56 of 59 people found the following review helpful
A breath of fresh air
, November 3, 2006
This review is from: The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (Hardcover)
Admittedly, I did read some of the reviews that were published about THE DISCOMFORT ZONE, Jonathan Franzen's latest, before picking it up for myself. The Christian Science Monitor called the writing "exhaustingly and blindly self-involved." Esquire thought the book might "inspire a cringe or two." In an especially scathing review, The New York Times called it "solipsistic" and "incredibly annoying," before commenting "just why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship [with his then wife] or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr. Franzen's mind remains something of a mystery." After reading these reviews, I was thoroughly prepared to hate the book.
Thus, it came as a big surprise to me when, shockingly, I loved the entire thing.
Yes, Franzen is a bit of a narcissist. And, yes, some of his views or perceptions might be slightly strong for some readers. But isn't that the goal of a memoirist --- to hold nothing back when telling his or her own story? Isn't a memoir --- any memoir --- an exercise in self-absorption? Of selfishness? What rule states that memoirs must be filled only with agreeable and easily digestible topics and that their authors can only talk about themselves 45% of the time?
Arguably, THE DISCOMFORT ZONE could be viewed as a breath of fresh air. Here, readers can dive into a series of six stand-alone essays (many of which have been previously published in The New Yorker) that, when read consecutively (or even out of order), flow together and paint a retrospective of Franzen's life thus far. A bit of a departure from his previous works (THE CORRECTIONS, HOW TO BE ALONE and others) but nonetheless written with the same fervor, these six vignettes are intensely personal and explore with microscopic acuity the relationships and experiences that made him the man he is today.
In the opening story, "House for Sale," Franzen describes his final visit back to the house in which he grew up (in Webster Groves, Missouri) after his mother's death. As one is apt to do when going through old papers, drawers and closets, he uncovers vivid childhood memories and forgotten feelings associated with the tchotchkes still in the house. It is a moving experience, as one might imagine, and in his attempt to ready the house for eventual sale, so to must he grasp the passing of time and come to terms with the changes both in his own life and in the world around him.
Of course, Franzen is nothing if not painfully honest, even when directing his critical eye inward. The most entertaining stories to read in this collection are those in which he dissects his perception of himself as a puny, somewhat nerdy adolescent, with a silent need to be perceived as cool while also giving off a blasé, I-don't-really-care-what-others-think-of-me attitude. As he so aptly puts it, "adolescence is best enjoyed without self-consciousness, but self-consciousness, unfortunately, is its leading symptom...this cruel mixture of consciousness and irrelevance, this built-in hollowness, is enough to account for how pissed off you are. You're miserable and ashamed if you don't believe your adolescent troubles matter, but you're stupid if you do."
In probably the most enjoyable story of the collection, "Then Joy Breaks Through," Franzen describes himself as a boy afraid of "spiders, insomnia, fish hooks, school dances...urinals, puberty, music teachers...boomerangs, popular girls, the high dive," and most of all, his parents. He then goes on to relay with hilarious, often laugh-out-loud detail his involvement in a cult-like Christian youth fellowship group (read: hippie/radical counterculture group) where his urge to be accepted often rivaled his equally present disdain for appearing like he was trying too hard. In the equally witty "Centrally Located," he explores a (seemingly) more confident period wherein he and a group of friends form a club of their own. Throughout high school, they perform a series of hilarious pranks on the administration, and it becomes clear that Franzen's signature ingenuity is finding its niche.
In an especially telling summation, Franzen says of himself, "At forty-five, I feel grateful almost daily to be the adult I wished I could be when I was seventeen...At the same time, almost daily, I lose battles with the seventeen-year-old who's still inside me." Ever humble and righteously self-aware, Franzen highlights the individual yet universal experience of what it means to be human. Yes, he might come off as overly snide, petulant and at times quite pompous. But it's his right to be that way when writing his memoirs for it's his experience and his alone.
If picking up THE DISCOMFORT ZONE means mulling over an entire book of supposedly self-indulgent moments such as this one and linking it to the broader experience of growing older and coming to terms with what it all could mean, then I'll gladly take the risk.
--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling
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