How To Be Alone


Book Review by Willard Manus

A year ago in these pages I reviewed THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen, a big, rambunctious (and notorious) novel about a modern American family in disarray. Now Picador has released Franzen's latest, HOW TO BE ALONE, a collection of essays which reveal his skill as a writer of non-fiction.

Included are fourteen essays, several of which were published in such magazines as Details, The New Yorker, Harpers and Graywolf Press. The best-known piece, now called "Why Bother?," stirred the literary waters when it was first published in 1996. In it Frantzen launched an angry attack on American culture, denouncing the populace for watching too much tv and failing to read the likes of Henry James.

"I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn't share his particular faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times," he admits. "I used to think that our American political economy was a vast cabal whose specific aim was to thwart my artistic ambitions, exterminate all that I found lovely in civilization, and also rape and murder the planet in the process."

For HOW TO BE ALONE, though, Frantzen has revised and toned down the essay, especially the anger and conspiracy charges. It still makes for compelling reading; his defense of reading--and fiction-- is still cogent and important, just less strident and off-putting.

On the whole Franzen is a bold social critic, especially when writing about the American prison system. He visited numerous modern, privatized jails, the ones known as "supermaxes," finding that they have led to the "hardening of battle lines between society and its criminal products." The most notorious jail is in California, where the confluence of a vengeful public's know-nothingism and rising intramural gang violence led to the construction of a huge high-tech 'control unit' facility at Pelican Bay, just south of the Oregon border. Five years after Pelican Bay opened, several aspects of its brand of punishment were deemed cruel and unusual by a federal district judge, who said, in effect, that California's zeal to 'lock 'em up and throw away the key" had created a nightmare. "Prisoners were routinely denied access to medical and mental-health care, suffered gratuitious violence from guards, and showed signs of psychological damage--sleeplessness, inability to concentrate, suicidal thoughts, an aggravated rage against society."

Franzen does an equally thorough investigative job on the U.S. postal system, with special focus on the much-publicized problems in Chicago (mail carriers burning or dumping their loads). In "Lost in the Mail" he concludes that "at the root of the the gap between the two tiers of American society, which is nowhere more visible than in the big cities and which is bridiged, nowadays, by little but the universal Postal System."

Franzen ranges over a variety of topics, everything from his father's Alzheimer's disease to the proliferation of how-to sex books, concluding that in these texts "the orgasm is a kind of consumer purchase, and, one way or another, the language that attends it always remains a kind of ad copy."

In a review the New York Post said, "Franzen critiques the alienating effects of postmodern America with just as much passion as he displays in his fiction...He cuts to the truth with razor-sharp precision...These essays offer a great reason to turn off the TV and spend the evening alone, lost in thought." (Picador, trade ppbk., 306 pp, $14.)