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Jonathan Franzen Takes on Cell Phone Culture

by Jake Mohan 

Tags: essay writing, creative nonfiction, memoir, technology, 9/11, Jonathan Franzen, Technology Review,

cell phone womanWhat begins as a snarky takedown of cell phone culture evolves into a meditation on love in Jonathan Franzen’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from Technology Review (free registration required). Moving from a discussion of the technological developments that have shaped the past decade—most notably, the cell phone—to a careful consideration of the various ways people say, “I love you,” Franzen begins to wonder whether the person bellowing those three magic words into their cell phone in the checkout lane at the grocery store might not be honoring the sentiment’s spirit.

Having garnered plenty of acclaim for his 2001 novel The Corrections—and plenty of scorn after turning down Oprah’s book club invitation—Franzen has since evolved into a prolific writer of nonfiction, navigating his personal essays through moving, humorous territory in two collections, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is no different, winding from stand-up comedy-style observations on the annoyances of cell phones to 9/11, then taking an unexpected turn into his parents’ marriage and a funny passage where a teenaged Franzen does everything in his power to avoid having to explicity reciprocate his mother’s affection:

The one thing that was vital was never, ever to say “I love you” or “I love you, Mom.” The least painful alternative was a muttered, essentially inaudible “Love you.” But “I love you, too,” if pronounced rapidly enough and with enough emphasis on the “too,” which implied rote responsiveness, could carry me through many an awkward moment. ... She also never told me that saying “I love you” was simply something she enjoyed doing because her heart was full of feeling, and that I shouldn’t feel I had to say “I love you” in return every time. And so, to this day, when I’m assaulted by the shouting of “I love you” into a cell phone, I hear coercion.

It’s this blend of the personal and the universal that draws me to Franzen’s essays. His observations on technological annoyances are astute and just this side of cantankerous, but he injects his arguments with enough personal matter to remind us of his—and by extension, our—humanity.

Image by Ed Yourdon, licensed by Creative Commons.