Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to Be AloneHow to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"But the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone."

While Jonathan Franzen is mostly known for his novels, such as The Corrections, How To Be Alone (2002) is a compelling collection of 14 essays on topics ranging from dying of Alzheimer's disease, through the role of novels and novelists in the modern society, to the economics of the incarceration business in the United States.

In the first and the most touching essay, My Father's Brain, the author recounts his father's struggles with the disease whose "[...] particular sadness and horror stem from the sufferer's loss of his or her 'self' long before the body dies." The father's unexpected flashes of apparently total lucidity in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease, akin to a drowning person's last attempt to emerge out of the water and scream for help, and particularly his last lucid sentence spoken in a clear voice, will haunt the reader.

In Imperial Bedroom Mr. Franzen examines the issues of privacy in the world of businesses that need more and more data about their customers: his sharp diagnosis is well-reasoned: Americans do not really care about privacy. Note that the essay was written in 1998, in the early phases of the Internet. Now, in 2017, virtually everybody exposes their innermost secrets on Facebook (some, like this reviewer, on Goodreads instead) thus relinquishing their privacy with glee. The author bemoans the little-noticed yet alarming fact how the private sphere of human lives encroaches on the public sphere.

Control Units is another strong essay: the author visits the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado, "America's toughest federal prison", and in particular the ADX (Administrative Maximum Facility), with its notorious isolation cells. The amusing story of local hustlers in CaƱon City, Colorado, trying to sell to the federal Bureau of Prisons the land for the future correctional center is well told. But what really makes an impact on the reader is the realization how big the correctional business is and how "our political economy's solution to the crime problem" is to "lock away the problem." Readers may also be impressed by the realization that both the occupants of the maximum security prison and their guards stretch the boundaries of what may be considered the human species.

The penultimate item, Meet Me in St. Louis, is again a touching, wonderful story about not being able to return to the past: the house of one's youth, although still standing, is gone forever, never to be entered again. The author describes a TV crew producing footage of him returning to the city of his youth; he exposes the nauseating fakeness of TV shows and their shameless manufacturing of emotions to sell to the viewers.

Several essays are focused on the status of novels in the contemporary world, which yields an opportunity to analyze the overall modern culture, or rather lack thereof. Mr. Franzen offers sharp views on politicizing art:
"Obsession with social health produces a similar vulgarity: if a novel isn't a part of a political solution, it must be part of the problem."
He provides a wonderful disclaimer, though:
"I understand my life in the context of Raskolnikov and Quentin Compton, not David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld."
where we should substitute whatever names are currently en vogue in the TV intellectainment.

Three and three quarter stars.

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