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Friday, November 2, 2007

Books: Franzen Finds His Discomfort Zone

Franzen: Novice Masturbator

Jonathan Franzen's memoir The Discomfort Zone, now out in paperback, occupies an oddball space in the current world of hyper-dramatic self exposure through writing. Unlike the Sean Wilsey and James Frey and Augusten Burroughs tomes there is no drug addiction, sexual misbehavior, or psychiatric crises. Rather there is bland Midwestern psychic and physical repression so well embodied by the title.

What this makes for is an uncomfortable and somewhat dissatisfying read. For the most part The Discomfort Zone is a coming of age book, but Franzen is such a cypher as a boy that so much of what he writes seems to hint at a lot more under the surface than is readily evident. All of his friends, whether male or female, are saddled with their last name as identifiers. At first I thought he grew up in a suburb of particularly piquant namers who called their sons Manley and Davis and their girls MacDonald and Siebert. He is so beaten down by his distant and disapproving mother and father that he builds a good boy shell around himself that only serves to hide a somewhat less good boy interior. This is a boy who even as a teen didn't masturbate.

The two best sections here, titled "Then Joy Breaks Through", combines a history and explication of a church group the town teens were very involved with called "The Fellowship" and then "Centrally Located" which describes some very harmless schoolkid pranks. Both are rich with detail and incident but whenever the story circles back to Franzen himself it blanks out, running aground against the flanks of his tight defenses.

As a big fan of his novel The Corrections it is interesting to see little (and not so little) chunks of the authors life that were re-purposed for his brilliant novel. But if the hurly-burly of simmering surfacing resentments pierced his own life, it's not evident from The Discomfort Zone.

The Discomfort Zone gets two out of five Jocelyn Elders:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Franzen is just treading water before releasing his next novel which could be years from now.