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Jonathan Franzen corrects himself

D.J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir."

[F]or a moment, though I’m alone in bed with a book, I don’t feel alone. For a moment, I belong to a group neither as big as a statistically significant sample nor as small as the naked self. It’s a group of two, the faithful writer and the trusting reader. We’re different but the same.

-- “Books in Bed” from “How to Be Alone”

Life may be a cabaret, old chum, but Jonathan Franzen, author of “The Corrections,” won’t be joining you at your table. As the author who famously blindfolded himself to complete his acclaimed novel, distilling Proust’s cork-lined room to a bandage wrapped around his head to keep out the distractions, Franzen has a reputation for solitude. Even more famously, he dithered for several days in public and then spurned an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” after “The Corrections” became a selection of Oprah’s Book Club.

Uncomfortable with the company at Winfrey’s televised dinner table, Franzen had finally refused to be chosen, but whether he likes it or not, he is still an Oprah media “content provider.” “The Corrections” is warmly presented on Winfrey’s Web site (www.oprah.com), which provides thoughtful questions (cribbed from Franzen’s publisher) about structure and characterization designed to spark a conversation in a circle of female readers yearning for communion.

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These readers, their expectations and the risks they pose to Franzen’s self-regard surround the pieces collected in “How to Be Alone,” a miscellany of Franzen’s magazine essays, book reviews and bits of memoir written mostly from 1995 to 1997, when their author’s depression, marital discords, looming middle age and parents’ illness blocked his ambition to render the instructive “social novel” that he thought his corrupt times deserved. His way through his block was writing “The Corrections,” a novel in which the enchantments of the personal only partly obscure how much of the book is clogged with the merely social.

“How to Be Alone” is many things: an account of malfeasance in a Chicago post office, the operation of a monstrous new model prison, his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, Franzen’s taste in sexual display, and his love of New York and rummaging in Dumpsters.

Just about everything in “How to Be Alone” comes from the uncertain space in between the personal and the social, the public and obsessively private, “high-art type” brilliance and the autobiographical. Before Oprah and “The Corrections,” Franzen was best known for writing a cranky essay for Harper’s Magazine in which he made something of a fool of himself (as he now admits), writing 15,000 words about not writing because he was stuck in this hapless zone from which he could no longer extract another significant but unpopular novel. That essay, originally published in 1996 as “Perchance to Dream,” has been revised for “How to Be Alone” and retitled “Why Bother?” It’s surely the reason this collection is being published now, in conjunction with the paperback edition of “The Corrections,” because nearly every reviewer of the novel referred to “the Harper’s essay” and, Franzen felt, misread it.

Franzen now has rewritten it. Edited out is a long passage slamming the folly of English departments and their “therapeutic” curricula. Gone is a cruel burlesque of Franzen as an incredibly gullible screenwriter getting screwed in Hollywood (now that “The Corrections” has a producer); gone too is a colloquy with David Foster Wallace in which Wallace defends the notion that writers who are “straight white males” are mainstream culture. (Franzen agrees that they also are mainstream culture’s marginalized victims because straight white males don’t write novels about the particular sorrows of troubled families and the small heroics of mothers and fathers.)

“The Harper’s essay” has been misunderstood either as Franzen’s challenge to himself to write the first post-postmodern novel or as Franzen’s farewell to the rigorous world-spanning fiction of his heroes Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. His essay pointed to neither of those deterministic dead ends, Franzen insists; it’s about how he made himself into a new kind of Social Novelist. In 1996, he was “a very angry and theory-minded person,” Franzen writes in the introduction to “How to Be Alone”; now, he’s been corrected “from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance -- even a celebration -- of being a reader and a writer.”

The irony is intended, isn’t it? Past the romantic spleen and the familiar critique of American popular culture, “the Harper’s essay” is the record of a therapeutic conversation in which Franzen’s special nature as a writer was revealed to him by a linguistic anthropologist from Stanford University. “You are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world,” Shirley Brice Heath told him.

“It felt as if she were looking straight into my soul,” Franzen says. “Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.” Winfrey and her audience understand that moment. It’s their sacrament. Once a life’s affliction, endured alone, has been expertly named and the wounds it made publicly exposed, the revived soul can go on. The audience that understands the humiliation of being ordinary crowded around Franzen after the success of “The Corrections,” appropriating his “substantive imaginary world” and expecting media agents, like Winfrey, to breach his solitude and expose his wounds.

However, celebrity is not what Franzen wanted, but readers who know their place. Habitual readers gain substance in the act of reading and assemble a community by sharing texts (not gossip), Franzen says approvingly of Heath’s sociology of books, but for writers, Heath tells him, “the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read.”

The relationship between ordinary reader and extraordinary writer, for Franzen, is a loneliness made sacred by the knowledge -- not the fact -- of each other’s presence. When, in “How to Be Alone,” Franzen complains of television, the Internet and globalization -- that is, the general distractiveness of culture today -- he’s talking about straying from a Puritan faith in the received Word: reading novels as a substitute for Calvinism.

“Though it hasn’t quite happened yet,” Franzen writes in the essay “Scavenging,” “we writers now easily foresee the day when the old generation of readers has gotten tired and no new generation has taken its place: when we ourselves are all that will remain of our audience.” Then, they’ll be like today’s poets. Franzen calls that foreboding “tragic realism”; it is another moment (often in “How to Be Alone”) when Franzen conflates existential questions and the details of his biography. There is an unpleasant, grasping quality in this, as though Franzen actually thought Winfrey’s approval had damaged his reputation, and “How to Be Alone” is the means to keep his membership in the New York writers’ boys club while he waits alone, melancholy but brave, to be famous for the writers who will come after him.

Blaise Pascal, who was more than half a Calvinist himself, once said, “I have often said that all of a man’s misfortune comes from not knowing how to sit quietly in his room.” To which Franzen seemingly would agree -- with a modification -- that one should sit quietly in one’s room reading a book by Jonathan Franzen.


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