The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History
Farrar, Straus & Giroux / 196 pages / $22
In one chapter of his new memoir, Jonathan Franzen recalls his youthful immersion in the German language, which culminated in a grudging conquest of The Magic Mountain. It was, appropriately, an uphill battle. Thomas Mann's masterwork, with its jackhammer ironies and its Teutonic nerd of a protagonist, almost drove the Swarthmore senior out of his mind. Yet he recognized "at the heart of the book ... a question of genuine personal interest both to Mann and to me: How does it happen that a young person so quickly strays so far from the values and expectations of his middle-class upbringing?"
As readers will discover, that's also the question at the heart of The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Since Franzen is a superlative novelist rather than a sociologist, he approaches the question from some fairly oblique angles. But wrestle with it he does, beginning with the very first chapter, "House for Sale." The year is 1999, and Franzen, still many moons away from the matinee-idol status he attained in 2001 with his best-selling third novel, The Corrections, has journeyed to Webster Groves, Mo. There, in the wake of his mother's death, he has been charged with selling his boyhood home.
Quite naturally, this task causes him to ponder his origins as what we might call a born centrist: "I grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class. My parents were originally Minnesotan, moved south to Chicago, where I was born, and finally came to rest in Missouri, the country's cartographic linchpin." The center, as Franzen quickly acknowledges, did not hold. By the early 1970s, Vietnam, recession and the rise of youth culture had already put the kibosh on this golden age or at least tarnished it beyond recognition. Yet the author, the youngest and most dutiful of three sons, has some real doubts about having escaped his middle-class orbit.
Hence his sadness, and guilty elation, at the idea of selling his familial home. Hence his decision to ditch his late mother's real estate agents - a deeply suburban mother-and-daughter team who strike him as "two avatars of Webster Groves domesticity" - for a sexy young go-getter in tight jeans.
Needless to say, our hero has made the wrong decision. The agent, whose spiel comes straight out of some yuppie playbook ("She said it was rare that she met somebody who understood, as I obviously did, about desire, about hunger"), fumbles the sale. Franzen finally unloads the house on the cheap. The moral of the story? He should have listened to the voice of Protestant conscience - also known as Mom and Dad - even as he agonized over "how completely I'd outgrown" the place of his youth.
I am, of course, simplifying. If Franzen had turned into a prissy moralist - a William Bennett with sharp incisors - then he couldn't hold our attention. What makes The Discomfort Zone so consistently fascinating is his ambivalence. He's cursed if he sticks to the Scandinavian straight and narrow, hammered into his head by his humorless, beloved father, and cursed if he doesn't. Nowhere is this confusion thrown into higher relief than in "My Bird Problem," the last and best chapter in the book.
By 2005, you see, Franzen is in the grip of an ornithological frenzy. He spends his waking hours with binoculars in one hand and a dog-eared field guide in the other, observing birds. At night, he "lay down with bird books and read about other trips I could take, studied the field markings of species I hadn't seen, and then dreamed vividly of birds." He seems to be taking Emily Dickinson at her word: Hope, if indeed it existed, is most certainly the thing with feathers.
For Franzen, writing about birds is one more way of writing about family, marriage and the generational tug of war. It's no accident that the author's first bout of avian enthusiasm comes on the heels of his mother's death. That summer, still flattened by grief, Franzen sees his first northern flicker and enjoys "its apparent confusion about what kind of bird it was. Un-woodpeckerish in plumage, like a mourning dove in war paint, it flew dippingly, in typical woodpeckerish fashion, white rump flashing, from one ill-fitting identity to another. It had a way of landing with a little crash wherever."
That's lovely, lyrical and precise. It's also an unwitting self-portrait.
What The Discomfort Zone resembles, in fact, is an old-fashioned diorama in a museum, displaying the airborne author at each stage of his evolution. A couple of the specimens seem to have gone awry at the stuffing-and-mounting stage.
No matter. The weak chapters have their share of delights; the strong chapters are impossibly articulate and true. And like the born novelist that he is, Franzen keeps operating under the sign of ambivalence. We get both battling personas in The Discomfort Zone: the ironic Easterner and the upright Midwesterner. Long may they prosper! For the author, of course, the combination may well feel like a hair shirt. But the worst thing that could happen to Franzen now would be for him to change into something - or someone - more comfortable.
James Marcus is the author of "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut." A longer version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Times.