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Classic review: The Discomfort Zone

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

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But it's not just his social malfeasance that Franzen sketches in this essay. He also evokes, partly through Bob Mutton, the youth minister (who, "in poor light was mistakable for Charles Manson"), a well-meaning phase of the 1970s when long hair, self-examination, and group hugs passed for spirituality. (And then, just when least expected, this piece ends with a sweet moment of unalloyed happiness.)

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In "My Bird Problem," Franzen compares the way he and his wife squandered their marital bliss with global warming. Franzen is deeply disturbed by both crises – but not sufficiently so to do the hard work required to ameliorate either.

He could, he realizes, become the better person who would make his wife happy. "Radically changing myself, however, was about as appetizing (and likely to happen) as volunteering for the drab, homespun, post-consumerist society that the 'deep ecologists' tell us is the only long-term hope for humans on the planet." So, in both cases, he decides to do nothing and calmly await calamity instead.

Examining a generational malaise

Is this man a monster of selfishness? ("Deprive myself of an available pleasure why? Take shorter and colder showers why?" he asks.) It would often appear so.

A warning to those who pick up this book: Those who admired "The Corrections" need to know that this is more of the same – but on a smaller canvas. For those put off by the protagonist of "The Corrections," don't even try to go here. The self-absorption on display in "The Corrections" is at least given the framework of a larger plot within which to strut and fret. Here it's experienced like a straight shot of pure espresso.

But for those who admire the razor-sharp jabs Franzen makes at himself and anyone else standing too close, "The Discomfort Zone" is both a delicious read and a clever showcase for Franzen's talents.

And for those eager for more of the sad-brave-frightening character of his mother, here's a chance to catch another glimpse of her. (The young Franzen experiences her assault on his privacy as "the rushing heave of a car engine, the low whoosh of my mother's Buick as it surged with alarming, incredible speed up our driveway and into our garage.")

Franzen succeeds most neatly in "The Discomfort Zone" when it comes to exploring the same painful territory he ventures onto in "The Corrections." He speaks only too directly to a generation of baby boomers who live in uncomfortable conflict with the thrifty, hardworking, self-sacrificing values of their parents' generation. There's a large group of us (and we know who we are) who never came close to extracting from our privileged college and semester-abroad experiences the value our parents hoped for when they invested their hard-earned dollars.

And yet, many of us would argue, for the most part we turned out quite nicely – probably better than we deserved. Interestingly enough, exactly the same could be said of "The Discomfort Zone."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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