Franzen: How To Be Alone

Sitting alone in a café, engaged with nothing other than the coffee in front of you, is now considered the exception to the rule. The new norm implies you must always be engaged with a screen, always searching, forever scrolling or taking a pic of said coffee to share online. But why? Because this really hasn’t always been the case.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when humans went places without phones or laptops. We didn’t need to “check-in” every few minutes and update statuses. But this is the postmodern world we have come to inhabit, and it is this precise blending of private and public spaces that Jonathan Franzen explores in his anthology of non-fiction essays entitled How To Be Alone.

Franzen is best known for his fiction; his novels include Freedom, Strong Motion and The Corrections. In this series of essays, he explores the issues surrounding privacy, individualism, community and public persona. Franzen writes with honesty, sharing specific times in his life, such as his father’s battle with dementia and his short time as an Oprah Book club favourite.

These essays were written more than ten years ago and although Franzen references the great leaps in technology, he doesn’t dwell on it – perhaps because it didn’t impact his daily life as much as it would now. It would be interesting to hear what Franzen has to say about the success and current infiltration of social media in our lives. His view of the progression of technology is eerily prophetic: “Obsolescence is our legacy.” New, smarter and more convenient technology is always being produced to assist us in connecting faster to a wider community than ever before.

Referring to his summer job as a teenager, he asks: “Is there no escaping the personal?” and this was before the advent of social media. In one of his essays, titled “Erika Imports”, Franzen details his mother’s ongoing friendship with his employers. His work life infringed on his private life, much to his disdain. In ways that may seem antiquated now (like face-to-face contact), Franzen was privy to his employers’ personal lives; his mother invited them for regular dinners and they shared intimate details with each other.

It’s the same “over-sharing” that frequently happens on Facebook. He envied his friends who worked in “impersonal” settings; where transactions with the public were purely professional. No need to hear about your ongoing sibling rivalry, or why your dog was hospitalised, or your irritable bowel syndrome. No need to know at all.

In other essays, Franzen comments on marginalisation; of the writer, the reader, the smoker and, oddly, the postal worker. All essays deal with the overarching questions: How does one maintain individualism, self-dignity and a sense of privacy in the ever-changing face of modernity? How does one contribute to his/her community without becoming overwhelmed by the noise and distraction of the postmodern world? How does one fight the ache of loneliness in a time when we are more connected then ever? How to be Alone?

Franzen is an eloquent, intelligent and gifted writer; his non-fiction is just as strong, entertaining and thought-provoking as his fiction. He has been criticised before for writing for a “particular type” of reader and has been called “an elitist” in some circles. However, I found this collection as challenging and stimulating as the majority of his books.

Article by Annette Ong

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