The Monsters Progress

Jonathan Franzen teaches you how to survive a mass society

Franzen didn't have to cultivate his aloneness. He has felt culturally alienated for years, not just refusing Letterman and Seinfeld, but taking a perverse pleasure in not keeping up with the latest technology or pop trends. In fact, the cultural alienation that was for him one with his integrity as a novelist devoted to serious social themes eventually drove him into a deep depression that made him temporarily stop writing fiction. In "Why Bother?"—the revised version of a much-discussed 1996 essay in Harper's magazine—Franzen recounts this crisis of his: after writing two highly acclaimed novels that nevertheless fell like raindrops into pop culture's ocean, Franzen started feeling that the serious social novel was impotent, doomed. "Why am I bothering to write these books? I can't pretend the mainstream will listen to the news I have to bring. I can't pretend I'm subverting anything."

After groping here and there, he came upon a Stanford professor, Shirley Brice Heath, who was doing research on who reads "substantive" fiction and why. Her results were a revelation to Franzen. As a child, Heath told him, the serious reader often is a "social isolate—the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. . . . What happens is that you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world."

During her interview with Franzen, Heath told him, "You are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world." By "substantive," Heath meant fiction that was fundamentally unpredictable, that took the reader to imaginative "places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically." Writing and reading fiction, Heath said, "were about not being alone . . . but it's also about not hearing that there's no way out—no point to existence."

Maybe this shouldn't be a surprise to us—that a writer should discover that the answer to the question of aloneness and pointlessness involves reading and writing—but it surprised Franzen, delightedly, so he went back to writing fiction, not out of some heavy responsibility to represent and critique contemporary culture, but, as he put it, "for the fun and entertainment of it." Or as Franzen's friend Don DeLillo put it in a letter, "Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture, but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals."

Heath and DeLillo certainly seemed to have had their effect because Franzen came up with The Corrections, a novel of prodigious energy, humor, seriousness and imaginative strength, a novel that has linked hundreds of thousands of readers to dimensions of life that are elsewhere treated so simplistically in this country. Franzen's rededication to the aloneness of writing linked him—in ways AT&T couldn't even dream—to the alonenesses of so many of the rest of us, saving himself and, in the process, creating a small but significant space for his readers to start saving themselves.

HOW TO BE ALONE BY JONATHAN FRANZEN; FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX. HARDCOVER, 278 PAGES, $24.

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