Timeless and dated at the same time


“There's no better way of rejecting where you came from, no plainer declaration of an intention to reinvent yourself, than moving to New York; I speak from personal experience.” When Jonathan Franzen wrote these lines, in 1995, he had moved to (and from) New York six times already. Yet he never quite rejected the American Midwest he was born and raised in, for his native ground has been the subject of his writing more often than not. This was the case most notoriously in his award-winning novel The Corrections (2001), which featured a dysfunctional family in America's steel belt.
One year after The Corrections, Franzen published How To Be Alone, a collection of essays that had been published in Harper's, the New Yorker and elsewhere. The essays date back as far as 1994, with topics ranging from Alzheimer disease to the Chicago post office to the fate of the novel to Big City life – like the essay First City, from which the quote above was lifted.
What's interesting about this collection is that the essays are timeless and extremely dated at the same time. Franzen is an excellent writer, who easily blends his personal experiences with an analytic discussion of impersonal subjects. His slightly depressed, culturally conservative and socially jaded persona comes to the fore in every essay; as such, this seemingly random collection of essays is also a coherent self-portrait consisting of multiple 'shots' – an artistic accomplishment indeed.
Yet at the same time, many of Franzen's concerns seem to stem from an era almost foreign to our own. In most essays, 9/11 hasn't happened yet, and terrorism, foreign relations and the rest of the world – so omnipresent today – barely exist. When writing about the influence of the modern media on reading and writing, the 'modern media' Franzen discusses are the television and the touch-tone (rather than the rotary) telephone; the internet is still in its infant stages.. And the Chicago post office is threatened, not by email, but by inefficiency and a unionised workforce. “The Postal Service embodies the dream of democracy. Any citizen, even a convict or a child, can communicate with any other for the same low price”, Franzen writes in Lost in the Mail.

This was 1994; fifteen years later, the communications revolution brought about by the internet makes it well-nigh impossible to imagine what the world back then looked like. How To Be Alone is thus both a document of its time, as well as a timeless icon of good, considerate and thorough essay writing; as such, it's exemplary in every which way.


Lynn Berger

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