Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Reading Franzen

Book: How to Be Alone

Author: Jonathan Franzen

Published: 2002, 2003 (Picador)

Pages: 306

Franzen’s fiction is brutal. I remember reading The Corrections in—high school? No. Some summer I was home from college. It was a Nancy Carson Library copy, anyway, which meant I was in North Augusta-- and feeling just awful afterwards because I had spent I forget how many hundreds of pages in the presence of these people who were draw with all of their considerable flaws thrown in the glaring spotlight of a family uncoiling. I read Freedom about a year after it came out, too, experiencing the same thing only on an even more epic, and political, scale. Whew. That has been experienced and doesn’t have to be again.

But then I listened to the audio book version of Freedom. Twenty-five CDs for that motherfucker, and I was able to sort through his prose better, to start finding—hearing—the humanity under the surface. It was still hard and cynical, but in a way I could understand and relate to. In a way that made me understand his characters and respect their decisions a little bit more. Plus, this book’s title got my attention because I am terrible at being alone and so are all Franzen’s characters and that’s why they make some of their desperate choices that turn them into people they never planned to be.

So, 254 words into this review, I finally get to the actual essays in the book: They are golden. I came in with the opposite expectations I had for Zadie Smith, and while Franzen kept his authorial distance in his excellent investigative journalism (he goes back so far into the Chicago area post office for a story it’s like he’s doing a root canal), he was really insightful and intimate when he got personal. If he has any fiction written in first person, I want to read that to see if that would bring me into the fold like his essays about his family and his book club feud with Oprah did in this book.

What hit me as odd at the end of each section were the years in which they were written. The ‘90s, man. These essays have kept their flavor long enough for my younger cousins to grow taller than I am. It’s always cool, if a little exhausting, to work through an author like this.   

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