lesbian New Yorker and a Southern Baptist Georgian might appear totally different, the truth is that both "watch Letterman every night, both are struggling to find health insurance... both play Lotto, both dream of fifteen minutes of fame, both are taking a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and both have a guilty crush on Uma Thurman." These canny, well-researched essays (which have appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's and elsewhere) range over a variety of subjects, from the antiquated and bizarrely inefficient Chicago postal system to the bizarrely efficient new privatized federal prisons, but they are united by a single passionate insistence that, in a cookie-cutter world, people who want simply to be themselves should have the right to do so.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Criticism of Franzen as "elitist" is over-stated. If you, like I, are one of those "isolates" who starts reading early in life, you will likely find sympathy with Franzen's perspective as I did. I think "elitist" is a word thrown at those who read and think like Franzen by those who don't. I don't believe the book is elitist so much as representative of a different class of readers in American society who are a little more isolated from American consumer culture and generally find the consumer-driven, media-saturated, conformist version of America unsettling to say the least.
Likewise, his discussion of how widespread use of "serotonin reuptake inhibitors" such as Prozac feeds into a general lack of awareness is quite thought-provoking. If pain, even mental anguish such as depression, can be thought of as a warning from the body that something is wrong, then the whole cultural approach now in vogue to anesthetize the pain is the functional equivalent of a denial of the pain, a quite deliberate attempt to paper it over and therefore disregard the important message it is sending to the individual that something is very wrong. By treating depression as a simple medical problem that can be medicated away as easily as athlete's foot, any hope of using the pain as a starting point for the very necessary discovery process through which one might learn what was wrong and what needed to be done to correct it is gone. In essence, doctors now simply `treat' depression by medicating the symptoms out of existence, without any regard for the very serious questions such physical and emotional manifestations of pain and discomfort may mean for the overall health and well being of the patient. Under such circumstances, the doctors are no different from a guy selling shiny new sports cars to middle aged guys like me, who want a boost out of life and are willing to pay to get it. Oops! Time to take my Zoloft and feel better.
Each of the essays make the reader think, and that is the single highest compliment anyone can make about anyone's writing. I may not agree with what Franzen has to say in each case, but I enjoyed his open attitude and his keen sense that something is amiss in a nation so addicted to Oprah and easy answers that he has to stand back and say "Enough!" His criticisms of the current academic fashion of political correctness are especially interesting, as they show the absurd ways in which even the academics have "dumbed themselves down" to accept such superficial tripe as being the gospel. His notice of the fat that more and more Americans seem to becoming frightened, lonely, and isolated recalls similar observations made by social critics like Philip Slater long ago in a tome called "Pursuit Of Loneliness; American Culture At The Breaking Point" (see my review). This is an absorbing, bright, and intriguing attempt to ask some honest and penetrating questions, and while I may not agree with what he argues or with his conclusions, it is a wonderful book that raises one's intellectual curiosity and one's self-awareness in terms of how easily it is for each of us to slip into the burgeoning cultural habits he so cleverly exposes. Enjoy!
But, for me, this is the level at which the book works best. Franzen's (self) portrait of the impoverished, angst-ridden artist is a beguiling one. He salvages broken furniture from a trash heap... he hunches over a clattering, archaic keyboard, pounding out his under-appreciated prose... he fires up fresh waves of neurosis with each new cigarette... he develops a psychosomatic rash for violating his principles. And he finally gets recognized for the enormous talent that he is.
Whatever the reasons for this book, I'm glad it was published, or else I might not have had access to this set of writings. Franzen loses one star (4/5), however, for having insufficient rapport or acquaintance with his readers. He's fixated on his notion of an erstwhile readership that has devolved into MTV-watching technophiles and couch potatoes, while giving little nod of recognition to the diverse lot of people who do read. This strikes me as dismissive and myopic in a man with a gift for nuance in so many other ways. Nevertheless, Franzen's worldview, and his writing, will probably evolve, along with his growing accolades and financial security. Now that he has the recognition he craves, will he cut his readership some slack? (Will he bother to get to know them, or view it as relevant?) Will he invest in some of that reviled technology? Will he lose some of his alienated, self-absorbed edge and develop a more centered soulfulness? (Will his characters, as well?) I look forward to finding out because, beguiled, I'm likely to follow this author wherever he decides to go next.