- The Discomfort Zone
There are few writers with a public persona less likable than Jonathan Franzen's. His Oprah snub and its subsequent mishandlings and fallout positioned him as an intellectual climber, a self-aggrandizer, a snob. So it's interesting that few writers today have a writerly persona more engaging and more subdued than that of Jonathan Franzen, who often comes across as timid and endearingly goofy. In The Discomfort Zone, we have six stand-alone personal essays that bring us closer to unlocking the mystery of Franzen, a man who seems to simultaneously think too much and too little of himself. [End Page 174]
Since Franzen's The Corrections was a terrific novel but also a suspiciously autobiographical one, there is a temptation to read The Discomfort Zone as a confirmation of that novel's autobiographical nature. I'll begin, then, with the obvious questions: Yes, Franzen's mother, with her desperation for the middle, her conservative notions of propriety, and her upbeat resilience in the face of obstacles, resembles the fictitious Enid. Franzen's father, the railroad engineer slipping into dementia, the deeply private man forever mumbling, "I don't understand any of this," is obviously Alfred. What is more interesting is how the opening essay of this collection mirrors the opening of Franzen's novel—with the list narrative of the photos, memories and other debris of the St. Louis family house, the matriarch trying to manipulate every aspect of her children's lives. But what is literary, ambivalent and complicated in The Corrections is all the sweeter for its simplicity in Franzen's essays. In a heartbreaking moment as she drives Jonathan back to the airport, not long before her death from cancer, his mother admits, "I hate it when Daylight Savings Time starts while you're here because it means I have an hour less with you." With poignancy like that coming directly from his real-life subjects, Franzen doesn't need to employ literary techniques to humanize them. Mostly, he just has to stay out of their way.
Franzen is a deft writer, and the prose in these pieces is consistently excellent. Readers of his work in The New Yorker and the Best American series already know this. In point of fact, such readers might be best passing on The Discomfort Zone. The bulk of the collection was originally published in The New Yorker, and a third of it has already been reprinted in Best American Essays. It is a slight book, the 195 pages stretched out by a generous-sized font, and fans of Franzen's nonfiction or The New Yorker might cringe at ponying up twenty-two dollars for so few pages that will be new to them. But for the rest of us, the material is good. Discussing the paucity of his adolescent social life, Franzen remarks, "My mother, in her thrift, favored inexpensive tab-collared knits, usually of polyester, which advertised me equally as an obedient little boy and a middle-aged golfer, and which chafed my neck as if to keep me ever mindful of the shame of wearing them." Because of the humor, the elegance and the grace of his writing, Franzen escapes the familiar. [End Page 175]
Franzen structures his essays around an intricate blend of the personal, the topical and the nearly academic, and the result is essays that move between the individual and the universal, between the mundane and the important. "My Bird Problem," for example, intertwines the subjects of Franzen's crumbling marriage, his love of birds and his larger concerns over global warming and environmentalism. It is a good strategy, if a little familiar, and when it works, the warmth of the memoir, the information of the academic subject and the gravitas of the global issues together produce a substantive essay. The best of these pieces, "Two Ponies," "House for Sale" and "My Bird Problem," are terrific essays. The remaining three aren't quite as strong and often feel self-indulgent. Also, the six essays don't work particularly well together. Beyond the redundant structure...