How To Be Alone: Essays, by Jonathan Franzen
One of the reasons why so much of contemporary fiction is metafictional, not that this is necessarily a bad thing, is that so many writers of fiction are so heavily consumed with their own status as writers and with the status of writing within a larger culture. In order to really appreciate this book, you have to enjoy the author’s wit and care about him and like him as a person. In reading this particular book I feel I got to know the author a bit more, and if he is the sort of person I think it would be possible to get along with in a conversation or an interview, at the same time this is not the sort of person I would want to feel close to. This is a book that demonstrates at least some of the limits of insight that can be gained from people with defective moral and political worldviews, in that he views himself as part of a self-selecting elite simply for enjoying literary fiction, and presuming that the reader would be flattered to be seen as part of the same self-selecting elite for reading him. Likewise, the author at least vaguely understands the problem of the eternal war between criminals and the criminal justice system by pointing out that most people aren’t very sympathetic with sociopaths, the general population of prisons.
This book is almost 300 pages long and consists of a variety of essays about different topics collected here because the author is trying to make his reputation as an essayist and not only a novelist. The author gives a word about the book and the way that he edited at least one of the essays to better make the point he had been trying to make in the first place, which gives you a flavor of his aims. After that comes an essay about his father’s long battle with senility (1), his thoughts on the boundary between public and private (2), his despair about the lack of popular relevance of the literary novel (3), and a very entertaining if inconsequential look at the problems of the postal service in Chicago (4). A short essay explores the author’s work life (5), after which there is a look at smoking and the logic of its companies (6), some thoughts about the reader in exile (7), and some reflections on the mutual dependence of the idiotic young and the city (8). There is a discussion of the author’s ambivalence towards technology (9) and how it impacts reading, a visit to prison and a look at its repercussions on others (10), a critique of sex self-help literature (11), and a nostalgic look at his hometown of St. Louis (12), before the book concludes with a dour look at inauguration day, 2001 (13).
The book’s title doesn’t always make a great deal of sense, but this is only a loosely connected series of essays anyway that are more closely connected by the author’s own interests, not least the interest to have the last word and correct opinions that others may have of him based on their previous reading of him, than by the contents of the essays themselves. The fact that the author is interested in writing social fiction means that, unsurprisingly, a lot of these essays deal with social matters. As might be expected, though, they come from a place that views itself as urbane and liberal rather than from an understanding of life as it is for a great many people. I cannot help but think that I am not the right person to be reading this work, as despite the fact that the author and I both love books a great deal and obviously read them deeply and seriously, we simply come at life from such different places that the author’s approach somewhat leaves me cold, even when he’s writing about matters of obvious personal import to him. The author is just simply not wise enough to be viewed as an authority, and this book is a transparent attempt by the author to demonstrate himself as an authority, and that simply doesn’t work.