How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen

I was so sure this post was going to go up after my book club discussed it, but unfortunately our discussion has been postponed indefinitely. I say this because I found myself not particularly enjoying the essays in this book, but I am almost positive that I will like them more after I have a chance to talk about them with people who did like them.

And I think my dislike stems largely from something that Franzen mentions in his essay “Mr. Difficult,” in regards to a particular woman that once wrote to him. “She began by listing thirty fancy words and phrases from my novel, words like ‘diurnality’ and ‘antipodes,’ phrases like ‘electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces.’ She then posed the dreadful question: ‘Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.'”

This woman makes Franzen out to be a “pompous snob,” but I wouldn’t go that far. And I am certainly not afraid of big words or opposed to working through a difficult book that has an excellent payoff. I just found, as I was reading, that Franzen was writing this book for a set of people of which I am definitely not a part, though I couldn’t tell you what particular set that might be. Writerly people? Big word collectors? Hipsters?

Whoever it is, it’s a group that follows Franzen Logic. To me, his essays tended to ramble on, hopping from topic to topic without terribly much in the way of transition and sometimes without much in the way of sense. I often found myself thinking, “How did we get here? Didn’t we start somewhere else? Whatever, I’ll just keep going and hope it comes back.”

On a small plus side, I really only felt this detachment from the writing in Franzen’s more personal essays, the ones where he talks about himself and his life and his opinions a lot. Most of the essays in this book fall into that category. But he also throws in a few journalistic pieces, about things like crappy Chicago mail delivery, the history of cigarettes and cigarette companies, and a high-security prison and the town that surrounds it. And those, I thought, were incredibly well-done, possibly because they required more focus than the personal essays and definitely because I have more interest in strange facts than strange opinions.

Now I’m curious to read some of Franzen’s fiction, which I hope to be more like these latter pieces. I suppose I should pick up Freedom anyway, what with all the hype about it, yes?

Recommendation: Again, I’m not really sure what sort of person would like all of Franzen’s essays, but I’m pretty certain that everyone can find at least one essay in here to like.

Rating: 7/10
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