Jan 3, 2003

Another review on J.Franzen

'How to Be Alone': Jonathan Franzen's Vaulting Ambivalence
November 10, 2002


At the close of his essay ''Sifting the Ashes,'' abittersweet love song to cigarettes sure to stir a tremorof uneasy recognition in the breast of any current orformer smoker -- not, as the essay makes plain, thatthere's really a difference -- Jonathan Franzen catches aBaudelairean glimpse of a woman leaning out of herapartment window, stealing a puff. ''I fell in love atfirst sight as she stood there,'' he writes, ''both insideand outside, inhaling contradiction and breathing outambivalence.''
These elements, much more than the seductive poison ofnicotine, make up the air Franzen breathes, just as thewoman's elegant, precarious position at the meeting pointof home and world, private and public, self and city, ishis own native ground. The 13 essays in ''How to BeAlone,'' which appeared in The New Yorker, Harper'sMagazine and other publications between 1994 and 2001,record a sensibility in perpetual conflict with the worldaround it, and with itself -- agonized by contradiction andaddicted to ambivalence. ''As a smoker,'' Franzen declares,''I've come to distrust not only my stories about myselfbut all narratives that pretend to unambiguous moralsignificance.'' Substitute ''novelist'' for ''smoker'' andyou have some sense of the assumptions that organize thisunfailingly intelligent, intermittently infuriating andnotably coherent collection. But Franzen's is not a coy,postmodern suspicion of certainty, a knowing, complacentcelebration of slippage and indeterminacy. Nor does hewrite like someone who is unsure of himself, or who hasdifficulty making up his mind. Rather, he starts from thehypothesis, basic to any good novelist's inquiry, that eventhe simplest, most trivial activities -- stubbing out acigarette, mailing a letter, dialing a telephone, reading abook -- are riven with complexities, and then proceeds,with exemplary ethical seriousness, grouchy stubbornnessand silken wit, to break those complexities down into theirmoral, psychological and historical components.
The activity that most preoccupies him, partly for obviousprofessional reasons, is reading. Like most writers, heworries about being misread, and about not being read atall. At the time most of these essays were first published,when Franzen was the author of two reasonably well-reviewedbut otherwise widely ignored novels, the second concernmust have seemed more salient. Now, however, after thespectacular success of ''The Corrections'' and the dust-upthat followed its selection by Oprah Winfrey's book club,he has moved from the doldrums of neglect to thevertiginous heights of celebrity. He is menaced not bypoverty, a creeping sense of futility or the need to takeon magazine assignments, but rather by the fatuity andtedium of the publicity culture.
These are detailed in a prefatory note and in a piececalled ''Meet Me in St. Louis,'' which records Franzen'svisit to his hometown with a camera crew shooting''B-roll'' footage for the Oprah show, and which ruefullyanticipates the uproar to come. ''Winfrey will disinvite mefrom her show because I seem 'conflicted.' I'll be reviledfrom coast to coast by outraged populists. I'll be called .. . an 'ego-blinded snob' in The Boston Globe and a'spoiled, whiny little brat' in The Chicago Tribune. I'llconsider the possibility, and to some extent believe, thatI am all of these things. I'll repent and explain andqualify, to little avail. My rash will fade as mysteriouslyas it blossomed; my sense of dividedness will onlydeepen.''
Before all this, Franzen's found himself, as a seriousliterary novelist in a fast-moving, media-saturated world,alone and out of sorts, fundamentally at odds with theculture he was nonetheless determined, in good faith, toinhabit. But Franzen is a writer of remarkabletemperamental consistency, and the impression one takesaway from ''How to Be Alone'' is that being a semi-obscureserious novelist and being a best-selling serious novelistare not all that different. The alienation -- the''dividedness'' -- is now, if anything, deeper, since yourown success can be taken as a rebuttal to your deeply heldconvictions about the novel's loss of prestige and culturalauthority. What's more, your complaints about themarginality of thoughtful literary discourse in the age oftelevision, quick-fix therapy and the Internet, which mightpreviously have been regarded with patronizing sympathy(''I mean, what do you expect? The guy's a writer. Have youseen his place? He's got a rotary phone, and he doesn'teven own a VCR. Jeez''), are likely, now, to meet with somehostility, since nobody likes a sore winner.
Or, as Franzen puts it, ''In publishing circles,confessions of doubt are widely referred to as 'whining' --the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic andself-serving in writers who don't sell, ungracious inwriters who do.'' This is from a 1996 piece now best knownas ''the Harper's essay,'' a dense, self-divided lamentthat was widely mistaken, last year, for a manifesto ofliterary ambition, the polemical promissory note that ''TheCorrections'' was written to redeem. Originally titled''Perchance to Dream,'' the essay has been given thedeflationary new title ''Why Bother?'' and revised tominimize the possibility of future misreading (which isperhaps to say that the author has availed himself of theprivilege of changing his mind). In its current form, ''WhyBother?'' is both elegy and therapy -- a lament for thenovel's loss of scope and prestige that ends with acautious note of hope: ''The world was ending then, it'sending still, and I'm happy to belong to it again.''
But this belonging, paradoxically enough, is itself a formof isolation. The kind of reading Franzen champions is notonly a beleaguered undertaking -- in the moderntechnological regime, ''the individual worryingconsciousness,'' he writes, has become ''ever more isolatedfrom others like it'' -- but a fundamentally antisocialmode of experience. Its current state, indeed, is in someways a fulfillment of what it has always been: ''Theelectronic apotheosis of mass culture has merelyreconfirmed the elitism of literary reading, which wasbriefly obscured in the novel's heyday. I mourn the eclipseof the cultural authority that literature once possessed,and I rue the onset of an age so anxious that the pleasureof a text becomes difficult to sustain. I don't supposethat many other people will give away their TV's. I'm notsure I'll last long myself without buying a new one. Butthe first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.''
One of the secondary lessons that this defense of readingteaches, however, is how to feel superior to everyone else,and Franzen does not quite dispel the charge of elitism bycopping to it in advance. But when he ventures beyondliterary reflection into other matters -- examining thecrisis of the Chicago post office, a new maximum securityprison in Colorado or the effect of Alzheimer's on hisfather's personality -- it becomes clear his anxiety aboutthe collapse of literary privilege is symptomatic of a moregeneral unease. Whether or not the Harper's essay foretolda return to the ''social novel,'' and whether or not ''TheCorrections'' made good on that prophecy, ''How to BeAlone'' reaffirms the novelist's prerogative to engage insocial criticism. And Franzen's calm, passionate criticalauthority derives not from any special expertise incriminology, neurology or postal science, but rather fromthe fact that, as a novelist, he is principally concernedwith the messy architecture of the self. Novels teach ushow to be alone by absorbing us in alternate selves, bymomentarily satisfying our craving to understand, as if byosmosis, what it is to be an individual.
At present, in Franzen's humane, pessimistic view, ourindividuality is under assault from all quarters, and thenovel is part of a web of modern institutions -- along withthe daily mail, the industrial city and the idea of ademocratic public sphere -- undermined by the irresistible(that is, both unstoppable and undeniably attractive)forces of standardization and privatization. To point thisout is, inevitably, to sound like something of a crank, andthe accomplishment of this book is to offer its crankyauthor and his like-minded readers a suitably contradictoryand ambiguous consolation: we're not alone.

A. O. Scott is a film critic for TheTimes.