Of maximum-security prisons, Dumpster diving, and privacy in a technological age: a collection of essays diverse and entertaining by the author of last year’s Big Novel, The Corrections.
Before The Corrections, which led circuitously to “Oprah Winfrey’s disinvitation of me from her Book Club,” Franzen was perhaps best known to general readers as the author of an arch, funny, and contrarian essay recounting the reasons for his “despair of the American novel,” published in Harper’s and thus known among the cognoscenti simply as “the Harper’s essay.” Revised to be still more arch and no less contrarian, if somewhat less lit-critical, the essay (now called “Why Bother?”) is reason enough to fiction lovers in this increasingly “infantilizing” culture to take Franzen’s nonfiction out for a spin, though it won’t please the academic readers it relentlessly twits in salutary slaps such as: “The therapeutic optimism now raging in English literature departments insists that novels be sorted into two boxes: Symptoms of Disease (canonical work from the Dark Ages before 1950) and Medicine for a Happier and Healthier World (“the work of women and of people from nonwhite or nonhetero cultures”). The other essays, most previously published in Details, the New Yorker, and elsewhere, deliver sufficient bang for the book, though none quite stands up to the centerpiece. Some of them, such as a perceptive study of the Post Office at work, manage to be quite timely even as they bear a few signs of age; others get a little weird, as when Franzen observes that smoking cigarettes serves, at least in his case, “to become familiar with apocalypse, to acquaint myself with the contours of its terrors, to make the world’s potential death less strange and so a little less threatening.” None, however, is predictable, and all bear Franzen’s trademark sensibility of smiling, even though scared silly, in the face of doom.
Smart, solid, and well-paced: a pleasure for Franzen’s many remaining admirers.