First things first. The title of this work is an absolute misnomer. This is not a practice manual for an aspiring ascetic or a to-be-mendicant. In fact going through the collection of Jonathan Franzen’s bold and extremely personal essays, loneliness is replaced by a sense of camaraderie and a need for engaging in collective musings. The inimitable Jonathan Franzen imprimatur can be found splattered across the book. Complex, and at times even convoluted vocabulary, a pursuit towards solipsism albeit involuntary and a candidness that is frighteningly transparent are the main highlights of “How To Be Alone”.
The essays contained within the confines of this book span variegated themes. Franzen sets the scene for this interesting assemblage with an extremely evocative and moving piece on his late father who was assailed by degenerating Alzheimer’s disease. Both the helplessness and the resilience displayed by a human being who is aware of his fading future demonstrates both the exasperation afflicting the family of the patient as well as the trauma affecting the sufferer himself. Other essays include one on the workings of a super-max prison in America. Although not exactly a polemic on the way incarcerated individuals are treated in a prison, it is a searing indictment of law enforcement policies and practices. The most interesting or rather controversial essay in the book is the one titled “Why Bother?”. Popularly known as “The Harper’s Essay”, this was a piece penned by Franzen in 1996. This represented an investigation by Franzen of the fate of the American novel. Accumulating praise and tirades alike, this essay shapes the sharp personality of Franzen as an astute author nurturing some vitriolic views.
The versatility of Franzen’s work is encapsulated in the myriad topics dealt with by his essays. A provocative essay on the blatantly brazen inefficiency and callous arrogance of the Chicago Post Office, which consequently led to its downfall is succeeded by a hugely titillating and arousing piece on the ‘sex-advise’ industry. An essay titled “Mr. Difficult” represents Franzen’s retort, response and rebuttal to criticisms of his writing style. Franzen’s third novel titled “Corrections” led to the author receiving some incendiary mails concerning the style of writing. Some of the readers severely criticized Franzen’s ‘complicated’ and ‘elitist’ style alleging that his work was aimed at satisfying the cravings of high society snobs. Franzen defends himself and refutes such criticism by setting out various distinctive styles of writing and the purpose underlying each style. This essay however meanders through some difficult literary terrain and has the tendency to lose the attention span of the reader at frequent intervals.
Every essay included in this book provides an insight into the perspective which Jonathan Franzen brings to the fore as a passionate author, keen thinker and a formidable essayist. Reviewing this book, The New York Times stated, “The welcome paradox in ‘How to Be Alone’, is that the reader need not feel isolated at all….This collection emphasizes [Franzen’s] elegance, acumen and daring as an essayist, with an intellectually engaging self-awareness as formidable as Joan Didion’s”.