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Classic review: The Discomfort Zone

Jonathan Franzen probes his past and finds an abundance of discomfort to explore.

By / August 22, 2010

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History By Jonathan Franzen Farrar, Straus and Giroux 208 pp., $22

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Sept. 5, 2006.] Reading Jonathan Franzen always reminds me of the day in sixth-grade math when Miss Worrell explained binary systems to us: twofold worlds alternating between on and off.

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At least, that's how I experienced "The Corrections," Franzen's award-winning novel of family life gone awry. There are the parts that are sidesplittingly funny and there are the parts that serve up jolts of cringe-inducing pain. And there are plenty of places where the reader is bounced mid-sentence from one sensation to the other.

Franzen's new book, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, a collection of essays about his life, offers the same kind of whipsaw reading experience. It's hilarious and it's painful. It's sharply insightful and it's also frustratingly obtuse.

No human being should have to experience the self-loathing that Franzen appears to feel for his youthful self. But then again neither should anyone be so exhaustingly and blindly self-involved. And yet Franzen is, and somehow manages to convey that to us in equal measures of humor and painful acuity.

From adolescent angst to marital calamity

The six essays (at least half of which were previously published in The New Yorker magazine) begin with Franzen as an adult arriving in suburban St. Louis to sell his mother's house.

For readers of "The Corrections" this is familiar territory. The house, in which "each windowsill and each tabletop was an eddy in which inexpensively framed photographs had accumulated" and in the kitchen of which a brisket has lain in the deep freeze for nine years, is immediately recognizable – as is the psychic pain that surrounds it. ("Need I add that it didn't last?" Franzen writes of the brief happiness he experienced there as a child.)

The essays then jump back to Franzen's childhood and adolescence, on through some high school pranks, and then to college lit classes (Franzen's parents fret as he renounces calculus for a German major but he mostly obsesses about women) and finish with the collapse of his marriage even as he embraces bird-watching.

The two standouts of the collection are "Then Joy Breaks Through," about Franzen's teenage experiences with a Christian youth group, and the final "My Bird Problem."

In "Then Joy Breaks Through," Franzen describes his teenage self as "Social Death" itself, a hapless misfit who "failed to foresee the social penalties that a person might pay for bringing in his stuffed Kanga and Roo toys to illustrate his speech about Australian wildlife." (He was also afflicted, he tells us, with "irresistible urges to shout unfunny puns, a near eidetic acquaintance with J.R.R. Tolkien, a big chemistry lab in my basement, a penchant for insulting any unfamiliar girl unwise enough to speak to me....")

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