How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen

How to Be Alone

I have in recent years become quite interested in the writer David Foster Wallace. I feel a kind of connection with him that I rarely feel with authors.

I suspect I was a little more interested in or a little bit more receptive to How to Be Alone because of the connections between Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. They are somewhat similar writers (same generation, critically highly regarded, mostly think of themselves as novelists but also write intelligent nonfiction social commentary essays like those in this book), and from what I understand were friends and mutual admirers before Wallace’s suicide.

How to Be Alone consists of fourteen essays.

My Father’s Brain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece on Franzen’s father’s deterioration and death from Alzheimer’s disease. He describes his father’s efforts to cover up his diminishing abilities, and the effect those final years had on his mother.

Franzen is struck by the fact that when his father was really far gone—at the level of a one year old at best—he could still pull it together once in a while, albeit in a minimal and very temporary way. And it wasn’t, in Franzen’s view, just something random where his father had good days and bad days, but seemed to happen when there was some reason his father most wanted to do better or most wanted to communicate something. Even at the point of death, it was as if he were exercising some control over the timing of it, influenced by there being people around him (like he was embarrassed to show weakness and die in front of them and wanted his privacy) and by what was said to him (for instance that it was OK to let go and die, that he should just do what was best for him). There still seemed to be an awareness and a will that we wouldn’t attribute to an infant.

I like the fact that in this essay Franzen reflects on memory itself, and how memory in general—not just for Alzheimer’s patients—is far more fallible than most people think. He illustrates this with examples of memories of his that turned out to be wrong, or that he’s now a lot less sure of than he used to be.

I had learned of the fallibility of memory many years ago through my reading, and have always considered that fascinating, and disturbing. I try now not to overrate the reliability of my own memories. I also try to keep in mind that other people likely have very different memories from mine of shared experiences (which can lead to conflict), with probably neither set of memories being all that close to what really happened.

I think my awareness that memories, including my own, can be so unreliable, and my not liking that, is one of the reasons I’m so anal about recordkeeping. I write journals, diaries, and other autobiographical accounts of my life, and I take a lot of photos and video of people and events in my life. Not to mention I keep records of things that really are pretty trivial minutiae from my life. It’s like I want to have something concrete I can consult when I want to know the truth, and not just rely on my memories.

Imperial Bedroom is Franzen’s meditation on privacy and how alarmists are constantly up in arms about how our privacy is shrinking away to nothing. His take is that while there are indeed reasons to be concerned, a lot of the threats are overblown. He notes that compared to how most people have lived throughout most of history—in small towns where everyone knows your business, in dwellings where no one has their own room, etc.—really the idea that somewhere on a computer is a list of all the purchases I made by credit card today is not all that big a deal.

If anything, he contends, the problem isn’t that he can’t keep his private stuff private anymore, but that in the public sphere he’s constantly being bombarded by private things about other people—often volunteered by them, like people having loud cell phone conversations about their lives in public, and occasionally ferreted out and exposed by others, like Ken Starr’s telling the world about Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes—whereas he’d much prefer there be a certain decorum and discretion in how people present themselves in public.

He identifies as his best known essay Why Bother?, which originally appeared in Harper’s and has been substantially rewritten for this collection (because he’s self-conscious about how arrogant and judgmental his younger self who wrote the original piece now seems to him, plus he thinks it needed to be rewritten to make it easier to follow).

I’m not going to claim to understand everything he’s getting at in this essay. It’s not hopelessly obscure, but at the same time it’s not ideally straightforward and logical in the way I find easiest to grasp.

The essay addresses the question of whether it makes much sense to write serious fiction in modern times. “Serious” not in the sense of non-comic, but in the sense of important—novels that challenge and provoke rather than making readers superficially feel good. Is there any point, in an instant gratification world of television where human communication has been so commercialized that almost all people all the time operate on a level of seeking and offering solutions to problems where those solutions can be purchased?

He eventually comes around to a mostly affirmative answer to that question, for a number of reasons. Among them are that there really was no golden age of reading when the mass public was eager for serious novels from serious authors—for instance Herman Melville’s biography reads like that of a contemporary struggling writer, only worse—so if it made sense then, it makes sense now.

There are interesting points made in the essay concerning social science research into who reads fiction. People who read a lot tend to come from a family where their role models read a lot, and they tend to sustain the reading habit as they get older if they connect with reading-loving peers. There are also people who may lack one or both of those factors and yet still become big readers, because they are kind of nerdy and introverted and discover that books can be another whole world of imagination to explore on one’s own. So the reading habit can come from a certain type of engagement with the world or from a certain type of estrangement from the world.

In his discussion of writers sometimes being antisocial, and having a disdain for marketing and interacting with the public because they want their work to be judged on its own, he makes some points about depression and elitism. Though he himself has always been ambivalent about having to sell himself and his books, and though he has had periods of depression, he’s become suspicious of the attitude that when one doesn’t fit in the world it’s because there’s something wrong with the world instead of oneself.

I see some of myself in that attitude. At times I’ve said things consistent with that attitude, and I’ve certainly been accused of having that attitude. With qualification, though, I’m inclined to stand by my inclination to view the social world with a critical eye. I’m not willing to concede that it’s some kind of commonplace delusion of the depressed or misanthropic.

I think we tend to rationalize and make excuses for things we perceive as “normal” because they are present in those we feel connected to or fond of. Our desire to be loyal or to fit in causes us to lose the perspective to see things that to an objective Martian with no skin in the game would be self-evidently cruel and stupid. That’s why it’s so much easier to be appalled by Nazis or by tribal societies practicing human sacrifice than by day-to-day things that happen in our own society. We can say “God, that was horrible” if it’s not a group we’re trying to conform to for our own emotional wellbeing, but not so much for our own group.

Not that I’m in favor of hating humanity or becoming a hermit and refusing to interact with people because of their ethical flaws. I just think that even as we try to engage in a positive way with the world and have positive relationships with people, we should still maintain a part of us that’s detached and able to see things more objectively, and we should understand that it’s not at all uncommon that doing what’s right will result in one being less likely to “succeed” in the world, because, the world—or at least the mainstream world that largely determines popularity and marketing success and such—is often full of shit.

So, yes, sometimes it’s the world’s fault and not yours if you don’t fit in. (Fitting in tends to be overrated anyway, by the way.)

Anyway, I’m getting far afield from this essay. Because I only sort of understood the essay as a whole, I find I’m more inclined to single out individual bits of it and comment on the thoughts they provoked in me.

Lost in the Mail is about the highly troubled local Post Office in Chicago, and the less-troubled-but-likely-to-be-quite-troubled-in-the-future federal Post Office as a whole.

I like his description of the Chicago Post Office’s dysfunction. He doesn’t in any way shy away from admitting how bad it is—e.g., there are plenty of gory details about years’ worth of undelivered mail piling up in irresponsible mail carriers’ apartments—nor does he excuse it all. Yet he does fairly present the reasons on the other side. Not “Here’s why it’s not the Post Office’s fault,” but “Here are some additional considerations so you can better understand the context and how things like this can happen.”

He notes—or at least passes along the Post Office’s claim—that delivering mail in a big city is vastly harder than in other areas, and that much of what goes wrong is the customers’ fault—illegible and incorrect addresses and such.

There’s also the issue of race. The Post Office has long been one of the few promising routes out of poverty for African Americans, but in recent years the Post Office in big cities has become more fully dominated by minorities, and therefore all of a sudden corruption and incompetence and such have become of much greater concern to the media and the general (white) public. Much like deviations from “merit” in judging candidates for jobs and schools became perceived as a much more egregious sin with the advent of affirmative action.

In the abstract, Franzen is very pro-Post Office, appreciative of the special place it’s had in the hearts of so many people throughout American history. He fears, though, that due to the Internet (very young at the time he wrote this) and other factors, it is doomed to spiral ever downward as more and more of its functions are privatized. Few want to see this, he says, but the choices they make in life for other reasons are making it all but inevitable. “The attachment of Americans to their Post Office is pure nostalgia. It’s the double vision of a people whose hearts don’t like what their desires have created.”

I mostly like the Post Office too. I hate almost all privatization. I absolutely don’t buy into this capitalist propaganda that the economic elite 1% who have almost unimaginable power in this country are part of “us,” and the government is this threatening “them.” I prefer the (very limited and imperfect) say the public has over public institutions in a democracy, over the faux say we have through the “market.”

And regardless of the Post Office’s being a nightmare in certain respects in big cities, and the DMV routinely being used as a symbol of inefficiency and awful customer service, I have had at least as good experiences over the years with public institutions (yes, including DMVs in multiple states) as with for-profit companies. I’ve had wonderful experiences and frustrating experiences with both, but the mix has been at least as good with public institutions. I’ll say better, in fact.

So the right wing can shove its private prisons, mercenary soldiers, private contractors doing what the government could hire its own people to do, private school vouchers, and all the rest, definitely including a future privatized Post Office. It’s misguided enough that the Post Office has already been turned into some kind of quasi-business.

Erika Imports is less than three full pages long. I’m puzzled why he didn’t choose to develop this more. He raises some interesting points and then does nothing with them. It made me think about those points and related matters, but I did so alone; Franzen had already left the room.

The essay tells the story of his high school job working for an immigrant couple with a home-based business selling mail order knick knacks. He notes that there were plenty of comparative advantages to the job that should have made it likable or at least tolerable, but “it was remarkable how fiercely I hated the job.”

He even envied his peers who had disgusting lowest level fast food jobs. He believes it was because they could shut themselves down in very impersonal jobs and not get emotionally involved, whereas his job made him involuntarily a part of the personal lives of these (somewhat unpleasant but not horrible) people.

He notes at the end, though, that in his life he’s really never had an impersonal job. Whether he means that as a statement about the exceptionalism of his life, or he’s making a more general statement that in any job there’s always going to be a certain amount of personal stuff with one’s bosses or coworkers I’m not sure, as the essay ends there.

So is it true that there’s something appealing about being totally detached at work? Is it true that however it might look from the outside you’ll always be involved in some kind of interpersonal drama with any job where you’re not working completely alone?

Addressing the second question first, my reaction is that it’s a matter of degree. There are indeed probably very few jobs where your personal life and/or those of the people you work with and for do not come to the surface at all, ever. But that strikes me as a fairly trivial truth. Surely the degree varies a lot, and surely that matters.

But as to whether there’s something to be envied about having a very impersonal job, that’s interesting to consider. It’s a criticism of capitalism, after all, that workers in it are alienated from their labor and their fellow man. Are we instead to think of that as a feature rather than a flaw?

My first thought about that is that while for the most part I agree with the critics that that trait of capitalism is one of the really ugly things about it, there’s a way to interpret what he’s saying that I can agree with. That is, maybe precisely because there is something inherently degrading and shameful and alienating about being reduced to selling one’s labor to someone in a vastly better bargaining position, there can be an advantage to detaching from oneself and one’s situation when doing so. If I kind of turn my humanity off when I’m at work and numb myself to the human implications of my situation, maybe it doesn’t hurt as much. It’s just my work persona and not me that is having to accept being a tool of someone else. Still bad, but maybe not as bad.

But when the young Franzen interacts with this couple in their home, lounging about in their underwear, licking their fingers before turning the pages of a ledger, barking at each other in a casual, unself-conscious way, he’s brought face to face with the fact that he’s not employed by some abstraction, but by flesh and blood people.

It didn’t occur to me while reading this essay, but only later when reflecting on it, that one can interpret it as having some overlap with the second essay in the book. In Imperial Bedroom, he laments the blurring of the line between public and private. He would prefer that people observe a certain level of decorum or whatever you want to call it in public, and keep some aspects of their private lives private. In this essay, his teenage self is uncomfortable with the blurring of the line between personal life and work life. It’s not just that this old couple’s personal lives are repulsive to him in some respects, but that they are exposing these repulsive aspects of themselves to his work self, and thereby not respecting the boundaries, the formalities, that are appropriate to a work relationship.

Sifting the Ashes is a readable, understandable essay with some interesting ideas, but on the whole I found it to be one of the weaker pieces in the book.

The essay consists of his reflections, as a light smoker who has quit multiple times, on smoking and the escalating anti-smoking crusades of recent times.

Sometimes I like his even-handedness, his ability to see and express both sides, as in the Lost in the Mail piece. But other times, like here, it wears thin. The whole first several paragraphs of this essay, when he establishes how much he hates smoking and how he can totally understand what upsets people so much about it, you can feel that “but” coming. He sees the tobacco companies as being so despised and so aggressively attacked as to now be underdogs, and as such he feels some sympathy for them.

He notes that the attacks have reached the extreme that tobacco companies are being equated with the perpetrators of the Holocaust and other such historical catastrophes (based on the body count). This he finds over the top, on the grounds that they don’t coerce people to smoke their cigarettes, the way, for instance, Nazis forced people into death camps. Besides, he says, if we blame the tobacco companies for the damage done from smoking, then we’ll have to also condemn every individual who ever held stock in a tobacco company even through a pension fund or mutual fund, every publication that has run cigarette ads, every store that has sold cigarettes, etc.

Well, actually no. The problem with the “who’s to blame?” thing is it treats the issue as an either/or: Either the tobacco companies are to blame because they did something coercive or quasi-coercive to get people to smoke and so smokers are blameless, or smokers bear personal responsibility for their smoking and so the tobacco companies are blameless (or at least are not Nazis).

Why not look at each party separately, and not treat responsibility as a zero-sum quantity, such that the more you blame one party the more you relieve the other of blame? Smokers are responsible for making imprudent decisions about their health (lessened by varying degrees depending on their age when they started, and the addictiveness of what they used). But that doesn’t reduce by one iota what a horrific human being one would have to be to get rich by using all one’s powers of persuasion to manipulate people into killing themselves, and to blatantly lie about it at every opportunity.

As to the “but if we blame them, we have to blame an ever-expanding circle of folks with some connection to tobacco use” point, go ahead and blame them, though not all to the same degree. Many of us—probably all of us in one way or another, especially if you count acts of omission—participate in evil just by being part of an imperfect world and interacting with people. We all thereby deserve some amount of blame for the evil we participate in, but the amount is often exceedingly small.

If a clerk at Walgreen’s leaves her job as a protest against selling cigarettes, or an investor boycotts all mutual funds that have any connection whatsoever to tobacco, I’ll certainly admire them for it, and I think all the clerks and all the investors who don’t do likewise are exhibiting something less than moral heroism, but I’m hardly going to regard their imperfections as remotely comparable to the evil of tobacco company executives and their ilk.

Yeah, all our hands are (slightly) dirty, but the tobacco plutocrats are still moral pieces of shit.

For reasons of space I won’t go into them all, but some of his other points in this essay are also dubious.

He’s a smoker who doesn’t like the idea of blaming others for his choices, and he’s uncomfortable when someone is painted as an extreme villain and he tends to then sympathize with them as an underdog. I get that. But those are his own subjective emotional responses; they fail as a foundation for a rational argument.

The Reader in Exile is a short piece on some books about how TV and the (at that time very new) Internet are making reading, especially the reading of novels, passé. One of the books in question makes the interesting claim that the reduction in literacy amongst young people is not caused just by their rarely picking up a book anymore and reading it, but by the fact that people of all ages have become increasingly addicted to passive experiences that reduce their oral communication as much as written. Books, in other words, tend to be intimidating, unappealing things to kids, because kids aren’t raised in an atmosphere that facilitates the acquiring of and comfort with language skills in general.

I suspect one could poke holes in that theory pretty easily (there’s no shortage of language use on TV and on the Internet, and plenty of text on the Internet, nor have I noticed that kids and those around them talk a lot less than in the past, so I’m skeptical about this alleged reduction in exposure to language use), but I’m mildly curious how that author fleshes out such an argument.

As for the essay itself, again I’m just not seeing a lot of depth here. Franzen mostly agrees with those who lament the drop-off in serious reading, though he rejects some of their claims as hyperbole. He sees reading as a way for a person—especially a solitary, introverted person—to lose himself in another world of someone else’s making, and he thinks it has considerable value as such. He is pretty much willing to accept the criticism that a defense of serious reading is elitist, but doesn’t see it as elitist in a bad way. I see plenty to agree with in all of that, but it feels like mostly obvious stuff.

First City is about urban life, including how and why American cities are inferior to the great European cities, and how commercialized American cities have become, though still not as much as suburbs, which were never anything but fully commercialized. He notes some of the reasons in favor of choosing to live in a city, especially New York specifically.

Scavenging is Franzen’s sort-of-confession, sort-of-justification of how frugal he can be and how he appreciates old and technically obsolete things.

Some of the explanation for his having a rotary phone and manual typewriter and such (in the 1990s) is simple poverty. I’m sure he’s doing better now, but back then, even though he was a published novelist and had already made a name for himself in certain circles, he really was scraping by in “starving artist” fashion.

Some of it is that he takes a certain pride in rescuing something, in knowing how to spend an hour or two of labor to get something functional again as opposed to just tossing it out and buying the latest version of it.

Some of it is that he likes collecting “junk” because it can give him ideas for his novels.

Some of it is a contrarian resistance to going along with the unthinking “if it’s new or technologically more advanced, then it must be better” attitude that’s so prevalent. As he sees it, much of this “progress” comes with serious costs in terms of how we think and feel, and how we connect with each other.

Even though I share a lot of his attitudes, and I feel I’m closer to him than to the masses who do indeed assume that the newer (and more expensive) something is, the more valuable it is, I must admit that he comes across in this essay even to me as kind of a sour old fuddy duddy railing against the way the world around him has changed. I can only imagine how this essay would strike most readers.

He was still in his 30s when he wrote this, but you’d guess it was written by someone at least twice that age. (Again, this is coming from someone who mostly sees these issues the same way Franzen does.)

Starting with Control Units, the tenth essay, the book picks up for me. I would say he hits his stride as an essayist right about then, except these pieces aren’t in chronological order. I doubt the essays were intentionally ordered so as to finish strong, since it’s so subjective what connects with a reader and what doesn’t, so I assume it’s mostly chance that I happened to be drawn in somewhat more toward the end of the book.

Anyway, Control Units is about prisons in Colorado, especially a maximum security federal prison—one of those futuristic hell holes for terrorists (real and supposed) and the “worst of the worst” incorrigible violent criminals so bad they’re unfit for regular prisons.

As far as prison issues, I bring more to the table than most readers in that while I’m by no means an expert, I did spend several years volunteering at a prison and getting to know some of the guys, and I published a book about prison from the prisoner perspective.

There’s not as much of that prisoner perspective as I might have liked in this essay. There is some—he speaks of his brief interviews with two prisoners—and what’s there is strong material, but I wish there had been more.

The essay focuses more on the philosophical/political aspects of how we “do” prison in this country, especially these “supermax” federal prisons, and on the local ramifications where these places get built.

As to the latter, in what I’m sure is not an atypical situation, a small town in Colorado offered the moon to get prisons built in their area on the assumption that it would provide huge benefits in employment (construction jobs during the building of the prison, then prison guard jobs and such), housing value (all those guards and administrators and others have to live somewhere), and business (the prison itself and all these new people coming to town will have to purchase plenty of goods and services), but in the end no more than a tiny fraction of those benefits ever materialized. Most of the construction workers, guards, administrators, etc. were people with experience at other prisons, not local folks. Most of them chose not to live (and shop) in some cow town in Colorado but instead in whatever passed for a decent-sized city within an hour or so commute of there.

On the morality and politics and such of these prisons, obviously there’s a huge amount I could say, but I’ll limit myself to two quick comments.

One, I can certainly understand the logic of wanting to have a place even worse than regular prison to stick certain people. Even in prison—regular prison—you have a lot of contact with other people, and it’s not physically difficult to attack and even kill a fellow inmate or a prison employee. The opportunities are there and they’re plentiful. So you have to count on prisoners choosing not to behave that way.

It makes sense, then, that you’d want there to be something worse you can threaten them with. If regular prison is as bad as it gets, then any admonitions not to commit murder and other violent crimes inside prison become as futile and pointless as the Life of Brian official ranting at the prisoner in chains about to be stoned to death, “You’re only making it worse for yourself!”

Two, one of the most striking things I remember hearing from the prisoners in the volunteer program I was involved with is just how arbitrary and random are these designations of the “worst of the worst.” In that case we were talking about state and not federal prison, but the principle was the same. They had Intensive Management Units (IMU) that they could be sent to, where the same kind of torture was administered as in the supermaxes. Many, maybe the majority, of the prisoners I got to know had done at least one extended stint in IMU, and they told us that those in IMU are not on the whole the worst, most dangerous prisoners, nor regular prisoners at the worst, most dangerous times of their lives, but could be pretty much any prisoners. (Actually the mentally ill tend to be at the greatest risk of ending up in IMU, since they can be hardest to control.)

Control Units is a solid essay, on a topic of considerable interest to me.

Mr. Difficult is one of the essays I got into the most. I liked how it felt very personal for Franzen. In it, he reflects as an author on the pros and cons of being a “difficult” read. The early portion of the essay is more about the issue in the abstract, and the latter part of the essay is more about the specific case of “difficult” author William Gaddis. Throughout, though, it’s also about Franzen himself and his struggles over what the goals of his own writing should be in this regard, and it’s those elements that probably best connected with me. But all of it held my interest.

He offers two possibilities, two main theories, of how a writer should approach his work. Of course, we don’t have to accept his framework; it may well be a false dilemma, and there may be other, more plausible, philosophies of writing. But anyway, he contrasts a market approach with an elitist approach.

The first theory says that whatever sells is the best. You’re supplying a product, and people vote for or against it with their purchasing dollars. If people don’t like what you write because it’s too difficult for them—or for any other reason—then you failed as a writer. The market’s judgment is infallible.

The second theory says that good writing can only truly be appreciated by a select few, and that if you dumb it down to appeal to more people then you’re making it worse. It’s to be expected, according to this view, that the best writing will be perceived as difficult and unappealing by most people, because they’re not in a position to know any better. If anything, too much success in the market is a sign you’re doing something wrong.

I find the first theory utterly repugnant. I’m certainly closer to the second theory, albeit with caveats.

I suppose I’d think of literature in roughly the same terms as something like scientific writing: Writing should be as difficult as it needs to be, but no more, to express what it’s trying to express.

To write, for instance, that the Earth moves in a circle around the sun is inferior to giving all the complicated mathematical formulas and such that most accurately describe its true path. Maybe not in all contexts—you can make a case that if you’re presenting this information to small children it might be better to sacrifice a certain amount of accuracy and just give them something that’s roughly true that they can understand—but certainly for any kind of serious scientific writing you want to be as exact and as accurate as possible.

Now let’s say a novelist wants to convey that a certain character is experiencing a certain emotion, and that there are five descriptive terms he’s considering using to convey this. It may be that some of those are very obscure words that only a small minority of readers have ever encountered, or perhaps some of them are foreign words that, again, most potential readers of the book will not be familiar with. But if the one that best captures that emotion happens to be one of those that will go over the heads of most readers, I have no problem with him using that word.

I don’t mean this only to include the conveying of information. If as a writer you’re trying to create a certain mood or whatever, and the best way to do that is to write in some disjointed postmodern manner with unconventional line breaks and thirty page long paragraphs and such, then go for it. The fact that most readers won’t be willing or able to come along for the ride and make the necessary effort to perceive that mood doesn’t make it bad writing, because in principle an appropriately cooperative reader would get it, more so than if it were written some other way.

Or take poetry, for instance. I have virtually zero aptitude for poetry, and there is little if anything that can be conveyed better to me through poetry than through prose. But even so, and even if it were the case that that were true of the overwhelming majority of the population, that wouldn’t invalidate poetry. It would mean I, or most people, couldn’t appreciate it, but that’s a flaw in me, or us, not in poetry. I recognize that in spite of my inability to see it, there almost certainly are things better expressed in poetry than prose. My being unable to make heads or tails out of poetry doesn’t make it bad writing.

So difficulty in and of itself is not a bad thing in writing. In some cases it’s even a necessary condition for writing to be good. But that’s very different from saying that difficulty in and of itself is a good thing in writing, that something’s being incomprehensible is a sure sign of its quality.

Indeed, there is no shortage of examples of writing that errs in either direction. There are plenty of books that are hopelessly dumbed down in order to be understandable and popular, and there are plenty of books—think of academic writing in the social sciences and humanities, for instance—that are hopelessly difficult, not because the complexity of their subject matter necessitates it, but because they’re garbage. In the latter case, it’s not that we’d have to be smarter, or willing to work harder, to get it, but that there’s nothing there to get—it’s just a lot of gibberish that’s presented in a style to falsely look profound.

Franzen’s assessment of Gaddis, by the way, is that Gaddis produced one very difficult book that’s justifiably difficult and rewards the reader who is diligent enough to make his way through it, and several very difficult books that are unnecessarily difficult and decidedly not worth the effort.

Books in Bed is about sex writing, mostly about pop sex books (extremely plentiful and invariably lame, he says), and a little about sex scenes in literature (very hard to pull off, and generally the nadir of even an otherwise very well written book, he says). It’s not one of my favorite pieces in the book, but it held my interest reasonably well.

Maybe the essay I found most intriguing was Meet Me in St. Louis, about Franzen’s brief stint as an Oprah author.

It’s a very good account of how phony almost all television is, including supposedly nonfiction or reality television.

The Oprah people needed to film a segment on him, to show on the program when his book is introduced. So they basically scripted the whole thing based on what they thought would make the best TV. They wanted to film him returning to his hometown of St. Louis, gazing wistfully at the Gateway Arch and such like it’s stirring up great emotions in him, returning to the house he grew up in to confront his past, etc.

The problem is, he explains to them, he’s a New Yorker through and through now and doesn’t have any emotional ties to St. Louis and its landmarks, and he has no interest in returning to his boyhood home, which he anticipates would be a thoroughly negative experience if he did. What they’re urging on him isn’t the real him on some real journey of his choice into the past; it’s something fictional put together by writers who want him to play himself.

Due to his admitted trait of wanting to please people, he cooperates as much as he can tolerate, which is maybe 80% as much as an ideally malleable subject would. The Oprah people are clearly unhappy with that degree of cooperation, and treat him as someone who is being naïve and pointlessly difficult about how the game is played.

Eventually he’s dumped as an Oprah author. I’m not entirely clear as to the details why. There’s the aforementioned only partial cooperation with that film segment. And he also mentions that—again due to his natural tendency to please—in book signings he would agree with those who praised Oprah and congratulated him on having his book picked, and also agree with those who criticized Oprah and told him it was a shame he had his book picked, and presumably her people heard about the latter. Perhaps that was enough to get him booted for being insufficiently grateful.

The final essay, Inauguration Day, January 2001, is less than four pages long. It is about his taking a bus with a group of fellow protestors to Washington, D.C. to march and chant at the Supreme Court over their dubious decision to grant the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

I suppose relative to its length it’s interesting, but that’s not exactly high praise. Pointlessly written in the second person, it’s thin and mostly inconsequential.

So what to say about How to Be Alone on the whole? There is indeed a bit of David Foster Wallace about Franzen, in that he can be funny, insightful, and self-deprecating and revealing about himself in a way that makes me feel some connection to him. But to be frank, he is less of all of these things than Wallace, at least in my opinion. He picks some good topics, he has some good things to say, and I kind of suspect I’d like him as a human being, but with many of these pieces there’s not a lot of depth, not a lot of follow through on some initial interesting insights.

I’ll give the book a thumbs up, but not by a lot.


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