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richardderus

Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud

How to Be Alone: Essays - Jonathan Franzen Rating: 3* of fiveThe Book Description: Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was the best-loved and most-written-about novel of 2001. Nearly every in-depth review of it discussed what became known as "The Harper's Essay," Franzen's controversial 1996 investigation of the fate of the American novel. This essay is reprinted for the first time in How to be Alone, along with the personal essays and the dead-on reportage that earned Franzen a wide readership before the success of The Corrections. Although his subjects range from the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works, each piece wrestles with familiar themes of Franzen's writing: the erosion of civic life and private dignity and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America. Recent pieces include a moving essay on his father's stuggle with Alzheimer's disease (which has already been reprinted around the world) and a rueful account of Franzen's brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author.As a collection, these essays record what Franzen calls "a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance--even a celebration--of being a reader and a writer." At the same time they show the wry distrust of the claims of technology and psychology, the love-hate relationship with consumerism, and the subversive belief in the tragic shape of the individual life that help make Franzen one of our sharpest, toughest, and most entertaining social critics.My Review: "Why Bother?" or, more familiarly "The Harper's Essay," is the most famous piece in the collection, and probably the most read. I think it's a nice meditation on the nature of reading and writing, and the changes these two things have been through, but it's not (to me) earth-shatteringly amazing. I've been thinking many of the same thoughts for a long time, being both a modeled and a social-isolate reader (the essay gives definitions for these terms, and you should read the text anyway. Wikipedia links to a PDF of it).That doesn't mean the essay is less valuable, merely makes the point that I, and presumably others like me, don't feel its novelty. For others to whom the ideas are new, this could gong them like a bell. I wonder if those folks are among Franzen's readers, though. I still think Tetris is a cool video game, so how likely am I to be seeking out BioShock X or whatever? My sense of novelty, then, isn't about texts or their creators and/or the act of their creation, it's about the successors to the book and the ethos they create.But the essay is, like the entire collection, a little bit less than fully coherent. Franzen doesn't so much organize his points around his thoughts as his thoughts around his points. The bits about his marital breakdown, the portions mentioning his teaching job, the revision-points about the Oprah kerfuffle after The Corrections got him into such trouble...all placed here and there, all called upon to do multiple duty and yet never seeming to be the mainstay of any one argument. Why then invoke them at all? I didn't feel the added weight of support in many of Franzen's passing mentions and glancing blows."My Father's Brain," on the other hand, was a fine and personal piece of wrestling, and a very involving and moving look at the nature of a time and a space in an adult man's life: The end of a parent's life is fraught for us all, and the ending of the life before the parent's actual death is the hardest thing to process.Alzheimer's and other dementias are deeply frightening to me, and I suspect to most of us. Franzen reports from the front lines that it's a lot less terrifying than one might imagine, and even more heartrending. This essay is responsible for all three stars I've given the collection all by itself. I like the author a great deal more than I did after reading The Corrections, which I found repetitive rather than recursive, and ~100pp of Freedom, which for some reason I can't quite understand made me angry. The son who wrote "My Father's Brain" is a guy I want to have a beer with, talk about the pessimism-inducing world we fifty-plus social isolates live in, and see if we can't hash out some reason not to despair.The other essays are well-written pieces about things I wasn't interested in, and ended up not meaning anything to me on a visceral level. Just, well, yeah okay that's nice, but what the devil should I care?It's very much a library-borrow, and really not something I'll urge you to get out there and procure no matter the source. As usual for me as regards this writer, I don't leave this read eagerly awaiting the next one by him.