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Coming Correct

Jonathan Franzen Embraces His Inner Nerd, Average Joe, And Pompous Ass In Latest Essay Collection

Deanna Staffo

The Discomfort Zone

Author:Jonathan Franzen
Release Date:2006
Publisher:Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

By Zak M. Salih | Posted 10/4/2006

According to The Discomfort Zone, Jonathan Franzen has not one personality, but three. The first is Franzen as Everynerd: the bumbling, bespectacled young kid with "a large vocabulary, a giddily squeaking voice, horn-rimmed glasses, poor arm strength, too-obvious approval from my teachers, irresistible urges to shout unfunny puns, [and] a near-eidetic acquaintance with J.R.R. Tolkien." The second is Franzen as Everyman. "I make sweeping moral judgments," he proclaims. "I define as uncool any group to which I canít belong, I feel the urge to key Range Rovers and slash their tires." The third: Franzen as Everyelitist, a man whose biggest worry is "whether my favorite organic grocery store would have Meyer lemons for the margaritas I wanted to make aprŤs golf."

This is, of course, the same 47-year-old author of The Corrections, the sprawling 2000 novel made famous for its National Book Award and infamous for its authorís public shunning of Oprahís Book Club. If these five personal essays, many of them expanded versions of material first published in The New Yorker, prove anything, it is that for all his varied personalities, Franzen the Midwestern youth is a curious product of his time, while Franzen the fully developed intellectual is, well, something of a smarmy bastard--perhaps equally a product of his own time.

Then again, this is the tricky territory of the memoir: presenting yourself as an interesting individual worthy of a couple hundred pages while staying true to the unlikable in us all. In that regard, The Discomfort Zone succeeds as an example of its genre. Framed by the death of his mother, which opens and closes the collection, you follow Franzen from his early years in the eerily picture-perfect town of Webster Groves, Mo., to his current days as a writer, cultural critic, and novice bird-watcher. Starting with a personal event or episode, each essay spirals outward to encompass increasingly larger themes and ideas. Though at times Franzen is in danger of losing his reader to the meandering current of his thought process, he always manages to bring you back to what makes this history personal.

The conceits of each essay are simple enough. "The Foreign Language" begins with Franzenís simultaneous discovery of the opposite sex and the German language, carries you through his opinions on Franz Kafka, and concludes with the requisite first plunge into love. In "House for Sale," the dutiful son sets about deconstructing and putting his childhood home on the market: hoarding the liquor shelf, riffling through the kitchen freezer, and removing family photographs like "a conqueror burning the enemyís churches and smashing its icons." "Two Ponies," the most accessible of the five essays, displays Franzenís passion for the Peanuts comic strip and its reflection of his own elementary days, even though the touching description of Charles Schulzís own youth threatens to overshadow Franzenís. Similarly, his bohemian youth minister, Bob Mutton, steals the show from the authorís dalliances with religion and social groups in "Then Joy Breaks Through." Mutton, the kind of lively character you imagine only possible in novels, "looked rather scarily like Jesus--not the Renaissance Jesus, with the long Hellenic nose, but the more tormented Jesus of the northern Gothic."

Of course, littered throughout these hilarious and affecting recollections are glimpses of a Franzen who receives winces and frowns instead of laughs and smirks. Early in the opening essay, he complains about being solicited for donations to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Though he might be on point with his descriptions of a "far-reaching and well orchestrated" fundraising apparatus, he whines that "helping Katrinaís homeless victims ought to be the governmentís job, not mine [ . . . ] I wanted to be able to write a check, because I wanted to put Katrinaís victims out of my mind and get back to enjoying my life."

Itís enough to make you want to slap Franzen upside the head and ask him about all the Americans who donated money to relief funds when his home base of New York was attacked on Sept. 11. And hereís the same snooty Franzen on the death of his mother: "I broke down in tears every few hours, which I took as a sign that I was working through my grief and would soon be over it." Ouch.

Despite such sour honesty--which doesnít read as genuinely as perhaps intended--Franzenís insight into his life is undeniably evocative and impressive. Brief enough to be consumed in a day, The Discomfort Zone leaves you hungry--not for more personal anecdotes, but for that one thing we crave of talented writers like Franzen: the next novel.

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