BookReview: How to Be Alone: Essays
by Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 1, 2010, B003GFIVNE

Jonathan Franzen is a great writer. I read Freedom, and then I read this book. I tend not to review non-fiction (beats me as to why), but since I'm writing about Franzen, I'll say that Freedom was a great book.

Franzen's essays are fascinating and poignant, especially the one about his family. I also enjoyed his rants. I skimmed the last half of the book, because it didn't seem that the subsequent essays contained new concepts. I recommend the book overall, though.


PRIVACY, privacy, the new American obsession: espoused as the most fundamental of rights, marketed as the most desirable of commodities, and pronounced dead twice a week.

[k664] OUR PRIVACY panic isn't merely exaggerated. It's founded on a fallacy. Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy, in The Right to Privacy, sum up the conventional wisdom of privacy advocates like this: "There is less privacy than there used to be." The claim has been made or implied so often, in so many books and editorials and talk-show dens, that Americans, no matter how passive they are in their behavior, now dutifully tell pollsters that they're very much worried about privacy. From almost any historical perspective, however, the claim seems bizarre.

In 1890, an American typically lived in a small town under conditions of near-panoptical surveillance. Not only did his every purchase "register," but it registered in the eyes and the memory of shopkeepers who knew him, his parents, his wife, and his children. He couldn't so much as walk to the post office without having his movements tracked and analyzed by neighbors. Probably he grew up sleeping in the same bed with his siblings and possibly with his parents, too. Unless he was well off, his transportation--a train, a horse, his own two feet--either was communal or exposed him to the public eye.

In the suburbs and exurbs where the typical American lives today, tiny nuclear families inhabit enormous houses, in which each person has his or her own bedroom and, sometimes, bathroom. Compared even with suburbs in the sixties and seventies, when I was growing up, the contemporary condominium development or gated community offers a striking degree of anonymity. It's no longer the rule that you know your neighbors. Communities increasingly tend to be virtual, the participants either faceless or firmly in control of the face they present. Transportation is largely private: the latest SUVs are the size of living rooms and come with onboard telephones, CD players, and TV screens; behind the tinted windows of one of these high-riding I-see-you-but-you-can't-see-me mobile PrivacyGuard(Runits, a person can be wearing pajamas or a licorice bikini, for all anybody knows or cares. Maybe the government intrudes on the family a little more than it did a hundred years ago (social workers look in on the old and the poor, health officials require inoculations, the police inquire about spousal battery), but these intrusions don't begin to make up for the small-town snooping they've replaced.

The "right to be left alone"? Far from disappearing, it's exploding. It's the essence of modern American architecture, landscape, transportation, communication, and mainstream political philosophy. The real reason that Americans are apathetic about privacy is so big as to be almost invisible: we're flat-out drowning in privacy. What's threatened, then, isn't the private

[k679] Maybe the government intrudes on the family a little more than it did a hundred years ago (social workers look in on the old and the poor, health officials require inoculations, the police inquire about spousal battery), but these intrusions don't begin to make up for the small-town snooping they've replaced.

The "right to be left alone"? Far from disappearing, it's exploding. It's the essence of modern American architecture, landscape, transportation, communication, and mainstream political philosophy. The real reason that Americans are apathetic about privacy is so big as to be almost invisible: we're flat-out drowning in privacy.

What's threatened, then, isn't the private sphere. It's the public sphere. Much has been made of the discouraging effect that the Starr investigation may have on future aspirants to public office (only zealots and zeros need apply), but that's just half of it. The public world of Washington, because it's public, belongs to everyone. We're all invited to participate with our votes, our patriotism, our campaigning, and our opinions. The collective weight of a population makes possible our faith in the public world as something larger and more enduring and more dignified than any messy individual can be in private. But, just as one sniper in a church tower can keep the streets of an entire town empty, one real gross-out scandal can undermine that faith. If privacy depends upon an expectation of invisibility, the expectation of visibility is what defines a public space. My "sense of privacy" functions to keep the public out of the private and to keep the private out of the public.

[k709] Reticence, meanwhile, has become an obsolete virtue. People now readily name their diseases, rents, antidepressants. Sexual histories get spilled on first dates, Birkenstocks and cutoffs infiltrate the office on casual Fridays, telecom-muting puts the boardroom in the bedroom, "softer" modern office design puts the bedroom in the boardroom, salespeople unilaterally address customers by their first name, waiters won't bring me food until I've established a personal relationship with them, voice-mail machinery stresses the "I" in "I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you dialed," and cyberenthusiasts, in a particularly grotesque misnomer, designate as "public forums" pieces of etched silicon with which a forum's unshaved "participant" may communicate while sitting crosslegged in tangled sheets. The networked world as a threat to privacy? It's the ugly spectacle ### of a privacy triumphant.

A genuine public space is a place where every citizen is welcome to be present and where the purely private is excluded or restricted.

[k754] All I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen, but even this modest ideal is thwarted by cell-phone users and their unwelcome privacy. They say things like "Should we have couscous with that?" and "I'm on my way to Blockbuster." They aren't breaking any law by broadcasting these breakfast-nook conversations. There's no PublicityGuard that I can buy, no expensive preserve of public life to which I can flee.

[k772] WHY BOTHER? (The Harper's Essay)

[k820] Otto Bentwood, if he existed in the nineties, would not break down, because the world would no longer even bear on him. As an unashamed elitist, an avatar of the printed word, and a genuinely solitary man, he belongs to a species so endangered as to be all but irrelevant in an age of electronic democracy. For centuries, ink in the form of printed novels has fixed discrete, subjective individuals within significant narratives. What Sophie and Otto were glimpsing, in the vatic black mess on their bedroom wall, was the disintegration of the very notion of a literary character. Small wonder they were desperate. It was still the sixties, and they had no idea what had hit them.

There was a siege going on: it had been going on for a long time, but the besieged themselves were the last to take it seriously. -- from Desperate Characters

[k851] But the biggest surprise--the true measure of how little I'd heeded my own warning in The Twenty-Seventh City -- was the failure of my culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture. I'd intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum.

[k856] How did it feel to be a local kid returning to St. Louis on a fancy book tour? It felt obscurely disappointing. But I didn't say this. I'd already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren't simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to a culture.

[k866] The only mainstream American household I know well is the one I grew up in, and I can report that my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover and Time, for my father, was the ultimate cultural authority. In the last decade, the magazine whose red border twice enclosed the face of James Joyce has devoted covers to Scott Turow and Stephen King. These are honorable writers; but no one doubts it was the size of their contracts that won them covers. The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority, and an organ like Time, which not long ago aspired to shape the national taste, now serves mainly to reflect it.

[k879] My second novel, Strong Motion, was a long, complicated story about a Midwestern family in a world of moral upheaval, and this time, instead of sending my bombs in a Jiffy-Pak mailer of irony and understatement, as I had with The Twenty-Seventh City, I'd come out throwing rhetorical Molotov cocktails. But the result was the same: another report card with A's and B's from the reviewers who had replaced the teachers whose approval, when I was younger, I had both craved and taken no satisfaction from; decent money; and the silence of irrelevance.

[k892] There's never been much love lost between literature and the marketplace. The consumer economy loves a product that sells at a premium, wears out quickly or is susceptible to regular improvement, and offers with each improvement some marginal gain in usefulness. To an economy like this, news that stays news is not merely an inferior product; it's an antithetical product. A classic work of literature is inexpensive, infinitely reusable, and, worst of all, unimprovable.

[k898] In 1993 I saw signs of the consolidation everywhere. I saw it in the swollen minivans and broad-beamed trucks that had replaced the automobile as the suburban vehicle of choice--these Rangers and Land Cruisers and Voyagers that were the true spoils of a war waged to keep American gasoline cheaper than dirt, a war that had played like a thousand-hour infomercial for high technology, a consumer's war dispensed through commercial television. I saw leaf-blowers replacing rakes. I saw CNN holding hostage the travelers in airport lounges and the shoppers in supermarket checkout lines. I saw the 486 chip replacing the 386 and being replaced in turn by the Pentium so that, despite new economies of scale, the price of entry-level notebook computers never fell below a thousand dollars. I saw Penn State win the Blockbuster Bowl.

[k919] IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, when Dickens and Darwin and Disraeli all read one another's work, the novel was the preeminent medium of social instruction. A new book by Thackeray or William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that a late-December film release inspires today.

The big, obvious reason for the decline of the social novel is that modern technologies do a much better job of social instruction. Television, radio, and photographs are vivid, instantaneous media. Print journalism, too, in the wake of In Cold Blood, has become a viable creative alternative to the novel. Because they command large audiences, TV and magazines can afford to gather vast quantities of information quickly.

[k936] We live in a tyranny of the literal. The daily unfolding stories of O. J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, and Bill Clinton have an intense, iconic presence that relegates to a subordinate shadow-world our own untelevised lives. In order to justify their claim on our attention, the organs of mass culture and information are compelled to offer something "new" on a daily, indeed hourly, basis. Although good novelists don't deliberately seek out trends, many of them feel a responsibility to pay attention to contemporary issues, and they now confront a culture in which almost all the issues are burned out almost all the time.

[k943] None of this stops cultural commentators--notably Tom Wolfe--from blaming novelists for their retreat from social description. The most striking thing about Wolfe's 1989 manifesto for the "New Social Novel," even more than his uncanny ignorance of the many excellent socially engaged novels published between 1960 and 1989, was his failure to explain why his ideal New Social Novelist should not be writing scripts for Hollywood. And so it's worth saying one more time: Just as the camera drove a stake through the heart of serious portraiture, television has killed the novel of social reportage.

[k1028] I can't pretend the mainstream will listen to the news I have to bring. I can't pretend I'm subverting anything, because any reader capable of decoding my subversive messages does not need to hear them (and the contemporary art scene is a constant reminder of how silly things get when artists start preaching to the choir). I can't stomach any kind of notion that serious fiction is good for us, because I don't believe that everything that's wrong with the world has a cure, and even if I did, what business would I, who feel like the sick one, have in offering it? It's hard to consider literature a medicine, in any case, when reading it serves mainly to deepen your depressing estrangement from the mainstream; sooner or later the therapeutically minded reader will end up fingering reading itself as the sickness.

[k1096] Looking me in the eye, Heath said: "You are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world."

I knew she was using the word "you" in its impersonal sense. Nevertheless, I felt as if she were looking straight into my soul. And the exhilaration I felt at her accidental description of me, in unpoetic polysyllables, was my confirmation of that description's truth. Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.

[k1141] For Heath, a defining feature of "substantive works of fiction" is unpredictability. She arrived at this definition after discovering that most of the hundreds of serious readers she interviewed have had to deal, one way or another, with personal unpredictability.

[k1148] In her interviews, Heath uncovered a "wide unanimity" among serious readers that literature " 'makes me a better person.' " She hastened to assure me that, rather than straightening them out in a self-help way, "reading serious literature impinges on the embedded circumstances in people's lives in such a way that they have to deal with them. And, in so dealing, they come to see themselves as deeper and more capable of handling their inability to have a totally predictable life."

[k1219] In Gaddis's first novel, The Recognitions (1955), a stand-in for the author cries: "What is it they want from the man that they didn't get from the work? What do they expect? What is there left when he's done with his work, what's any artist but the dregs of his work, the human shambles that follows it around?" Postwar novelists like Gaddis and Pynchon and postwar artists like Robert Frank answered these questions very differently than Norman Mailer and Andy Warhol did. In 1954, before television had even supplanted radio as the regnant medium, Gaddis recognized that no matter how attractively subversive self-promotion may seem in the short run, the artist who's really serious about resisting a culture of inauthentic mass-marketed image must resist becoming an image himself, even at the price of certain obscurity.

[k1230] Silence, however, is a useful statement only if someone, somewhere, expects your voice to be loud. Silence in the 1990s seemed only to guarantee that I would be alone. And eventually it dawned on me that the despair I felt about the novel was less the result of my obsolescence than of my isolation.

[k1275] What emerges as the belief that unifies us is not that a novel can change anything but that it can preserve something.

[k1280] Above all, they are preserving a community of readers and writers, and the way in which members of this community recognize each other is that nothing in the world seems simple to them.

Shirley Heath uses the bland word "unpredictability" to describe this conviction of complexity; Flannery O'Connor called it "mystery." In Desperate Characters, Fox captures it like this: "Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy." For me, the word that best describes the novelist's view of the world is tragic. In Nietzsche's account of the "birth of tragedy," which remains pretty much unbeatable as a theory of why people enjoy sad narratives, an anarchic "Dionysian" insight into the darkness and unpredictability of life is wedded to an "Apollonian" clarity and beauty of form to produce an experience that's religious in its intensity.

[k1323] But how ridiculous the self-pity of the writer in the late twentieth century can seem in light of, say, Herman Melville's life. How familiar his life is: the first novel that makes his reputation, the painful discovery of how little his vision appeals to prevailing popular tastes, the growing sense of having no place in a sentimental republic, the horrible money troubles, the abandonment by his publisher, the disastrous commercial failure of his finest and most ambitious work, the reputed mental illness (his melancholy, his depression), and finally the retreat into writing purely for his own satisfaction.

Via Rob 12/19/2010