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Wednesday, September 20th, 2006
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The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History

by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen World: A Nice Place to Visit

A review by Anna Godbersen

Memoir is the confessional genre, of course, and is filled with dark secrets as well as minor ones of the "I stare at beer-commercial cleavage" variety, an admission Jonathan Franzen makes midway through his The Discomfort Zone. His title appears to have been chosen for a number of apt reasons, but is also appropriate to the feel of the book; this work does inspire a cringe or two. This is not only because of the self-importance shining through the prose, but also because of the apparent belief, shared by many a memoirist, that readers will be curious about an author's adolescent attempts to get laid or about the politics of his college literary magazine. There is also a tangible misanthropy here (describing his attraction to his ex-wife, he comments "Deploring other people -- their lack of perfection -- had always been our sport"); his first reaction to Hurricane Katrina -- a curious, guilty self-justification for not donating money to the victims -- does not go down particularly well, either.

Still, it is hard to dislike The Discomfort Zone. It begins with a perfectly crafted opening paragraph and goes on to describe, in six elegant chapters, Franzen's maturation from a "small and fundamentally ridiculous person," to the kind of successful, childless adult who enjoys activities like birding. He seems at times to be setting up his life as emblematic of the changes the country has undergone during it; for instance, he ends a long paragraph describing the environmental recklessness of the last ten years by saying that it occurred "in the decade when I left my wife and took up with a twenty-seven-year-old and really started having fun." Franzen seems, alternately, to be detailing his aesthetic. From the assertive averageness of his practical, Midwestern family to his love of the sad-funny comics of Charles Schultz to his knowledge of the German language, this book reads like a map of the sensibility that made The Corrections so entertaining and important. Even in his minor scenes and ordinary descriptions, Franzen employs a cartoonish flair that catches the reader's eye and signifies that it all really is about something greater than himself.

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