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Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003

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How To Be Seriously Alone
Jonathan Franzen on the art of self-defence

By Gerard Yee

How To Be Alone
Jonathan Franzen
4th Estate (2003) / 281 pages / SGD 41.20

Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, has a new book out. His name might appear familiar to some. The only writer ever to have refused Oprah Winfrey’s invitation to her Book Club discussion, Franzen caused a minor furore to the literary scene for a perceived arrogance. His refusal, however, carried more than a matter of literary pretension; a featured Book Club writer is assured sales of close to a million copies. It’s no small change and Franzen must have realised this when he decided to be “disinvited”. What then would have caused a struggling writer of serious fiction (all writers of serious fiction are, by definition today, “struggling”) to reject such a bounty?

He provides an answer of sorts to readers in his new book of essays, How To Be Alone. In this acerbically titled work, he dissects American institutions in a vividly incisive style. More than a mere culling of his more interesting journalese, it provides provoking snapshots of the American cultural and political landscape of the Nineties: The Clinton-Lewinsky affair gets a mention, as well as the Inauguration Day of the current George Bush. Perennial American issues like incarceration are given a Deleuzian critique while the public’s love-hate relationship with cigarettes get an airing. What makes this an exceptional read, however, is his inimitable style. Instead of the Time magazine routine of making the rounds with all concerned parties, Franzen extracts from the mass of issues a directly personal core: in the end, it is the human costs we bear that allows these abstract social issues to be intimately pertinent. The theme of personal meaning amid the endlessly convoluted arguments of American interest-groups adds resonance to the acutely ironic title.

How To Be Alone then is a self-help book of sorts. By seeking to determine the borders between the public and the private spheres, Franzen’s book mounts a defence of the individual against the hegemonic powers of state or corporation and an increasingly helpless and ignorant public. In many ways, the themes are quintessential American concerns: the fear of Big Corporations, the invasive presence of popular culture and the alienated Ishmaelian writer-figure. But Franzen’s carefully nuanced approach to the relationship between institutions and self uncovers the complicities involved in all our human choices. In “Sifting the Ashes”, he considers the ambivalent presence of cigarettes in our lives. Franzen argues that cigarettes have become a morally ambiguous issue because publicly opposed partisans in reality aren’t so different in their ruthless running down of their opponents. On a personal level, the cigarette’s association with death has become the means whereby we embrace our own deaths by giving it the assurance of foreknowledge:

the potential deadliness of cigarettes was comforting because it allowed me, in effect, to become familiar with apocalypse, to acquaint myself with the contours of its terror, to make the world’s potential death [by nuclear destruction] less strange and so a little less threatening.

In his situating of the Lewinsky affair within America’s evolving sense of public space, Franzen contends that the matter isn’t about publicity invading the privacy of individuals but the private lives of individuals being forcibly staged before an aghast public by the machinery of the newsmakers. It is our sense of public propriety (i.e. that which is relevant to national debate and discourse) that is besieged by TV’s insidious use of voyeurism to up its ratings: “the news itself is a soiled cocktail dress – TV the bedroom floor and nothing but.” The private is politicised to the detriment of public discourse. In doing so, the public retreats from itself and results in a “Leave-Me-Alone” national landscape that denies the existence of a relevant space for debate. There is some truth here for these ironic times when American intellectuals like Chomsky define themselves by their very anti-Americanism. Franzen sees the rhetoric of “privacy” as a reaction that trumps all other political cards by fencing up a fast shrinking public arena. Public discourse like the city square has few visitors as its inhabitants retreat to suburbia.

It is however in the moving narrative of “Why Bother?” that Franzen truly comes into his own in his defence of serious fiction’s legitimacy. By contrast, Rushdie’s recent book of essays Step Across This Line reads like a sad parody of himself as he attempts to mount The Salman Show with stories of hobnobbing with U2 and Van Morrison. “Why Bother?” is a heavily revised version of an infamous earlier essay from Harper’s magazine titled “Perchance to Dream”. The notoriety stems from a misplaced allegation that Franzen promised to single-handedly lift the social novel out of the doldrums and into the centre of American public discourse again. Franzen explains in his introduction that he wasn’t attempting a sales pitch in the essay but was sincerely attempting to understand the place of the social novel in the context of a deafening multi-media society. As the essay progresses, he looks at the various would-be justifications an aspiring novelist might use to affirm the relevance of his enterprise: Literature is therapeutic, Literature is Good Medicine, Literature is a Higher Calling, etc. But the excuses have become brittle even as closing time draws near. He openly admits that the lesson he learnt from his first novel was “the failure of my culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture.” Like the echoes from Plato’s ghost in Yeats’ poem, the question remains – “What then?”

Franzen’s answers are sufficiently personal and, in that sense, unique to allow readers to arrive at their own conclusions on the state of the contemporary novel. I will not spoil it for readers by telling them his findings. For those who conceive of themselves as writers, the views in this book are worth some serious consideration. Franzen’s tell-it-as-it-is attitude ensures that we disavow any illusions of the writer’s trade. But on a larger scale, the critical value of this essay and indeed of the other essays lies not in any perceivable answers but in the relentless probing of our given place in a tumultuous and multivalent world. The axes of personal histories, government, politics, corporatism, tradition and the media, today intersect an individual. The list is not exhaustive. Franzen has travelled along each of these axes in an exploration of the vulnerability of identity. The surprising endurance of the personal is presented against the backdrop of the transgressions that our technocratic societies have made on us. In these essays he has upheld the possibility of a critically engaged self that knows the value of being left alone. Perhaps that is worth the bounty of a million volumes sold.

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003


Should we reject the hegemonic powers of state or corporation? Discuss this in the Forum!

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  Other Criticism in this Issue

Gritted Teeth and Stoic Strength
Zhang Ruihe reviews From Boys To Men.

Handle Poetry With Care
Yeo Yen Ping reviews Felix Cheong's Broken By The Rain.

Getting the House in Order
Sheo S. Rai reviews People Like Us.

On the Familiar Made Exotic
Wena Poon reviews Thomas Kitching's Life and Death in Changi.

Related Links

Jonathan Franzen website
External link.

Review of How To Be Alone
External link to SFStation.

Review of How To Be Alone
External link to Post-Gazette.

Interview with Jonathan Franzan
External link to Poets & Writers.


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