Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Discomfort Zone (2006)

It's interesting that Jonathan Franzen's last book before this one, How to Be Alone, is billed as a collection of essays whereas this is called a memoir, because they are put together in very similar ways, as collections of stand-alone personal essays, most of them published previously (though often reworked for the books). I think of Franzen as a careful and thoughtful writer so I imagine he has his reasons for distinguishing them as he does—or perhaps that's the publisher's choice, concerned that consecutive collections of essays might be commercial poison for the bestselling hipster author, and Franzen didn't see it as worth the fight. Whatever the case, they are both eminently readable, interesting, and a pleasure, and my only complaint about The Discomfort Zone, if it's even properly a complaint, is that it's too slender, with only six pieces occupying less than 200 pages. This is not tell-all straightforward autobiography proceeding in linear fashion from first memory to final thoughts. Instead Franzen finds poignant periods in his life and lets himself dwell there, moving episodically and feeling his way to various conclusions but more concerned, as always, with the rush and confusion of the sensory impact around him and his own tentativeness and fatal hesitations in embracing experience and attempting to understand and judge it. If you've read anything by Franzen you know who he is; there's just more of that here. Yet in many ways, and I think this is the real value of both How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, everything you think Franzen is he is not. I do think the novels are the place to start—notably The Corrections and Freedom. As much as Franzen indulges a glum ponderous side, his real métier is narrative, where his points are cunningly embedded in characters and their relations to one another and the choices they make. Because it's his métier he doesn't stray far from it in the essays here, which as much as they may be based on factual events are ultimately structured as brooding stories centered on Christian youth fellowship rites, literature and sex, marriage, birds, the alarming drifts of public policy, and all the usual things that preoccupy him. You are likely to find small surprises and overturned expectations even as it confirms in larger terms the person you know, plus it's useful to get some of the background data right from his point of view. In the end, if you get this far, you'll likely be sorry too that it's not even 200 pages.

In case it's not at the library.

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