Solitary Thoughts on a Pajama-Party World
by Blair Campbell
How to Be Alone
By Jonathan Franzen
Picador, 2003 (paperback)
306 pages; $14
one afternoon during my freshman year in college, a man walked into my dorm and up the stairs to the girls’ bathroom, where he stood on top of a toilet seat and looked down into the stall where a friend of mine was taking a shower. When she saw him there, she screamed, and he ran away before any of the other students milling around the dorm’s hallways and lounges could catch him or even get a good look at him.
Later, as my friend and I explained the incident to a campus security guard, a well-intentioned classmate sitting nearby said, “You know what you should do if this ever happens again? You should close your eyes.” Our blank looks prompted him to explain: It isn’t the being seen in a vulnerable position that terrifies, embarrasses, or shames us; it’s seeing ourselves be seen.
Thankfully there was never a next time to put this high-minded yet totally unhelpful theory into practice. I hadn’t thought about it in years, until Jonathan Franzen echoed the concept in his collection of essays, How to Be Alone. In “Imperial Bedroom,” the second essay in the book, Franzen confesses to a much more benign invasion of privacy—he looks into his neighbor’s window from the vantage point of his Manhattan apartment across the street. Franzen is sure that this neighbor, a woman, sees him in his private moments as well—that without purposely peeping, both of them are guilty of the occasional, uninvited glance into the life of a familiar stranger. “But,” he insists, “our respective privacies remain intact as long as neither of us feels seen.”
It’s a tree-falls-in-the-forest kind of question. For my friend, closing her eyes in that shower stall—blocking out the scene, if just for a moment—might have diminished the awfulness of the experience in some very minor way. But in our daily lives, would self-consciousness exist if none of us were aware of being observed? And is total freedom from observation worth its likely cost? Give it a positive spin and the phrase “being observed” implies being watched over and protected; is extreme privacy worth the loss of such protection, whether in the form of the credit card company that monitors your spending habits, or the friend who senses that you need cheering up?
These are the questions Franzen takes up in How to Be Alone, in essays that originally appeared in Details, Graywolf Forum, Harper’s, and The New Yorker, between 1994 and 2002. Among them are the New Yorker piece on his father’s Alzheimer’s, which he poignantly fictionalized in The Corrections, as well as essays on the U.S. Postal Service, the tobacco industry, and high-efficiency prisons where solitude is the ultimate form of punishment.
In his introduction, Franzen says his intent with these essays was to investigate “the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.” But what he addresses instead is the question of how not to be, and he appears to have found his answer in the shared space of a writer and his readers. In “Why Bother,” a much-discussed essay that appeared under the title “Perchance to Dream” in Harper’s in 1996, Franzen writes of the break-up of his marriage, during which period he went to a writer’s colony and stumbled upon a novel called Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox. This book, about the unhappy marriage of a frustrated housewife, served as an emotional salve for Franzen, showing him that someone else had equated “a crumbling marriage with a crumbling social order.… That someone besides me had suffered these ambiguities and had seen light on their far side.”
Finding “company and consolation and hope in an object pulled almost at random from a bookshelf … felt akin to an instance of religious grace,” Franzen continues. Notice there’s no mention of his finding company and consolation in his peers at the colony—he writes as though he were alone there. But in Desperate Characters, he finds shared experience that offers more solace than any amount of social interaction. It’s the inverse of feeling lonely in a crowd, and it’s a lovely and surprising complement to the inevitably solitary undertaking of fiction—both writing it and reading it. As Franzen puts it, it’s a “reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness.”
To his great frustration, Franzen is best known to many for pooh-poohing his status as an Oprah Book Club author, and in “Why Bother” he does little to shake off his reputation for hubris and intellectual snobbery. When it was published, “Perchance to Dream” was interpreted as a declaration of Franzen’s intention to write a powerful social novel (The Corrections), in spite of his view that the American public is unreceptive to such work. As “Why Bother,” the essay has been shortened and its stridency somewhat tempered, but what still comes across is a strong belief that because Franzen’s first two novels didn’t matter that much to the American mainstream, all novels don’t.
In “Mr. Difficult,” which appeared six years later in The New Yorker, Franzen seems to have softened his view of the reading public and a writer’s responsibility to it. “Every writer is first a member of a community of readers,” he writes, “and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.”
This emphasis on the importance of connectedness seems personal for Franzen; his later essays in particular suggest a quest for community, and he decries the increasing isolation imposed on society by technology. That there’s been a marked decline in the privacy of the individual is a popular modern complaint, Franzen notes—but the truth is that we now have more individual space and less need for personal contact than ever before. At-home entertainment and virtual communities are to blame, he says, for the demise of at-home interaction and genuine connection.
“The networked world as a threat to privacy? It’s the ugly spectacle of a privacy triumphant,” writes Franzen in “Imperial Bedroom.” He offers a list of the few remaining public shared spaces in our culture—“courtrooms and the jury pool, commuter trains and bus stations, here and there a small-town Main Street that really is a main street rather than a strip mall”—and suggests that these public forums should be protected as fiercely as our right to privacy.
But Franzen can’t resist defending both sides of an argument, and just as he mourns the loss of public space, he laments the trend towards bringing our private selves and the private lives of others into public view. That credit card company that keeps an eye on his spending and calls to check in doesn’t bother him a bit, while the Starr Report makes him feel dirty and violated.
Given this mind-your-own-business mentality, along with his oft-mentioned disdain for television, it’s clear why Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey were never a match made in heaven. Oddly, we have Winfrey to thank for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the essay that makes you firmly set aside whatever populist objections you might have held against Franzen in the past. “Meet Me in St. Louis” begins with a description of the day that an “Oprah” camera crew followed Franzen around his hometown, to mark both his selection as an Oprah author and his return to the city for his Corrections book tour.
Prior to the shoot, a producer had voiced his hope that Franzen could be filmed inside the house he grew up in. Franzen refused; he wouldn’t even be filmed in front of it. He and his brothers had sold the house after the death of their mother, and Franzen saw no point in exploring the changes the new owners had made or in giving “Oprah” viewers the grand tour. His resistance stemmed mainly from his final memories of the house’s interior; from the day, after it was sold, that he and his brothers packed up their belongings for the last time.
“I happened to pass my old bedroom,” Franzen writes of that day. “I found myself stopping in the hallway to look inside, and it occurred to me that I would never see this room again; a wave of grief rose up in me. I ran down the stairs, breathing heavily through my mouth, not seeing well.… I think I made myself be done then. I think the implicit promise I gave myself that afternoon, the promise I would have broken if I’d gone back inside the house today, was that I had left for the last time and I would never have to leave again.”
Franzen had earlier complained of returning to the house when his mother was still alive and finding a lack of vividness in “rooms that in my memory were steeped in almost magical significance.” Recalling that “unvividness” made him even less inclined to enter the house after her death, for what significance could the space possibly have held without her? Ultimately, though—camera crew at the ready or not—Franzen discovers that it’s not the absence of meaning he can’t face; it’s the presence of too much. And that the loss we feel in saying goodbye to our shared spaces isn’t so much about the spaces.
Blair Campbell is a senior editor at On the Page.