While the essays in this collection range in subject matter from the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works, each one wrestles with the essential themes of Franzen's writing: the erosion of civil life and private dignity; and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America. Reprinted here for the first time is Franzen's controversial l996 investigation of the fate of the American novel in what became known as "the Harper's essay," as well as his award-winning narrative of his father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease, and a rueful account of his brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author.
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:1959
Place of Birth:Western Springs, Illinois
Education:B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin
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How to Be AloneEssays
By Jonathan Franzen
Picador USACopyright © 2003 Jonathan Franzen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA WORD ABOUT THIS BOOK
My third novel, The Corrections, which I'd worked on for many years, was published a week before the World Trade Center fell. This was a time when it seemed that the voices of self and commerce ought to fall silent-a time when you wanted, in Nick Carraway's phrase, "the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever." Nevertheless, business is business. Within forty-eight hours of the calamity, I was giving interviews again.
My interviewers were particularly interested in what they referred to as "the Harper's essay." (Nobody used the original title, "Perchance to Dream," that the magazine's editors had given it.) Interviews typically began with the question: "In your Harper's essay in 1996, you promised that your third book would be a big social novel that would engage with mainstream culture and rejuvenate American literature; do you think you've kept that promise with The Corrections?" To each succeeding interviewer I explained that, no, to the contrary, I had barely mentioned my third novel in the essay; that the notion of a "promise" had been invented out of thin air by an editor or a headline writer at the Times Sunday Magazine; and that, in fact, far frompromising to write a big social novel that would bring news to the mainstream, I'd taken the essay as an opportunity to renounce that variety of ambition. Because most interviewers hadn't read the essay, and because the few who had read it seemed to have misunderstood it, I became practiced at giving a clear, concise pricis of its argument; by the time I did my hundredth or hundred-tenth interview, in November, I'd worked up a nice little corrective spiel that began, "No, actually, the Harper's essay was about abandoning my sense of social responsibility as a novelist and learning to write fiction for the fun and entertainment of it ..." I was puzzled, and more than a little aggrieved, that nobody seemed able to discern this simple, clear idea in the text. How willfully stupid, I thought, these media people were!
In December I decided to pull together an essay collection that would include the complete text of "Perchance to Dream" and make clear what I had and hadn't said in it. But when I opened the April 1996 Harper's I found an essay, evidently written by me, that began with a five-thousand-word complaint of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldn't quite follow it. In the five years since I'd written the essay, I'd managed to forget that I used to be a very angry and theory-minded person. I used to consider it apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don't read much 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. 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. The first third of the Harper's essay was written from this place of anger and despair, in a tone of high theoretical dudgeon that made me cringe a little now.
It's true that, even in 1996, I intended the essay to document a stalled novelist's escape from the prison of his angry thoughts. And so part of me is inclined now to reprint the thing exactly as it first appeared, as a record of my former zealotry. I'm guessing, though, that most readers will have limited appetite for pronouncements such as
It seemed clear to me that if anybody who mattered in business or government believed there was a future in books, we would not have been witnessing such a frenzy in Washington and on Wall Street to raise half a trillion dollars for an Infobahn whose proponents paid lip service to the devastation it would wreak on reading ("You have to get used to reading on a screen") but could not conceal their indifference to the prospect.
Because a little of this goes a long way, I've exercised my authorial license and cut the essay by a quarter and revised it throughout. (I've also retitled it "Why Bother?") Although it's still very long, my hope is that it's less taxing to read now, more straightforward in its movement. If nothing else, I want to be able to point to it and say, "See, the argument is really quite clear and simple, just like I said!"
What goes for the Harper's essay goes for this collection as a whole. I intend this book, in part, as a record of a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance-even a celebration-of being a reader and a writer. Not that there's not still plenty to be mad and scared about. Our national thirst for petroleum, which has already produced two Bush presidencies and an ugly Gulf War, is now threatening to lead us into an open-ended long-term conflict in Central Asia. Although you wouldn't have thought it possible, Americans seem to be asking even fewer questions about their government today than in 1991, and the major media sound even more monolithically jingoistic. While Congress yet again votes against applying easily achievable fuel-efficiency standards to SUVs, the president of Ford Motor Company can be seen patriotically defending these vehicles in a TV ad, avowing that Americans must never accept "boundaries of any kind."
With so much fresh outrageousness being manufactured daily, I've chosen to do only minimal tinkering with the other essays in this book. "First City" reads a little differently without the World Trade Center; "Imperial Bedroom" was written before John Ashcroft came to power with his seeming indifference to personal liberties; anthrax has lent further poignancy to the woes of the United States Postal Service, as described in "Lost in the Mail"; and Oprah Winfrey's disinvitation of me from her Book Club makes the descriptive word "elitist" fluoresce in the several essays where it appears. But the local particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays: the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.
Chapter TwoMY FATHER'S BRAIN
Here's a memory. On an overcast morning in February 1996, I received in the mail from my mother, in St. Louis, a Valentine's package containing one pinkly romantic greeting card, two four-ounce Mr. Goodbars, one hollow red filigree heart on a loop of thread, and one copy of a neuropathologist's report on my father's brain autopsy.
I remember the bright gray winter light that morning. I remember leaving the candy, the card, and the ornament in my living room, taking the autopsy report into my bedroom, and sitting down to read it. The brain (it began) weighed 1,225 gm and showed parasagittal atrophy with sulcal widening. I remember translating grams into pounds and pounds into the familiar shrink-wrapped equivalents in a supermarket meat case. I remember putting the report back into its envelope without reading any further.
Some years before he died, my father had participated in a study of memory and aging sponsored by Washington University, and one of the perks for participants was a postmortem brain autopsy, free of charge. I suspect that the study offered other perks of monitoring and treatment which had led my mother, who loved freebies of all kinds, to insist that my father volunteer for it. Thrift was also probably her only conscious motive for including the autopsy report in my Valentine's package. She was saving thirty-two cents' postage.
My clearest memories of that February morning are visual and spatial: the yellow Mr. Goodbar, my shift from living room to bedroom, the late-morning light of a season as far from the winter solstice as from spring. I'm aware, however, that even these memories aren't to be trusted. According to the latest theories, which are based on a wealth of neurological and psychological research in the last few decades, the brain is not an album in which memories are stored discretely like unchanging photographs. A memory is, instead, in the phrase of the psychologist Daniel L. Schachter, a "temporary constellation" of activity-a necessarily approximate excitation of neural circuits that bind a set of sensory images and semantic data into the momentary sensation of a remembered whole. These images and data are seldom the exclusive property of one particular memory. Indeed, even as my experience on that Valentine's morning was unfolding, my brain was relying on pre-existing categories of "red" and "heart" and "Mr. Goodbar"; the gray sky in my windows was familiar from a thousand other winter mornings; and I already had millions of neurons devoted to a picture of my mother-her stinginess with postage, her romantic attachments to her children, her lingering anger toward my father, her weird lack of tact, and so on. What my memory of that morning therefore consists of, according to the latest models, is a set of hardwired neuronal connections among the pertinent regions of the brain, and a predisposition for the entire constellation to light up-chemically, electrically-when any one part of the circuit is stimulated. Speak the words "Mr. Goodbar" and ask me to free-associate, and if I don't say "Diane Keaton" I will surely say "brain autopsy."
My Valentine's memory would work this way even if I were dredging it up now for the first time ever. But the fact is that I've re-remembered that February morning countless times since then. I've told the story to my brothers. I've offered it as an Outrageous Mother Incident to friends of mine who enjoy that kind of thing. I've even, shameful to report, told people I hardly know at all. Each succeeding recollection and retelling reinforces the constellation of images and knowledge that constitute the memory. At the cellular level, according to neuroscientists, I'm burning the memory in a little deeper each time, strengthening the dendritic connections among its components, further encouraging the firing of that specific set of synapses. One of the great adaptive virtues of our brains, the feature that makes our gray matter so much smarter than any machine yet devised (my laptop's cluttered hard drive or a World Wide Web that insists on recalling, in pellucid detail, a Beverly Hills 90210 fan site last updated on 11/20/98), is our ability to forget almost everything that has ever happened to us. I retain general, largely categorical memories of the past (a year spent in Spain; various visits to Indian restaurants on East Sixth Street) but relatively few specific episodic memories. Those memories that I do retain I tend to revisit and, thereby, strengthen. They become literally-morphologically, electrochemically-part of the architecture of my brain.
This model of memory, which I've presented here in a rather loose layperson's summary, excites the amateur scientist in me. It feels true to the twinned fuzziness and richness of my own memories, and it inspires awe with its image of neural networks effortlessly self-coordinating, in a massively parallel way, to create my ghostly consciousness and my remarkably sturdy sense of self. It seems to me lovely and postmodern. The human brain is a web of a hundred billion neurons, maybe as many as two hundred billion, with trillions of axons and dendrites exchanging quadrillions of messages by way of at least fifty different chemical transmitters. The organ with which we observe and make sense of the universe is, by a comfortable margin, the most complex object we know of in that universe.
And yet it's also a lump of meat. At some point, maybe later on that same Valentine's Day, I forced myself to read the entire pathology report. It included a "Microscopic Description" of my father's brain:
Sections of the frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal cerebral cortices showed numerous senile plaques, prominently diffuse type, with minimal numbers of neurofibrillary tangles. Cortical Lewy bodies were easily detected in H&E stained material. The amygdala demonstrated plaques, occasional tangles and mild neuron loss.
In the notice that we had run in local newspapers nine months earlier, my mother insisted that we say my father had died "after long illness." She liked the phrase's formality and reticence, but it was hard not to hear her grievance in it as well, her emphasis on long. The pathologist's identification of senile plaques in my father's brain served to confirm, as only an autopsy could, the fact with which she'd struggled daily for many years: like millions of other Americans, my father had had Alzheimer's disease.
This was his disease. It was also, you could argue, his story. But you have to let me tell it.
ALZHEIMER'S IS A DISEASE of classically "insidious onset." Since even healthy people become more forgetful as they age, there's no way to pinpoint the first memory to fall victim to it. The problem was especially vexed in the case of my father, who not only was depressive and reserved and slightly deaf but also was taking strong medicines for other ailments. For a long time it was possible to chalk up his non sequiturs to his hearing impairment, his forgetfulness to his depression, his hallucinations to his medicines; and chalk them up we did.
My memories of the years of my father's initial decline are vividly about things other than him. Indeed, I'm somewhat appalled by how large I loom in my own memories, how peripheral my parents are. But I was living far from home in those years. My information came mainly from my mother's complaints about my father, and these complaints I took with a grain of salt; she'd been complaining to me pretty much all my life.
My parents' marriage was, it's safe to say, less than happy. They stayed together for the sake of their children and for want of hope that divorce would make them any happier. As long as my father was working, they enjoyed autonomy in their respective fiefdoms of home and workplace, but after he retired, in 1981, at the age of sixty-six, they commenced a round-the-clock performance of No Exit in their comfortably furnished suburban house. I arrived for brief visits like a U.N. peacekeeping force to which each side passionately presented its case against the other.
Unlike my mother, who was hospitalized nearly thirty times in her life, my father had perfect health until he retired. His parents and uncles had lived into their eighties and nineties, and he, Earl Franzen, fully expected to be around at ninety "to see," as he liked to say, "how things turn out."
Excerpted from How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents"A Word About This Book"
"My Father's Brain"
"Lost in the Mail"
"Sifting the Ashes"
"A Reader in Exile"
"Books in Bed"
"Meet Me in St. Louis"
"Inauguration Day, January 2001"
What People are Saying About This
"A graceful meditation on reading and writing in a digital age . . . Franzen probes two very simple ideas: 'the movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance—even a celebration—of being a reader and a writer' and 'the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture.'"—Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., The Altanta Journal-Constitution
"Franzen believes the monolithic quality of the U.S. media, its jingoistic flattening of complex issues and the rush to hop on the information superhighway are a constant assault on the internal lives of Americans . . . These are essays about the pain of being an American in a time when the means to alleviating pain threaten to dehumanize pain itself, when the means for entertaining ourselves have become so sophisticated it's almost hard to complain. There's some boldness, then, in how Franzen reclaims his pain on the page, owning up to it and, as any good journalist will, making it our own, too."—John Freeman, The San Francisco Chronicle
"Although Franzen calls them 'essays' many of these pieces are reportage. He's good at it . . . All these pieces place both writer and reader on firm ground . . . He goes out on many a limb (as essayists should) and gives us a good many things to think about, such as the blurring line between private and public behavior in the age of the 24-hour news cycle."—Dan Sullivan, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"If Franzen had not been anointed to the Higher Calling of Literature, he might have made a terrific journalist . . . Two of the reportage pieces are models of the New Journalism."—Roger K. Miller, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"Franzen is a charming and sagacious writer, even an important one, a man who cares about literature and who cares about the problems of modernity—race, urban sprawl, corporate hegemony. Books matter, is the final message. A keen intellect is at work here, even though Franzen often seems to be arguing with himself; perhaps How to Be Alone is most brilliant when the author is arguing with himself. Jonathan Franzen has a restless mind and we are better for it."—Corey Mesler, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis)
"A collection of essays diverse and entertaining . . . Smart, solid, and well-paced: a pleasure for Franzen's many admirers."—Kirkus Reviews
"[Franzen] demonstrates his remarkable capacity for evaluating the American scene . . . The journalistic pieces included in the book show that Franzen ain't afraid to face facts . . . Essays covering the tobacco industry and the 2001 presidential election, as well as consumerism and the nature of privacy in America, offer rare evaluations of the modern world as we know it."—Bookpage