Roosevelt's Reads

By Mark Roosevelt, president

I often wonder why so little attention is given to the remarkable demographic changes happening in America and much of the rest of the “developed” world. One such change is the 33% increase in the number of adults living alone from 1996 to 2006, the last year for which we have reliable statistics.

My interest in this matter is sparked by books that I have read a great deal about, but not actually read, and a novelist who writes about characters who spend their adult lives alone and are decidedly unhappy about it.

The March 2, 2012, edition of The New York Times Book Review contains an informative review of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by Eric Klinenberg. As his title indicates, Klinenberg takes a generally positive view of the trend towards more single households, now 28% of the population. He says the data show that a majority of this group is female, that most are living alone because they want to, and that these singles are generally more socially engaged than married couples.

In his February 20, 2012 column, David Brooks of The New York Times riffed off Klinenberg’s book to make an optimistic point about what he calls “the talent society.” He notes that “fifty years ago America was groupy. People were more likely to be enmeshed in stable, dense and obligatory relationships … Today individuals have more freedom,” mostly because their relationships are more “loosely structured.” He says that these looser arrangements mean that “we have gone from a society that protected people from their frailties to a society that allows people to maximize their talents.” He argues that people were often stifled in the older social structures, and that now “they want more flexibility to explore their own interests and develop their own identities, lifestyles and capacities.”

Count me as a bit of a skeptic, perhaps because I am very aware of my own human frailty.

I am also astonished that the plight of children is almost entirely absent from this discussion. Children are caught in the wake of these gigantic, and for them, primarily negative, social and demographic trends. I do not understand why commentators such as Brooks fail to connect the “freedom” stemming from these “loosely structured, more flexible relationships” to other demographic trends, such as divorce rates and the increase in single parenting. The Times reported on February 17, 2012, that for women under 30, a majority of births now occur outside of marriage. Ample research (note social historian Barbara Defoe Whitehead’s 1997 book The Divorce Culture and her searing, painful vision of every divorce as the “death of a small civilization”) indicates that children often flounder amidst the loosely structured relationships that contribute to this new-found adult freedom.

And is it really so clear that most women, especially later in life, are “choosing” to live alone? I wonder how much of this choice is connected to the negative behaviors found in men who are increasingly floundering, unable to comprehend, no less cope, with significant declines in their economic and educational status? (Again note Whitehead’s work, in particular Why There Are No Good Men Left, 2002, and Kate Bolick’s cover story in the November 2011 Atlantic Magazine, “All the Single Ladies”).

Literature often reveals truths that social science misses, or at least different truths, and you won’t find any reason for optimism about living alone through one’s adult years in the writings of the British novelist Anita Brookner. Brookner, who won the 1984 Booker Prize for Hotel Du Lac, is prolific, having published nearly a novel a year from 1981 to 2006. She writes rather depressing novels about the inner lives of lonely people, usually in their fifties or beyond, mostly women, but men too, for whom the main psychological action is in accepting that their life is drawing to a close and that they have made “a hash of it.” Most of her protagonists have not formed significant relationships or marriages, are without the consolation of children, and have spent a good part of their adult lives taking care of aging parents.

I have read ten of her novels and just finished Fraud, which I think is one of her best. It is worth giving any number of her books a go, perhaps Hotel Du Lac, or Latecomers, her own favorite. In them, she is telling and re-telling the same autobiographical story, and although I enjoy her books, reading too many in a short time can be tiresome.

Brookner is now in her mid-eighties, and a recluse. The few interviews she has given are extraordinarily forthright. As Mick Brown wrote in The Telegraph in 2009, “A conversation with her is like walking across Siberia—it may appear bleak and forbidding, but at the same time it is also shockingly, exhilaratingly bracing.” Bracing in the way conversations are when no punches are pulled. Asked if she feels lonely by an interviewer for The Paris Review, Brookner replied, “Often. I have said that I am one of the loneliest women in London. People have resented it—it is not done to confess to loneliness, but there it is.”

To Brookner, much literature is grossly misleading. The opening sentence of her first novel, A Start in Life, reads “Dr. Weiss, at 40, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” In Brookner’s world, literature should reflect reality, which means that virtue is usually punished, the examined life is more painful, the hare beats the tortoise every time, and there are few if any happy endings. “Why?” she was asked by Mick Brown. Because even “the body betrays you. And there is no escape. Age is the final betrayal.” Asked if “there is any coming to terms with that?” she responds, “Oh there is no consolation,” as she fixes the interviewer with a piercing look. “You don’t believe me do you? But it’s true.” She takes full responsibility for her own disappointments, believing not that life has been unfair to her, but that she has “made a hash of it.” She wants to understand why and explores that in her novels. The consolation she offers, even if she cannot access it herself, is the consolation of looking at things straight on, with no blinders, or as she has said, “a peeling away of affectation.”

Brookner’s take on living alone is a sobering companion piece to the optimism of David Brooks’ “Talent Society” and Klinenberg’s Going Solo. Which you find more convincing likely depends on your own life experience. Klinenberg says that readers have vastly different responses to his book. He concludes that “the topic of living alone is something like a Rorschach test: our reaction to it says as much about us as it does about the condition.”

Of course many people can be happy living alone and many people are unhappy in marriage or other committed relationships. But aging alone can be extremely challenging (see Louis Begley’s March 17 Times op-ed, “Age and Its Awful Discontents,” and Diane Ackerman’s insightful March 24 Times op-ed, “The Brain on Love”) and as the nuclear family continues to erode as the primary structure for raising children, it is unclear to me what social constructs are replacing it and what that means for children’s well being.

Perhaps this transition to more people living alone will turn out well, but Brookner’s stories give voice to many quietly unhappy people in my generation who often go unnoticed, an important role of novelists. As the British scholar Alfred Church wrote: “We are obliged to leave behind a trace of who we are and where we’ve come from and what we know—which of course changes constantly…What can do that more truly than fiction writing? Nothing, in my opinion.”