Sunday, September 18, 2011

How to Be Alone (2002)

Jonathan Franzen's immediate follow-on to his big commercial breakthrough, The Corrections, was this collection of essays. Most were published before the massive cultural event that the third novel became, and many after a literary polemic he published in 1996 that came to be known as "the 'Harper's' essay." Franzen has a deceptive knack for stirring up trouble in and around literary circles and I came to this more interested in his account of the dust-up he had with Oprah Winfrey, "Mr. Difficult," a late add to the paperback edition. On its publication, The Corrections was named as a selection of Winfrey's book club, a distinction that virtually guaranteed bestseller-level sales all on its own, but Franzen spurned the notice, concerned that it would turn off the kind of audience he had hoped the book would find—"male," as he put it. Winfrey in turn rescinded her offer to him to appear on her show. It was altogether an unpleasant episode for all concerned, even as it was easy enough, for me anyway, to see either side of it. Franzen shows in his consideration of it that he's capable of a good deal of soul-searching and honesty, admitting that he was as uncomfortable with Winfrey's status as an arbiter of middlebrow taste as anything, even as he acknowledged the far-reaching effects of her endorsement and the harm he did himself by rejecting it. (Last year, following the publication of his fourth novel, Freedom, they resolved their differences and he appeared on her show to discuss them.) Franzen is similarly lucid and straightforward throughout this collection, whether recalling the death of his father, who was suffering from Alzheimer's, or thinking through the implications of supermax prisons, or grappling with the toxic and worsening patterns of the American political climate, or trying to set the terms for literary validity in this day and age. The "Harper's" essay, published originally as "Perchance to Dream" and appearing here in revised form as "Why Bother?," swirls around the arguments for a return to and/or calculated abandonment of the fiction of social realism. In the gap between, Franzen tells us in a foreword, his views had altered somewhat: "I used to consider it apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don't read much Henry James," he recalls ruefully. As someone who worries about watching too much TV and not reading enough Henry James, but does very little to change that, I may be exactly the right audience for Franzen. I certainly know that I have liked nearly everything I've read by him, and this collection is probably as good a place as any to start. Well, noThe Corrections is probably the better place to start.

In case it's not at the library.

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