Review

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History

by Jonathan Franzen



Admittedly, I did read some of the reviews that were published
about THE DISCOMFORT ZONE, Jonathan Franzen's latest, before
picking it up for myself. The Christian Science Monitor called the
writing "exhaustingly and blindly self-involved." Esquire thought
the book might "inspire a cringe or two." In an especially scathing
review, The New York Times called it "solipsistic" and "incredibly
annoying," before commenting "just why anyone would be interested
in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship [with his then
wife] or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr.
Franzen's mind remains something of a mystery." After reading these
reviews, I was thoroughly prepared to hate the book.

Thus, it came as a big surprise to me when, shockingly, I loved the
entire thing.

Yes, Franzen is a bit of a narcissist. And, yes, some of his views
or perceptions might be slightly strong for some readers. But isn't
that the goal of a memoirist --- to hold nothing back when telling
his or her own story? Isn't a memoir --- any memoir --- an exercise
in self-absorption? Of selfishness? What rule states that memoirs
must be filled only with agreeable and easily digestible topics and
that their authors can only talk about themselves 45% of the
time?

Arguably, THE DISCOMFORT ZONE could be viewed as a breath of fresh
air. Here, readers can dive into a series of six stand-alone essays
(many of which have been previously published in The New Yorker)
that, when read consecutively (or even out of order), flow together
and paint a retrospective of Franzen's life thus far. A bit of a
departure from his previous works (THE CORRECTIONS, HOW TO BE ALONE
and others) but nonetheless written with the same fervor, these six
vignettes are intensely personal and explore with microscopic
acuity the relationships and experiences that made him the man he
is today.

In the opening story, "House for Sale," Franzen describes his final
visit back to the house in which he grew up (in Webster Groves,
Missouri) after his mother's death. As one is apt to do when going
through old papers, drawers and closets, he uncovers vivid
childhood memories and forgotten feelings associated with the
tchotchkes still in the house. It is a moving experience, as one
might imagine, and in his attempt to ready the house for eventual
sale, so to must he grasp the passing of time and come to terms
with the changes both in his own life and in the world around
him.

Of course, Franzen is nothing if not painfully honest, even when
directing his critical eye inward. The most entertaining stories to
read in this collection are those in which he dissects his
perception of himself as a puny, somewhat nerdy adolescent, with a
silent need to be perceived as cool while also giving off a
blasé, I-don't-really-care-what-others-think-of-me attitude.
As he so aptly puts it, "adolescence is best enjoyed without
self-consciousness, but self-consciousness, unfortunately, is its
leading symptom...this cruel mixture of consciousness and
irrelevance, this built-in hollowness, is enough to account for how
pissed off you are. You're miserable and ashamed if you don't
believe your adolescent troubles matter, but you're stupid if you
do."

In probably the most enjoyable story of the collection, "Then Joy
Breaks Through," Franzen describes himself as a boy afraid of
"spiders, insomnia, fish hooks, school dances...urinals, puberty,
music teachers...boomerangs, popular girls, the high dive," and
most of all, his parents. He then goes on to relay with hilarious,
often laugh-out-loud detail his involvement in a cult-like
Christian youth fellowship group (read: hippie/radical
counterculture group) where his urge to be accepted often rivaled
his equally present disdain for appearing like he was trying too
hard. In the equally witty "Centrally Located," he explores a
(seemingly) more confident period wherein he and a group of friends
form a club of their own. Throughout high school, they perform a
series of hilarious pranks on the administration, and it becomes
clear that Franzen's signature ingenuity is finding its
niche.

In an especially telling summation, Franzen says of himself, "At
forty-five, I feel grateful almost daily to be the adult I wished I
could be when I was seventeen...At the same time, almost daily, I
lose battles with the seventeen-year-old who's still inside me."
Ever humble and righteously self-aware, Franzen highlights the
individual yet universal experience of what it means to be human.
Yes, he might come off as overly snide, petulant and at times quite
pompous. But it's his right to be that way when writing his memoirs
for it's his experience and his alone.

If picking up THE DISCOMFORT ZONE means mulling over an entire book
of supposedly self-indulgent moments such as this one and linking
it to the broader experience of growing older and coming to terms
with what it all could mean, then I'll gladly take the risk.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 11, 2011

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History
by Jonathan Franzen

  • Publication Date: August 21, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312426402
  • ISBN-13: 9780312426408