'The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History' by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen shows no mercy -- for himself

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Two questions nagged me as I enjoyed every word of literary novelist Jonathan Franzen's new memoir:

   
"THE DISCOMFORT ZONE: A PERSONAL HISTORY"

By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($22)

   

1) In these perilous times, shouldn't I be reading important books like "Fiasco" and "State of Denial"?

2) Am I enchanted by his coming-of-age story simply because his key demographics are almost identical to mine? In other words, can I make the case that "The Discomfort Zone" will appeal to people other than 47-year-old white males who wear neo-horn-rimmed glasses, to people who did not "grow up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class"?

I still intend at least to skim "Fiasco," but I cannot honestly command Americans beyond my tribal subset to pick up Franzen's new book. Yet those who do will encounter a rare feat -- an unabashedly all-about-me memoir that gazes not only at the writer's navel but also at the wide world around him.

Franzen writes with rigor and precision (German studies at Swarthmore have paid off). In addition to himself, his subjects include:

His tightly wound parents and freewheeling older brothers, his unreligious Protestant church youth group, the wisdom of "Peanuts" in its prime, brainy high school pranksmanship, the transformation of a real education, the protracted adolescence of post-college white male life, courtship, marriage and marriage evaporation, bird watching, global warming and the anguished dance through his 40s over whether to have children. (He doesn't.)

Most of all, Franzen writes with unsparing honesty and humor -- though, because he reminds me of high-school soulmates, they could be inside jokes.

The book uses not sex but its proxy -- real estate -- to capture our attention from the start. Franzen, 40 at the time, comes in from New York to sell the family house in St. Louis. His mother has just died after a long bout with cancer; the father, we learn later, suffered from dementia and died years earlier. The house is in Webster Groves, a pleasant but not pretentious suburb, and the Franzens had bought it in 1965 for $35,000. Every home improvement project undertaken in the intervening years, Franzen reports, had been justified by his parents with the chant of "It'll sell the house!"

In her dying days, Franzen's fastidious mother had become obsessed with the local real estate market and her house's value. "Before she died," Franzen writes, his mother "had made it clear that there was no better way to honor her memory and validate the last decades of her life than to sell the house for a shocking amount of money."

She even composed "a sample advertisement the way someone else might have drafted her own obituary" and suggested a selling price of $350,000. The house is listed for $382,000 with a fast-talking agent who appealed to Franzen's venal side; it finally fetched $310,000 after many missteps.

"My mother would have been stricken to learn how much less we took for it," Franzen confesses. "But this wasn't the big way I'd let her down," and much of his memoir is about that.

The National Book Award-winning novelist is hard on himself from beginning to end, which makes his judgments of others' shortcomings easy to swallow. By all appearances, the Franzens were a functional family and the youngest child, Jonathan, an outstanding success in his field. By subjecting everything in his life to a withering gaze, however, Franzen illuminates the dysfunction that lurks within.

Known for his elegant broadsides against literary fashion, Franzen has issued an instructional manual for would-be memoirists with "The Discomfort Zone": If you must write about yourself, be an investigative reporter -- and keep it lean and mean.


John Allison is an editor at the Post-Gazette ( jallison@post-gazette.com ).


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