Wednesday, October 12, 2016

How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I’m almost making a habit of reading modern novelists’ non-fiction works before I read their fiction. (See, for example, David Foster Wallace.) I’m not sure after this that I am dying to read The Replacements, but it’s not because I disliked this book. On the contrary, I rather enjoyed this collection of essays. But they are short, and the novels tend to be long, and I have just a little hesitation about whether the style would wear thin after 300 pages. Actually, this is more of a concern with Wallace than with Franzen, because Wallace seems to like a more experimental form, which I enjoy in smaller doses. Franzen is pretty straight forward, and if his essays are any indication, is ruthlessly organized in his plotting.  

This collection contains works from roughly 15-20 years ago, which means that the cultural references will often take you back to 1995 or so. The middle of the Clinton years, so to speak, and the years when I was in law school, trying to be the good conservative kid, while progressively realizing just how screwed up the cult we were in was. Also, eventually moving out, getting a job, and getting married. Quite the transition time for me, and, as it would later turn out, the nation.

It was kind of weird, given my own experiences of the time, to read the perspective of someone who combined the role of “cranky old man” with the politics of a liberal - one that had a lot in common with 2016 Bernie Sanders, in fact. Maybe it was the fact that even now, most of the cranky old men griping about the young people tend to be conservative. Or that most of the old men - particularly the cranky ones - that I know, are both strongly Republican and lean toward retrograde ideas about gender and race. Or that the Right at this point in time is dominated demographically with old white men. So the “old white male liberal” is a bit of a new experience.

On that note, what I found the most off-putting about Franzen is the cranky old man act. But, to be fair, he knows he is a cranky old man. So he asserts his crankiness while trying to defuse it by acknowledging his own bias. I was simultaneously irritated at him while being forced to grant that he too was criticizing himself. I forgot to write down a quote to illustrate this, but if you read the book, you’ll recognize it.

Probably this tendency comes out most in his most famous essay, entitled “Why Bother,” which originally ran in Harper’s under the name of “Perchance to Dream,” a title Franzen did not pick, and didn’t like. The version in this book has been edited and shortened from the original. Franzen intended to make it a bit more clear, and less wordy - although it is still really long, something I should know considering the length of some of my posts. I actually found this particular essay to be one of the weaker ones. It’s decent, and it makes a number of excellent points about culture, literary works, and so on. The strongest part, in my opinion, is a conversation with Shirley Heath that is recounted, on the topic of what makes good fiction resonate. To quote extensively from Heath on the feedback she had received about literature, works of fiction are

“the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically. From Agamemnon forward, for example, we’ve been having to deal with the conflict between loyalty to one’s family and loyalty to the state. And strong works of fiction are what refuse to give easy answers to the conflict, to paint things as black and white, good guys versus bad guys. They’re everything pop psychology is not...This is precisely what readers are saying: that reading good fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of a religious text. What religion and good fiction have in common is that the answers aren’t there, there isn’t closure.”

It is no accident, in my opinion, that the great religious texts rely so heavily on the story. Easy answers are hard to find in real life, and the easier the answer, the more likely that it is complete bullshit. In fact, most of the “easy” answers are only easy because they disregard most of the issues. Things are usually much more easy when you can dismiss the consequences to other people or other groups. (See, for a modern example, the fact that the “easy” answer of “no more Muslim refugees in our town/state/nation” is only easy if you disregard the needs of the refugees. If their deaths are okay with you, then I guess the answer is easy…)

This has been my quibble with American religion over the last decade. Evangelicalism seems premised (in practice) on the belief that the answers to all of life’s deepest questions are easy, that the answers are universally known, and the only reason their particular answers (spiritual and political) are not universally accepted is that the other side is wholly evil. Not only does this not match with reality, but it seems contradictory to the scripture we have, which is nothing if not full of messy, messy stories with no easy answers. To force it into a straitjacket they way the Evangelical Industrial Complex has is to do violence to the text and to the intent of the writers. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox on this one.

Also on the topic of literature and readers is “The Reader In Exile.” Although it has its anti-technology moments, Franzen does his best to avoid the worst of this tendency. What is more interesting is his exploration of who the readers are in our society. Some, like me, are readers because we grew up with books and were raised by readers. Others, though, became readers as a means of self-preservation - and many of these end up becoming writers. It’s a fascinating essay, whether you agree with Franzen or not. One line was especially memorable.

Blaming the novel’s eclipse on infernal technologies and treasonous literary critics, as Birkerts does, will not undo the damage. Neither will the argument that reading enriches us. Ultimately, if novelists want their work to be read, the responsibility for making it attractive and imperative is solely their own.

I have wondered what Franzen would make of the fact that, 20 years after he wrote this, it is his generation, the Baby Boomers, who are least likely to have read a book in the last year, then either Gen X (my generation) or the Millennials. I think the kids are alright. It’s the grownups I worry about.

I should mention a few of the other essays. If you read nothing else in this book, please, please read “My Father’s Brain.” Franzen tells the story of his father’s Alzheimer’s Disease, and how it impacted the rest of the family. This is, hands down, one of the most haunting - and accurate - depiction of the reality of dementia that I have read. It is unflinchingly honest, and yet compassionate. I work in elder law, and deal with the legal side of these issues, and Franzen nails it. Everyone should read this essay.

Also fascinating was “Imperial Bedroom,” a response to the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. Franzen was horrified by what he viewed as an intrusion of the private on the public. In his view, it wasn’t that the parties’ right to privacy had been violated, but that the public’s right to have some areas of life free from the dirt of private relationships had been breached. In perhaps the most understandable “cranky-old-man” instance, he felt that this was part of a greater problem, exemplified by Viagra ads, a general lack of boundaries between what was for public consumption, and what was private. And it was the public sphere that suffered, not the private. I’m not entirely certain that I agree on this point. Sometimes the private is very relevant to the public. (These days, the age and power differential is the most relevant, not the sex itself.) But his feeling that there is no “public” place to escape from the private smut is warranted.

The better part of this essay, though, was his clear-headed analysis of the “declining privacy” hoax. I’ll lay it out for you. There is a truism that modern technology/culture/consumerism has lead to a terrifying loss of our privacy. This is poppycock. Anyone who has lived in a small town knows that it has never been easier to retain one’s privacy. A modern city dweller like myself may reveal a bit about me in this blog, or on Facebook. Sure, my purchasing habits are known by faceless global corporations. But for the most part, my business is my business.

In a small town, it wouldn’t be Walmart corporate that knows what brand of deodorant I wear. It would be likely every other person in town. If my client has a child out of wedlock that she places for adoption, a few people will know, and there will be a (confidential) government record somewhere. But in a small town, everyone would know, and if she couldn’t leave town, her life would be forever irrevocably changed.

Similarly, in our modern world, it is easier to go against the culture of one’s tribe without losing everything. My wife and I left fundamentalism, and we have paid some prices with certain friends and family. But in a small town, we probably would have had to cut all our ties and never come back. Now, these decisions are considered “private” in a way they weren’t before. One need not pretend to a religion one does not believe in order to avoid being burned at the stake.

Franzen’s very best point, though, is that what we talk about as “privacy” issues are not really about privacy at all. They are about liberty. Franzen breaks down the so-called “privacy” torts, and makes a good argument that they are actually about freedom. Freedom from trespass, defamation, and theft, specifically. From there, he argues that our fears of loss of privacy actually correspond better to fear of the specific harm inflicted. To give an easy example, I am not really worried that someone might know my social security number. It’s that someone might use that number to steal from me by taking my money or running up debt in my name. I’m not really afraid that my DNA might be analyzed, but afraid that the information therein would be used to deny me health insurance or a job. That BevMo knows my alcohol preferences doesn’t threaten me, but the idea that I might be denied a civil right because of what I drink is problematic. It isn’t the information, it’s what is done with the information.

I really should mention “Lost In The Mail” as another excellent essay. Franzen tells the story of the great US Mail debacle in Chicago, where mail was being buried, burned, and all kinds of things other than delivered. He didn’t do the investigative reporting on the case, but doggone does he tell the story well. It is moments like this that made me seriously consider getting his novels. He can tell a compelling story, even about the Postal Service, and make it thrilling.

Just a quick mention of a few others. “Erika Imports” is about his job as a teen working for an eccentric German immigrant entrepreneur couple. (That’s a lot of long words in a row, but that is the best description.) “Sifting the Ashes” is about tobacco, his addiction, and the overheated politics. “First City” is an interesting musing on the good and bad of New York City, and cities in general. It’s nice to see someone advocate for cities, rather than sugarcoating the small town and the all-white suburb. “Scavenging” is about finding and re-purposing old junk as a starving writer. And about obsolescence. And other things. It’s good. “Control Units” is a frightening inside look at the Prison Industrial Complex. One of the issues about which I have parted ways with my former political tribe is on the astoundingly high incarceration rates in our country. This essay predates our current criminal reform movement by a couple of decades, but the link of prisons and money was apparent even then. “Meet Me In St. Louis” is about the promotional filming he did for Oprah’s show before he was dis-invited. I love the exposure of the contrived nature of the biopic, and the complex emotional landscape of returning to roots one has both left and ultimately rejected. Like the description of his father, the moments involving his childhood home are lacerating and real. “Inauguration Day, January 2001” tells of tagging along with a Socialist protest of the George W. Bush inauguration.

There is one final essay I really have to mention in more detail. “Books In Bed” is a hilarious sendup of sex advice books and magazine articles. And sex writing in general. I feel I have found a kindred spirit in my dislike for modern sex scenes in books. Look, I’m no prude these days. My objection is most definitely not based on moral considerations. My objection is based, as is Franzen’s, on aesthetic considerations. Because sex scenes are almost always such terrible writing. To re-purpose a really awful music and sex joke, sex scenes are a bit like premature ejaculation, because you can feel them coming but can’t do anything about it. (Sorry, don’t mean to offend, but the metaphor really fits.) The whole time, it’s “no, no, please, don’t!”

Likewise, sex advice is usually terrible. Beyond terrible. Laughably bad. But it isn’t intended to be useful so much as to relieve anxiety.

I think Franzen really nails the root issue of our modern sexual anxieties.

Sexual anxiety is primal; physical love has always carried the risk that one’s most naked self will be rejected. If Americans today are especially anxious, the consensus seems to be that it’s because of “changing sex roles” and “media images of sex” and so forth. In fact, we’re simply experiencing the anxieties of a free market. Contraception and the ease of divorce have removed the fetters from the economy of sex, and, like citizens of present-day Dresden and Leipzig, we all want to believe we’re better off under a regime in which even the poorest man can dream of wealth. But as the old walls of repression tumble down, many Americans - discarded first wives, who are like the workers displaced from a Trabant factory; or sexually inept men, who are the equivalent of command-economy bureaucrats - have grown nostalgic for the old state monopolies. What are The Rules if not an attempt to reregulate an economy run scarily amok?

This is a brilliant metaphor! I firmly believe that mankind is better off under a free (if regulated) market rather than command-economy Communism. I’m not eager to go back to the Soviet days anywhere. And likewise, I am a Feminist, and I would not seek to go back to the days when women were essentially bought and sold like property - but had more of a guarantee of lifetime financial support in exchange for their monogamy and tolerance of the promiscuity of males. I would not deny abused women the right to divorce, nor would I abolish contraception, which has also done much to grant women control of their destiny.

But I would not deny that the crumbling of Patriarchy and Soviet Communism has resulted in displacement and anxiety. With freedom comes a certain loss in security. The old relationships must be renegotiated. And there are losers even if most are winners.

I think Franzen is absolutely correct that a major loser in the new sexual economy are sexually inept men. On the one hand, men without wealth have an easier time of it, but on the other, it isn’t enough to be a rich white man to guarantee marital and sexual success. I’ll confess that I have experienced this anxiety, being a short and not particularly attractive man. Once upon a time, I could simply work hard and become successful, and I could “buy” a woman for my wife. Now, I have to earn it sexually as well as financially. And that brings performance anxiety. (To be fair, I actually ended up finding a woman who wanted me, so the anxiety turned out in practice to be seriously overblown. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel it.) But while the risk of failure exists in this scenario, either through inability to attract a mate or inability to keep one, the payoff is (in my opinion) worth it.

Franzen’s point that the old “winners” of the previous system find themselves on the outs, and therefore focus on returning the old system rather than adapt is outstanding. This explains pretty much the entire Christian Patriarchy movement. Seriously, though, read this essay. It’s outstanding.

This book was a good introduction to Jonathan Franzen. I think I will have to read some of his fiction now. There is a vulnerability about his introspection and self-awareness that is refreshing, and his writing is fantastic. Even though I do not fall on the same part of the political spectrum as he does, I think he has plenty to say to us all about our times and our politics and about life in general.


  1. I feel like I've heard Franzen's name somewhere before but can't place it.

    I know a few old white men who think they're "liberal" solely because they identify with Democrats. They're not. They're just as bigoted as the others. Like my grandpa who hates both Republicans and Mexicans equally. (He's voting for Clinton, though...for all the wrong reasons, i.e. she's wearing the Blue Hat this year. If Trump had had the Blue Hat instead of the Red Hat he'd be voting for him instead.) Then again I also know old white men who are super liberal and actually telling the truth. I don't know if they're "cranky" though... The whole Sanders phenomenon this cycle was funny that way. Kind of a My Cool Grandpa vibe with all the millennials attending the 70yo guy's rallies. :-)

    Per evangelicalism and complexity, as of this election cycle (and esp. this past weekend), they're great at reducing complex issues to simplified sound bytes...except when the issue IS actually simple, and then apparently it's actually mind-blowingly complex. Like, all the reasons why "grab 'em by the p***y" and "a young and beautiful piece of a**" are compatible with their previous statements about Christian America. (Though to be fair, I've seen some defections...even though it's ultimately too little too late, as it was obvious His Orangeness was like this long before the tape.)

    Interesting about public vs. private. Sharing your misgivings, I think. It would be interesting to see it updated to reflect the internet age. It's not only smut that's inescapable now, it's just "oversharing" in general. For instance, the concept of "parental overshare," which ranges from the ridiculous (was it really necessary to post pictures of your placenta on FB) to the everyday (how much of your children's private lives they will really want to see plastered all over social media once they're grown).

    And such a timely Clinton reference you've got there. :-) It's not that I don't have any concerns about Clinton (I do, and they're real), but it's been fascinating to watch the gendered double standards play out. Like, we get to make the female candidate's husband's bad behavior a central campaign issue, when in the primaries a man (Cruz) got to flip out when someone even slightly attacked his wife and scream that families were off-limits. Or a woman who has decades of experience in her field, is seriously having to actually COMPETE with a man who has literally done nothing except walk into the room and sound passionate (and who also happens to be all the worst bits of toxic masculinity distilled down into one person).

    1. Franzen has been in the news a good bit the last few years. Probably the most colorful bit was his "feud" with Oprah. When The Corrections (which I probably should read, as friends who have read it liked it) came out, Oprah selected it for her book club. Franzen said something awkward about the selection to the effect that he wasn't sure his book belonged on a pop-culture dominated list, so Oprah disinvited him from appearing on the show. Not the best look for either of them, in my opinion, and the "feud" was inflated by media attention.

      Franzen also has gotten some undeserved rancour for being a white male that seemed to get special treatment in New York Times reviews. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, the New Republic did a piece on it:

      As far as the question of whether one is just a bigot with a (D), agree. I tend to place those people in the category of "conservative," but with different parts of the past they idolize. Franzen is weird in that sense because he reads like a Bernie Sanders Progressive 20 years in advance, but with a cranky old man vibe. I can't even quite explain it right.

      Absolutely with you on the blatant sexism in this election. If Le Toupee were a woman (or heck, if he wasn't white) he would have been laughed out of town before he got close to a campaign.

    2. Yeah, the script pretty much writes itself if Trump had been black or female. Female: stupid airhead who doesn't understand anything, slut because of multiple marriages and affairs. Black: blinged-out pimp, baby daddy fathering children all over town.

      Don't know if you care to talk about this, but since the book brought it up, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Clinton, since your political perspective has (I can gather) changed significantly between the original debacle(s) and the current election, and all the Clintons have been such lightning rods for hate from evangelicals. I've found it helpful/interesting to hear a broad range of voices this cycle.

  2. I think Franzen's article on Gaddis is in this collection. I read it when it was published in The New Yorker and bought The Recogntions based solely on his article. But the book is like a 1000 pages...and it's still unread, just like Wallace's Infinte Jest. Unlike Franzen I haven't had an opportunity to devote my time to a book.