Cailin Deery's Reviews > How to Be Alone

How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
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's review
Jul 25, 2012

it was ok
Read in July, 2012

This collection of essays started off very strong for me; the first was an essay about his father’s brain, at least superficially, after he received a disturbing Valentine’s Day package from his mother. The package included a few innocuous, V-Day-related items along with a factual report of how much his father’s brain weighed after it was removed as part of a post-mortem examination. This piece then explores what memory is – both in terms of Franzen’s own self-awareness (from the details he remembers from the morning this package arrived to the episodes from his childhood that come back to him time and again), as well as the more impersonal developments in cognitive sciences/neurochemical research at the time. When his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it was a trendy new disease just achieving currency; much of the essay synchronizes Alzheimer’s as the general public learned more about the disease alongside his own father’s deterioration. I love what he says about memory: “according to the latest models, [memory constitutes] a set of hardwired neuronal connections among the pertinent regions of the brain” … it is a “’temporary constellation’ of activity – a necessarily approximate excitation of neural circuits that bind a set of sensory images and semantic data into the momentary sensation of a remembered whole.”

It’s also implied from ‘My Father’s Brain,’ that Franzen has digitally scanned every fragment of written text he has, and every scrap of otherwise digitizable communication, to create a kind of personal corpus. When he wonders if “Alzheimer’s” or “dementia” were ever mentioned, a query pulls up only one instance in all of his mother’s letters (when she once mentioned an old German woman Franzen worked for in his teens).

Also, on Alzheimer’s: “[It’s a] slowing down of death, a prism that refracts death into a spectrum of its otherwise tightly conjoined parts – death of autonomy, death of memory, death of self-consciousness, death of personality, and then death of body.” Franzen’s understanding and then account of Alzheimer’s reminded me of Ramachandran’s in its accessibility and elegance.

From here, however, this essay collection strikes me as extremely dated. It’s a bit unfair to say, since the referents are what tipped me off to start with (Kenneth Star, America Online, moaning about CDs taking over cassette tapes (which, by the way is a term that was taken out of the Concise version of the OED: (My god, I really love parentheses). Franzen is unbecoming in much of this essay collection. I kept revising titles in my mind to ‘Yet Another Chip on Franzen’s Shoulder.’ He moans about the postal service, about others’ affinity towards lingerie, about declining literacy and the death of the novel (at one point, if I remember correctly, he likens not reading to self-immolation!), about the promise of the internet, blah blah BLAH blah blah. Though as Franzen seems to have quite clearly modeled some of the characters in the Corrections on his own life, well, Chip taught Critical Theory. The collection also includes ‘the Harper’s Essay,’ which he received a great deal of attention for (real title, “Perchance to Dream.”). In the introduction to this collection, written in 2002, he says this about that famous essay: “I opened the April 1996 Harper’s and found an essay, evidently written by me, that began with a five-thousand-word complaint of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldn’t quite follow it. In the five years since I’d written the essay, I’d managed to forget that I used to be a very angry and theory-minded person. I used to consider it apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James.” Rereading the introduction after enduring much of the moaning is actually quite a relief. Franzen finds himself just as insufferable as I do! I feel a bit reconciled with the older version of himself now.

So if you’re inclined to pick this collection up, I’d recommend the first and last essays, definitely, and the Harper’s Essay if you’d like to gawk at a bit of a roadside accident.

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07/25/2012 page 200

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