THE DISCOMFORT ZONE: A PERSONAL HISTORY
HarperCollins, 208 pp.
Jonathan Franzens new memoir, The Discomfort Zone, is fantastic much in the way that I imagine Franzen himself to be a good conversationalist, intellectual with a hint of bitterness and doubt.
Its such an absorbing read that it isnt until later you realize how much he reveals here. Two of the largest parts of the book deal with a church fellowship group and birdwatching. Both are detailed in all of their cultural minutiae, but hidden amongst the quick, sharp prose (he still is a great writer The Corrections and How to Be Alone still two of my favourite reads) are his thoughts on writing, his mother and his failed marriage.
And even though much of the book catalogues his worries girls, urinals, you name it what emerges is as honest a portrait of how much growing up sucks as Ive ever read. Because its only in retrospect that what was so unsure and often disabling glows with meaning.
He writes clever plays on Isaac Newton, leads the school principal through a series of pranks and riddles, loves teddy bears and turns on The Moody Blues. He thinks masturbating means when a girl gets her period. And this Freudian dig: "On the first day of kindergarten, my mother sat me down and explained why it was important not to suck my thumb anymore, and I took her message to heart and never put thumb to mouth again, though I did later smoke cigarettes for twenty years."
Franzens last works were issued as challenges to publishers, writers and readers. If there is such a thing as the great American novel (The Corrections), do people want to read it? As it turns out, they do. This innocuous biography rounds out his portrait of middle-class life, where small towns have their benefits, and neuroses are legitimate coping mechanisms. Arent they?