Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone: Essays that Show Their Age, Yet Still Find the Mark

How to Be Alone1

Fiction has a unique loveliness to it that allows the author to pour the problems of her day into a novel that, if executed well, will allow the novel to remain relevant decades, even centuries later. Perhaps for me, the finest example of such a novel is John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown. If you want to avoid severe spoilers for Steinbeck’s classic, skip the next paragraph.

In the book, a man takes his inheritance after his father dies, buys a large plot of land in California, and soon begins praying to a massive tree which he believes contains his father’s spirit. He takes great care of the land as a result and sees an incredible harvest like no one has ever seen. He is careful to remain cautious about his care for the tree and thus his father, who he feels overlooks the farm. However his brothers soon arrive, one religious, one not so much, and begin helping him. His religious brother begins telling him to stay away from the tree because of its satanic vibes, for lack of a better term. Naturally he does not, as he feels the tree responsible for his success and the land’s success. One day, his religious brother packs up his own things and leaves with his family, telling the protagonist that he has saved him (the protagonist) from satanic paganism. The protagonist rushes to the tree as his brother leaves and finds it poisoned. The poison slowly kills the tree and the feeling of his father’s spirit in the tree fades away. Over years the land grows dry, no rain ever coming. His crop and livestock all pass away. Soon afterward, his wife dies. His other brother remains with him but urges him to leave the farm and go elsewhere. As they leave and the novel draws towards its conclusion, the protagonist goes and visits a mystical place within the forest surrounding his home that local Native Americans have mentioned to him. He climbs up on a massive stone and then cuts his wrists. As he dies, it begins to rain.

Now, Steinbeck wrote the novel in the wake of the dustbowl and the great depression. The story is not so much a religious one as it is a metaphor for humanity’s (lack of) care towards the earth. The story is not telling us that we should all be pagans and commit sacrifices upon rocks to appease tree gods. The story is telling us that we have the power to ruin the earth around us, but that unlike us, who will assuredly be gone long before the earth is, the earth will reset itself without us.We need it infinitely more than it even wants us. Really, moreso now than it was then, the novel is terrifying prophecy.

Steinbeck’s novel takes place in the 1930s, yet it remains a poignant, relatable story today, 80 years later. As I stated above, if anything, his story is even more relevant today than it was then.

But what does that have to do with Franzen’s How to Be AloneHTBA is a book of essays that Franzen published throughout the 90s and early 2000s. They are all quite diagnostic, some of them decidedly personal, but consistently throughout the selection of essays one thought kept popping into my mind: outdated. There are 14 essays in the book and only five of them felt like they had nothing to do with a man adjusting to the technology boom that was beginning to happen when these essays were originally released. I’m not complaining as much as I am mourning.

There are six essays that I felt to be powerful and acutely well-done:

“My Father’s Brain”
“Why Bother?”
“Lost in the Mail” (This one feels outdated, but is not as expressly so as others)
“The Reader in Exile”
“Control Units”
“Mr. Difficult”

These six, with the possible exception of “Lost in the Mail” are the ones that don’t hinge upon or make constant references to Franzen’s interactions with the changing technology around him. Why I say that I am mourning rather than complaining is due to the fact that I tend to think that the other eight essays were probably on the same level of noteworthiness, but now cannot be read easily as anything worth absorbing. It’s difficult to relate to anything Franzen is mentioning when he is pointing out things that readers such as me, a 24 year old who has only used a rotary phone once in his life (at my great grandmas), have had next to no experience with. Yet this potentially why the six essays mentioned above are fantastic. Both “Why Bother?” and “Mr. Difficult” are essays that I empathized with as both a reader of avant-garde and genre fiction, and as an aspiring writer who feels caught in the middle of styles. If you are a reader of “difficult” fiction or a writer who reads “difficult” fiction, I would advise you to take in Franzen’s thoughts on the subject.

“Lost in the Mail” and “Control Units” are pieces on America. “Mail” is about Chicago’s terrible USPS and the steps that were taken in the 90s to try to fix it; while “Control Units” concerns Franzen’s exploration of some US maximum security prison facilities (and our subsequent fascination with them), and our disturbing tendency to favor locking people up and throwing away the key rather than truly trying to fix things such as poverty and racial injustice.

Overall, the great essays are truly great, but the book as a whole suffers due to its being so far behind the times. It’s worth having around, though; and I will be rereading “Mr. Difficult” and “Why Bother?” for years to come.

Recommended to: Those who enjoy essays that aren’t difficult to read but provide social commentary, those who want a glance into the life of a successful writer, and those who are currently writing but struggling with the art.

Avoid as if it were John Wayne’s shockingly upsetting portrayal of Genghis Kahn: Those who don’t care about the person that wrote the book, just the book itself, and those who despise the writing that appears in Harper’s or The New Yorker.

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