Sept/Oct/Nov 2006

Uneasy does it

Jonathan Franzen on suffering for art in suburbia

Greg Bottoms


It's now downright obligatory for a critic reviewing a memoir to begin by offering a brief assessment of the genre, always including a disquisition on recent fiascos, the faddishness of the publishing industry, and the unearned capital inherent in words like true, tragic, and redemptive when modifying story. This requisite genre-bashing persists even though some of our finest novelists—Hilary Mantel, Orhan Pamuk, Amos Oz, Edmund White, John McGahern, and Donald Antrim—have lately produced among their most artful works in the form.

We can now add Jonathan Franzen to their ranks. His new book, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, follows his collection of personal essays, How to Be Alone (2002), and shows that, filtered through a sharp, skeptical intelligence and recounted in an elegant prose style, even the most outwardly unremarkable adolescence can be the subject of compelling autobiography.

The Discomfort Zone opens with Franzen in charge of selling his childhood home in the middle-class suburb of Webster Groves, MO, after his mother's slow death from cancer. Upon his arrival from New York, riding through the rain-drenched streets of St. Louis in a taxi, Franzen describes where he grew up as being "saturated with a feeling of afterness, of lateness." Once in the house (a two-story brick colonial on a shaded cul de sac) and confronted with the task of getting it ready for sale, Franzen feels covetous of its objects and the memories they evoke; yet there is also a vague bitterness and resentment, emotions that seem to preface his confrontation with the past. Franzen describes these conflicted feelings about his former self, his family, and the place he comes from with the unfettered and honest expression that is one of the necessities of successful personal narrative: "It was as if I went through life wearing a sign that said KEEP HIM IN THE DARK." His quest—indeed the quest of every autobiographer—is to comprehend that which was largely incomprehensible when it happened.

As an adult in his empty childhood home, he gathers up old photos, telling himself he is "doing important work by depersonalizing the house before the first realtor came to see it. But if somebody had asked me why it was also necessary, that same night, to pile the hundred-plus pictures on a table in the basement and to rip or slice or pry or slide each photo out of its frame, and then dump all the frames into shopping bags, and stow the shopping bags in cabinets, and shove all the photos into an envelope, so that nobody could see them—if somebody had pointed out my resemblance to a conqueror burning the enemy's churches and smashing its icons—I would have had to admit that I was relishing my ownership of the house."

From this opening essay, which also commemorates his uneasy relationship with his mother, a woman reminiscent of Evan S. Connell's midwestern, conformist, and essentially lonely Mrs. Bridge, Franzen transports us backward in time via three loosely linked sections. The first, and one of the more successful, is "Two Ponies," portions of which appeared under the title "The Comfort Zone" in the New Yorker and The Best American Essays of 2005. Franzen begins "Two Ponies" with the most pregnant and dramatic sentence of the book: "In May 1970, a few nights after National Guardsmen killed four student protesters at Kent State University, my father and my brother Tom started fighting." The fight stems from an effort by Franzen's father, a serious and successful civil engineer, to place Jonathan's brother Tom, a college student at the tail end of the counterculture, in a summer internship with an engineering firm in St. Louis. He has dropped out of the architecture program at Rice and is now a "bell-bottomed, lefty film-studies major," much to his father's chagrin. Tom doesn't want his father's help or, for that matter, anything to do with the "hawkish and buzz-cut" routines of office work.

Franzen demonstrates a remarkable ability to weave multiple and seemingly disparate ideas into a formally and emotionally complex whole. In "Two Ponies," he writes with insight about his father's awkwardness, the generation gap and its effects on families, and '70s teen culture. But what is most perceptive and original in "Two Ponies" is Franzen's mini-essay on Charles Schulz and Peanuts, which becomes, it seems to me, both an assessment of Schulz and an obliquely autobiographical meditation on the making of art by a guy who had an essentially comfortable upbringing in the American suburbs. "Schulz wasn't an artist because he suffered," Franzen writes. "He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip every day for fifty years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It's the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz's early sorrows look like 'sources' of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humor in them. Almost every young person experiences sorrows. What's distinctive about Schulz's childhood is not his suffering but the fact that he loved comics from an early age, was gifted at drawing, and had the undivided attention of two loving parents." One hears in this echoes of Franzen's well-known 1996 essay "Perchance to Dream," where he pondered art's worth and function at this late date, as well as his own "obsolescence," as he put it, as an American artist. I was also reminded of the press coverage of his renting a room and blindfolding himself to write The Corrections—Franzen's own "choosing art over the comforts of a normal life." And this is all threaded, with impeccable craftsmanship, through a chapter that never loses sight of the fight between Tom and Mr. Franzen, which becomes symbolic of the larger domestic and generational tensions of the era.

Not all of The Discomfort Zone is as successful as the early chapters. "Centrally Located," which reads the most like fiction, with its abundance of character, dialogue, and scene setting, is about how Franzen and his friends, who were about as menacing as a magnet school chess team, form a group of teen pranksters called DIOTI—idiot after a letter scramble. They try, with all the seriousness of CIA operatives, to get a tire stuck around the high school flagpole. Like all of Franzen's work, the prose here is never less than deft, its forward movement worth marveling over, the moments of characterization vivid and precise. Nevertheless, the section, especially the part in which they are questioned by the cops, smacks of triviality and even self-indulgence. Franzen attempts to mythologize this fairly typical story, quite in contrast to the other chapters, in which he writes penetratingly about a house, a mother, the making of an artist, a father and brother, the gestalt of the counterculture, and so on. This tale of teen rebellion lacks the deeper subtext or cultural critique found elsewhere, and the book, for a few pages, comes dangerously close to indulging in the navel-gazing for which memoirs are often ridiculed.

Late in the book, however, Franzen returns to the more reflective, essayistic approach of the beginning, at which he excels. "The Foreign Language" focuses on his college years at Swarthmore, German literature, loneliness, relationship awkwardness, the general weirdness of college professors and academic life, and his burgeoning interest in writing after reading Kafka and Rilke. "My Bird Problem," the last chapter in this associatively rather than dramatically constructed book, is genuinely funny and sharp-tongued cultural criticism regarding the upper-middle-class environmentalism now common in blue states, which is here playfully juxtaposed with Franzen's midlife obsession with bird watching. After a lecture by Al Gore on global warming, Franzen "left the auditorium under a cloud of grief and worry." "Ordinarily," he writes, "I keep a tight rein on my environmental consciousness, confining it, ideally, to the ten minutes per year when I write my guilt-assuaging checks to groups like the Sierra Club." But because of his love of finding and correctly identifying birds—all of which will be wiped off the face of the earth in due time—he is confronted with a scenario he has been "at pains to avert for many years: not the world's falling apart in the future, but my feeling inconveniently obliged to care about it in the present. This was my bird problem." Like the other essays in The Discomfort Zone, the chapter on Franzen's bird watching contains many strands—his failed marriage and another failed relationship, life in New York after the terror attacks, his mother's death—and defies easy summary. In the final passages of the book—which I won't ruin by quoting here out of context—Franzen returns to the loss of his mother, which brings the reader, temporally, back to the book's opening scene and the author's need to sell that house in Webster Groves. Franzen teasingly leads us to a rending crescendo, with the language and sentiment in the final pages sturdy and bluntly honest. Closing the book, one realizes that he has been heading here, back to his mother—to his problematic feelings about his mother—the whole time. The Discomfort Zone reminds us of what is best, when handled well, about literary memoir: the unguarded, unfictionalized expression of the untidy stuff that makes up a self.

Greg Bottoms is the author of Angelhead: My Brother's Descent into Madness, an Esquire "Book of the Year" in 2000, and the forthcoming The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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