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the complete review - autobiographical
The Discomfort Zone
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A- : very well written and presented, but one very odd duck
See our review for fuller assessment.
Not quite a consensus, but most find it quite successful
From the Reviews:
- "It's hilarious and it's painful. It's sharply insightful and it's also frustratingly obtuse. No human being should have to experience the self-loathing that Franzen appears to feel for his youthful self. But then again neither should anyone be so exhaustingly and blindly self-involved. And yet Franzen is, and somehow manages to convey that to us in equal measures of humor and painful acuity.(...) But for those who admire the razor-sharp jabs Franzen makes at himself and anyone else standing too close, The Discomfort Zone is both a delicious read and a clever showcase for Franzen's talents." - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor
- "These funny, masterfully composed, self-deprecating -- if sometimes too foppish -- ruminations on his life so far examine such minitopics as Peanuts, selling his late mother's house, studying German, bird-watching, and high school prankery." - Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly
- "Franzen’s strength as a memoirist is that he is willing to present himself as occasionally unattractive: weak and complacent. (...) This spectre of laziness, of over-security in his own stylistic and imaginative gifts as a writer, haunts Franzen’s book. Every family anecdote here presented is attached to a larger cultural resonance. (...) Each of the weaknesses of this book, however, has a parallel strength." - Daniel Swift, Financial Times
- "Es fehlt weder an drastischer Komik noch ergreifenden bildungsromanhaften Einsichten und Verwicklungen in "The Foreign Language" und den fünf anderen Rückblenden, die Jonathan Franzen unter dem Titel The Discomfort Zone gesammelt und soeben veröffentlicht hat. (...) Aus all der Fahrigkeit, den unverwüstlichen Neurosen und der fast genießerisch inszenierten Selbstentblößung entsteigt wie Venus der Muschel unser vertrauter Meistererzähler, der in lässiger Eleganz seinen Sündenkatalog ausbreitet und mit Vignetten über Bubenstreiche in der kirchlichen Jugendgruppe und adoleszente Entdeckerfreuden und -ängste im Naturschutzgebiet brilliert." - Jordan Mejias, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Jonathan Franzen is honest enough about what he recounts; it's just that he gives endless detail about his teen years and then skips over two decades into the present, thereby avoiding all the messy mishaps of adulthood. (...) It must be said that he is terribly funny about his own nerdy penchants." - Edmund White, The Guardian
- "Franzen has chosen, however, to eschew the current trend for memoir-as-ersatz-fiction. Instead, he has opted to bring a near-forensic gaze to the childhood and adolescent worlds that shaped the person -- and the writer -- he has become. (...) Some of it is very funny indeed, but it isn't played for laughs. A rich and rewarding mélange of social and family history, and of personal and political reflection, this is, most of all, a moving tale of a boy who learnt to wear a mask, a boy so alarmed by the "ever-invading sea" of his mother that he cut himself off from all emotion -- a boy who never quite shook off his inner nerd." - Christina Patterson, The Indepepndent
- "What makes The Discomfort Zone so consistently fascinating is his ambivalence. He's cursed if he sticks to the Scandinavian straight and narrow, hammered into his head by his humorless, beloved father, and cursed if he doesn't. (...) What The Discomfort Zone resembles, in fact, is an old-fashioned diorama in a museum, displaying the airborne author at each stage of his evolution. (...) The weak chapters have their share of delights; the strong chapters are impossibly articulate and true." - James Marcus, The Los Angeles Times
- "In deprecating himself to the point of self-annihilation, Franzen performs the great favour of allowing us all to exhale. By writing so personally, as he does in this series of six essays that -- true to the collection's title -- induce discomfort amid memories of fist-chewing indignity, he shows that most of what constitutes the feeling of being ashamed is the belief that you're alone in your awkwardness: that no one before or since has ever been so gauche, or so casually stupid." - Lynsey Hanley, New Statesman
- "(S)o expertly shaped and composed, so genuinely, organically thought-provoking, that I wish I could yank it off the shelf where it will inevitably sit with the autobiographical writing of other hip authors perhaps too young to be writing autobiography (...), and toss it into the bleak anonymity of some loosely defined territory like "General Nonfiction."" - Adam Begley, The New York Observer
- "As an essayist, Franzen lets one motif lead him to another without logical fuss" - Denis Donoghue, The New York Review of Books
- "In The Discomfort Zone we see this conflation of self and society in action, usually to good effect. Mr. Franzen's fundamental subject is the loss of middle-class certainties, which he sees as happening during his lifetime." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun
- "Mr. Franzen turns his unforgiving eye on himself and succeeds in giving us an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed. (...) While some readers will want to give Mr. Franzen points for being so revealing about himself, there is something oddly preening about his self-inventory of sins, as though he actually reveled in being so disagreeable. And while it doubtless takes a degree of self-absorption for anyone to write a memoir, in the case of this book the author’s self-involvement not only makes for an incredibly annoying portrait, but also funnels the narrative into a dismayingly narrow channel." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "(A)n unappetizing new essay collection that makes it only too clear that the weird poles between which the author seemed to oscillate during l’affaire Oprah -- a kind of smug cleverness, on the one hand, and a disarming, sometimes misguided candor, on the other; a self-involved and self-regarding precocity and an adolescent failure to grasp the effect of his grandiosity on others -- frame not only the career, but the man himself. (...) Structure, alas, is the least of this book’s problems; the real issue is content: the person whose history emerges in these pages, however haphazardly, is not one you want to know." - Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review
- "In all these cases, Franzen displays his rhetorical grace. His usually conversational tone is full of self-deprecating comedy, vivid social insight and rigorous intelligence." - Tim Adams, The Observer
- "Franzen gamely punctures his own pretensions and pettiness. (...) The Discomfort Zone is a book that could have been written only by someone who has grown more comfortable with himself. Without being smug about it, Franzen is pleased with how he's turned out." - Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Ultimately, Franzen’s highly readable, slightly caramel-flavoured writing has something more important than just charm, and a couple of essays address themselves to the state of America, a crass society dragging the world into unwinnable wars." - Phil Baker, Sunday Times
- "(E)ven fans of Jonathan Franzen's work might prefer to avoid The Discomfort Zone. (...) Even formally, the project is vain. We're meant to be engaged by the author's passionate teenage attachment to a Christian youth group called 'Fellowship' because, outside the book, we know that Franzen became a bestselling novelist with The Corrections. Ipso facto, we give a toss. (...) It is a lurching hodge-podge of isolated memories and unrelated set-piece digressions. (...) The tone of this entire volume is faux self-critical." - Lionel Shriver, The Telegraph
- "Franzen's memoir is cleverly written and often fun to read, and it would be easy to overemphasise its flaws. He's funny and self-deprecating about his earnest childhood and the total failure of his efforts to get girls to go to bed with him as a Kafka-loving, small-magazine-editing student. Nevertheless, his habit of connecting the personal and the political becomes less effective when he's the ostensible subject of the book, however ironically handled." - Christopher Tayler, The Telegraph
- "(T)here is a direct honesty behind these portraits that is admirable, even though one wonders if it is really wise for Franzen to be so forthright (.....) (T)he new volume will be rewarding for readers who enjoy Franzen's often humorous attempts to anatomize his divided feelings of shame and his social anxieties." - Stephen Burn, Times Literary Supplement
- "As an essayist, Franzen has a talent for seamless transitions and for weaving together multiple lines of thought, which is harder than it looks. He is at his best on his high school pranks and passions for bird-watching and for Charles Schulz's comic strip Peanuts." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
- "Most notably, Discomfort is all about correcting." - Theo Schell-Lambert, The Village Voice
- "He takes experiences from his life that, to be frank, aren't all that exciting, feeds them through the mixing board of his prodigious insight, and produces some beautiful music. Most of the time, anyway.(...) Here, we get the small, unexpectedly fraught moments that accumulate into a life. They're interesting merely because they happened to Franzen, who has the enviable ability to make them so." - Bob Ivry, The Washington Post
- "The Discomfort Zone ist ein radikales Buch insofern, als es gnadenlos all das hererzählt, was dem Autor peinlich ist." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Discomfort Zone is certainly an appropriate title, as Jonathan Franzen seems have made this place his home.
This 'personal history' is both wallow in and paean to this zone, making for a very odd book.
Numerous parts of the book were first published in The New Yorker, and the six pieces are more or less self-contained narratives, but they also add up to a larger autobiographical fragment, progressing in somewhat chronological order.
(Franzen writes from the present, revisiting the past (and hopping back and forth a good deal), but the first piece touches on his childhood, and from there the pieces move through adolescence to adulthood.)
Growing up in Webster Groves, Missouri, in the 1960s, Franzen admits:
I was cocooned in cocoons that were themselves cocooned.
He was the youngest son (by quite a margin) of doting parents who nevertheless had very strict ideas about what was permissible and what was unacceptable, and while Websters Grove and the family home weren't a complete den of repression, they certainly made for a bizarre sort of pressure cooker.
It's no surprise that older brother Tom storms out of the house after a single big argument with Dad (or that Mom demands young Jonathan not reveal he's left home until they learn where Tom actually is, the disgrace of his abandoning his family too much for her to admit to in public).
Jonathan isn't suited for any similar sort of rebellion -- though Mom and Dad can't hide their disappointment that he likes to write so much.
Writing appeals to him, but also serves other purposes:
I had started keeping a journal, and I was discovering that I didn't need school in order to experience the misery of appearances.
I could manufacture excruciating embarrassment in the privacy of my bedroom, simply by reading what I'd written in the journal the day before.
Its pages faithfully mirrored my fraudulence and pomposity and immaturity.
Painful introspection -- recorded on the page, in order allow for constant re-examination -- still seems Franzen's preferred approach.
There's something admirable about his willingness to reveal himself constantly as a boob (as he does here), but it's also quite disturbing.
Franzen does seem to get at (some of) the roots of what made him the way he was and is.
Certainly, the stifling home atmosphere didn't help, and the opening section -- on the selling of his mother's house after her death -- nicely captures what that childhood must have been like.
Franzen laughs at his own ineptness (as in choosing the broker who is supposed to sell the house) but here -- as almost everywhere -- there's a bitter aftertaste.
Yes, there's a funny side to it all, but it's also all just so sad.
Still, the approach works, because Franzen doesn't seem capable of honest emotion.
Indeed, he doesn't even seem to know what it might be -- and he is self-aware enough to recognise that; after his mother dies:
I broke down in tears every few hours, which I took as a sign that I was working through my grief and would soon be over it.
Franzen recounts episodes from along his way, from a 'Fellowship' youth group (an environment where his peculiarness wasn't as debilitating as in high school) to studying German to birdwatching.
There's a bit about literature (especially German literature) and becoming a writer, but though Franzen acknowledges always being bookish he seems to give much more credit to experience in making him the writer he became.
The strongest literary influence he offers is Charles Schulz's Peanuts (and hapless Charlie Brown) -- though Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka are also (convincingly) acknowledged.
Sex and women are also a problem.
Again there's more sense of just how stifling the Franzen household was when his ears perk up when he is almost eighteen and his friends are discussing masturbation -- something he's never even tried.
(His Mom was the sort of person who sent him out of his older brother's college dorm room, because there was a centerfold pinned-up on the wall .....)
He doesn't fare too well with the girlfriends (the usual tragi-comic-catastrophic mix has one he expects to lose his virginity to break her back (while she's off with another guy, of course)).
Eventually, however, he even marries, and seems to have found a soulmate, the two of them living: "on our own little planet":
we made our aloneness work for four years, for five years, for six years; and then, when the domestic atmosphere really did begin to overheat, we fled from New York to a Spanish village where we didn't know anybody and the villagers hardly even spoke Spanish.
Needless to say, it did not work out in the end -- and one wonders how it ever had:
We reacted to minor fights at breakfast by lying facedown on the floor of our respective rooms for hours at a time, waiting for acknowledgement of our pain.
I wrote poisonous jeremiads to family members who I felt had slighted my wife; she presented me with handwritten fifteen- and twenty-page analyses of our condition; I was putting away a bottle of Maalox every week.
This incredible silliness, this attitude that is so alien to (one imagines and hopes) absolutely every reader Franzen could hope to find for his book(s) is part of the appeal of The Discomfort Zone.
Yet what really makes it successful (insofar as it is successful) is Franzen's self-awareness: he knows and understands that his behaviour and his reactions are off-the-wall nutty.
The just-cited passage, for example, continues:
It was clear to me that something was terribly wrong.
And what was wrong, I decided, was modern industrialized society's assault on the environment
There are a few political riffs in the book, and they're quite good -- but (too) easily dismissable as typical 'liberal' cause-embracing.
What Franzen wants is an idealised world; the real one defeats him:
To really deliver the goods, the West also had to conform to my wish that it be unpopulated and pristine.
And it comes as no surprise to hear him admit:
What sickened and enraged me were all the other human beings on the planet.
Yet one of Franzen's biggest problems is that, self-centred to the navel-core, he is still desperate to fit in and belong.
From his 'Fellowship' days to high school friends to -- if need be -- the reduced-to-two-person universe he apparently shared for a while with his wife, he always needs the praise of the Other.
There's a lot of subtlety in Franzen's account.
he does go into painful detail, yet just as often elides over it -- especially when (not) dealing with success.
There's practically nothing about the book that made him, The Corrections, (or, indeed, his two earlier novels), nor much about his academic successes (he seems to have been a good little schoolboy).
Typically, a rare mention of school-success is combined not with failure but overwhelming guilt, as when there's a new boy in school, Toczo, who actually poses something of a challenge in a classroom contest, the kicker coming after Jonathan has learned his little lesson:
A few months after the Homonym Spelldown, just after summer vacation started, Toczo ran out into Grant Road and was killed by a car.
Throughout his life, it never seems to be enough to just learn from life's little mistakes.
It seems there's always a knock-down punch waiting around the corner.
(So, anyway, it appears; the reader should not forget that this is also because of how Franzen presents events.)
Franzen writes well and confidently, and his approach to re-examining the past, shifting back and forth in time, works very well here.
It's a bizarre tale -- both in its very ordinariness (sure, the Franzens had their foibles, but hardly more or less than most families, and Franzen's home and school experiences weren't that different from millions of others') -- and in Franzen's odd ways.
It's perversely fascinating -- helped immensely by Franzen's tone and appealing style.
Still, in the end it's been more of an entertainment than truly enlightening.
It's easy to admire Franzen as a writer, but it remains as difficult as ever to take him at all seriously.
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The Discomfort Zone:
Other books by Jonathan Franzen under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Biographical works under review
- See Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
American author Jonathan Franzen was born in 1959.
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© 2006-2013 the complete review
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