Despite his brush with Oprah, Jonathan Franzen continues on course. “The Corrections” has just come out in soft cover, his first two novels, “The Twenty-Seventh City” (1988) and “Strong Motion” (1992), are still in print, and now we have a collection of non-fiction pieces to show his take on what he calls “the real world.”

Though Franzen calls them “essays,” many of these pieces are reportage. He’s very good at it. In “Control Units,” written for Details magazine, he tells how a small Colorado town managed to land a fancy federal prison as its new chief industry, with unlooked-for results. Although Franzen’s focus first seems to be on the new look in American prison management (solitary confinement is back), you gradually realize that everybody in this story is in one box or another and that the situation might have played itself out in much the same way if the new industry had been, say, a helicopter plant. Franzen gets all the quotes right, disses nobody and takes the piece exactly where he wants it to go.

He’s equally good on the meltdown of the Chicago postoffice in the winter of 1994, a toxic blend of blend of inertia, bureaucracy, entitlement, racism (and anti-racism) and whatever other neurosis comes to mind. If the P.O. saw itself as a family, says Franzen, that was part of the problem. “All manner of codependency can flourish in the bosom of a family under stress.” Happily, somebody the family””significantly, a young woman– had the guts to blow a whistle.

Franzen turns to his own family in a New Yorker piece called “My Father’s Brain.” This tracks two processes: his father’s long battle with Alzheimer’s disease (an important link with “The Corrections”) and the weird manner in which Franzen’s own brain recorded his father’s battle, as full of gaps as a White House tape. Vigorous or ailing, the the mind has a will of its own.

All these pieces place both writer and reader on firm ground. That’s less true when Franzen actually does write an essay. He goes out on many a limb (as essayists should) and gives us a good many things to think about, such as the virtual eradication of the line between private and public behavior in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. Boxers or briefs, Mr.President? (Not one of his examples.)

Still, there are moments when this reader wanted to rattle his tree. The most celebrated piece in the collection is “Why Bother?,” a long meditation from 1996, before Franzen hit the charts with:”The Corrections.” Why bother to write serious novels, he asks himself, if one’s first two books have, yes, won respectful reviews and yes, made a little money; but have failed to turn on the reading public in the spectacular way that, say, Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” did back in the sixties? What does this say about the future of American novel? Where is our culture headed?

Franzen is spoofing himself here — the essay is meant to celebrate his decision to stop whining and rejoin the world — but the sense of entitlement is very strong and not engaging. Elsewhere I identified with his crotchets (against airport TV, in favor of rescuing good stuff from the trash) and his refusal to see himself as a smoker, despite the fact that he smokes. Also admirable are his decisions not to give his side of the Oprah controvery, not to update these pieces in the context of September 11, and not to impose a false unity on a book of picked-up pieces. He’s got more novels to write.

How To Be Alone
By: Jonathan Franzen
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 281 pages, $24

Dan Sullivan teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota and directs the O”‘Neill Theater Center’s Critics Institute.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Oct. 6 , 2003

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