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.
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.
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....")
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.)
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.
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. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe