The Monsters Progress

Jonathan Franzen teaches you how to survive a mass society

There was a time—it was the 1950s and early '60s–when "loneliness" was a major category of serious public discourse in this country. Official '50s optimism notwithstanding, David Reisman's The Lonely Crowd—about the social isolation created by postwar urban, industrial and corporate conditions—was debated everywhere, and anthologies such as Man Alone brought together a century's worth of writing—from Dostoyevsky and Marx to Erich Fromm and Lewis Mumford—that outlined ways writers were exploring "alienation" in its myriad modern forms. We were alienated because the God we thought we knew was dead, and we didn't know why we were alive; alienated because the only pleasure we got out of our work was our paychecks; alienated because our leisure time was as routinized as our work; alienated because the rise of bureaucracy, mass-market capitalism, and the mass culture that both reflected and promoted it rewarded conformity and materialism while marginalizing instinctual rebellion and individual thought. No wonder the most enduring heroes of the period were Elvis, Brando, the Invisible Man, Augie March and Holden Caulfield.

Though every one of these forms of alienation lives on today—and most have gotten worse—the rhetoric of alienation (which is really just highbrow for "loneliness") doesn't inspire much interest anymore. Why? I can think of several reasons, all of which sort of make me sick. Some of your more shallow postmodernists think there's really no "self" to be alienated, so loneliness is a fake problem. Then there are some of your more shallow multiculturalists who don't have time for all this white, bourgeois, existential heavy breathing, which for them stems from exactly the Eurocentric individualism that's responsible for all social inequalities they think they can eradicate with ideological critique. Then—worst of all, by a mile—there's Monster Capitalism, which, in its post-Berlin Wall, post-ideological stage, is as Teflon-resistant to critique as Ronald Reagan was (which is one reason why, 14 years after he left the scene, he's still late-20th-century capitalism's greatest symbol). Monster Capitalism, in its ubiquity, nips the concept of "loneliness" in the bud, first by making it seem absurd (how can you be lonely when AOL can "connect" you through the Internet, when AT&T "links" you to the loving voices of your family through your cell phone, when your cable company gives you continuous access to the world via CNN?), and then by encouraging isolation by making it seem more pleasurable than being with other people (stereo headphones on joggers, every family member on his or her own computer or TV in the suburban home), and then by so drowning out the pipsqueak noise of the self that what people once identified as "loneliness" just feels like some weird maladjustment, easily treatable by Zoloft.

(Speaking of drowning out the self, have you noticed—sure you have—how many minimum-wage workers at fast-food shops are forced to wear headgear now, ostensibly so that they can efficiently multitask, though the greater managerial victory lay in the fact that now bosses can make damn sure that not a single personal thought passes through a worker's brain once she has punched the company clock?)

Calling oneself "alienated" or "lonely" now seems not just un-American but quaintly atavistic or, worse, pitifully resistant to the Monster's Progress.

* * *

Which is one reason I'm grateful for Jonathan Franzen's new book of essays, How to Be Alone. Franzen, who wrote the critically hosannaed, award-winning, Oprah-spurning, heart-churning, best-selling The Corrections, is happy to flaunt his instinctive affection for an old cultural milieu that actively resisted, at the risk of seeming cranky and elitist, the saturative onslaught of pop culture by idealizing the sole self. "I understand my life in the context of Raskolnikov and Quentin Compson, not David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld," he says.

In a collection that covers a wide range of subjects, from his father's Alzheimer's to the loss of the distinction between public and private space in American life, from the corporate takeover of the prison industry to his favorite subject, his desire for a vibrant literary culture, here's a man who still sets his watch by existential authenticity, not pop irony. Distract and avoid as much as you want, he suggests: beta-wave over your TV, surf the Internet till you crash, drop the latest psycho-pharmaceutical: "Loneliness and pointlessness," he tells us, is still our "disease." And "the question of how to be alone" is still our question.

Not that Franzen can't be, occasionally, a pain in the butt. He can be schoolmarmish, all horn-rimmed spectacles as he whacks our knuckles for America's lazy slide into an acceptance of Pop Consumerism as cultural standard. He can adopt a stiff and dully "responsible" journalistic tone. And like many a brilliantly insecure thinker still growing into the self-belief that he's a major American writer (which he happens to be), he tends to make his pronouncements with a curious blend of diffidence and bluster. But no matter. He insists on bringing back "the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture," and that means re-cultivating an aloneness that scares people half to death but which may be a key to our emotional and spiritual survival.

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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