How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen – Book Review

Whatever you say about Jonathan Franzen (and there’s plenty to say, no small amount of it critical), you can’t deny the man his insight. He’s a fine writer, as this collection of republished essays proves; though they all originate in the 90s and very early 2000s, few come across as dated; the topics Franzen addresses continue toi bear relevance, twenty, thirty years on. Most of them, anyway.

Like most essay collections, How To Be Alone is a mixed bag. Some of the essays, I couldn’t stand–“Control Units” in particular, committed the sin of boring me, despite an interest in the way the American prison-industrial complex works. The tedium of it exhausted me physically. Similiarly, I read the last essay, “Inauguration Day, January 2001,” two days ago and I already can’t recall what it was about.

The essays I found touching were personal in their scope–“My Father’s Brain,” a story about Franzen’s personal experiences with the Alzheimer’s that dismantled his father piece by piece, over several years. “Meet Me In St. Louis,” the second to last essay, helps frame this collection, being about Franzen’s revisiting of his home neighbourhood after his mother’s death. This latter essay is also about his troubled time as an Oprah author, which was…amusing, in part.

Franzen’s take on the commodification of sex in “Books In Bed” is on point; “Lost in Mail,” which ponders the fate of the Chicago Postal service, might’ve been good if I remembered it; “Why Bother,” the famous “Harper’s Essay” with an updated ending, I found to be thoroughly uninspiring; the essay itself is more haughty than anything else.

Did this collection of essays teach me how to be alone? Not really, no. If you’d like to learn more about loneliness from a collection of essays, read Rachel Cusk’s brilliant Canterbury. You’ll get far better value for the time you invest than you’ll get from this. And, I would argue, better rhetoric, too.

Ah, well. It was a fine first taste of Franzen.

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