So remember when I said I was obsessed with Jonathan Franzen. Well, rather than resisting temptation, I read another of his books, this one a personal memoir, The Discomfort Zone. Besides my being a creepy stalker, the book appealed to me (1) as biographical background to cast light on Freedom and The Corrections and (2) because I’m writing some memoirish stuff of my own about my kidney donation and I’ve been wanting to read some examples of the genre.
The Discomfort Zone is clearly one of Franzen’s lesser works (I think he would freely admit this). It’s certainly not bad, but the memoir is not a great form for him, and it’s clearly much smaller than either of his two great novels in scope and ambition. Memoir fits him poorly because he’s not naturally a confessional author. It’s not that he’s private in a factual sense, since he is indeed very honest and open in Discomfort Zone, completely willing to divulge details that put him in an unkind or absurd light, he: didn’t masturbate until after the age of 18; was a virgin until he was a senior in college (when he slept with his future wife); cheated (maybe) on that wife with a 27-year old, etc. At the same time, he uses his writerly craft to render his experiences into good stories that have a reality apart from the objective circumstances they describe. This artifice makes his chapters to be entertaining and meaningful essays while managing to avoid leaving the author emotionally naked. Franzen presents himself like a minor character in one of his novels rather than as an unfettered I, as a person writing about their own experiences.
To psychoanalyze, I believe part of this comes from Franzen’s tremenndous emotional sensitivity. In the video I linked to in my Counterlife post, he described himself as so afraid of conflict that he can’t read for himself a letter expressing annger with his work. For him to reveal earnestly the dark emotional truths about him from his own perspective would be too much to bear. Instead, Franzen’s a writer who can’t bear to let the reader see him cry. He’s willing to describe his dark truths and tell stories that artfully get at them, but that’s not what we look for from a great memoir: in a novel we connect with characters, but in a memoir we connect with the author. A memoirist who preserves his writerly distance can produce a work we admire and enjoy, but he cannot persuade us to fall in love.
The work Franzen does produce is in the key of Adam Gopnik, a very fine writer on his own, but not one who can produce the torrential emotionality generated by the best memoirists and by Franzen-the-novelist. Like Gopnik’s oeuvre, the Discomfort Zone is essentially a comedy. Moments of great significance and tragedy occur (Franzen marries and is divorced; his mother dies of cancer), but those are mostly clustered in his final, strongest chapter. The arc of the book (more a series of essays than any sort of autobiography) mostly explores Franzen’s childhood up to the end of his college career (where the final chapter covering the rest of his life starts off). Franzen memorably and Gopnikianly describes his childhood self as “a fundamentally ridiculous person.” While Franzen has clearly examined his life and made the hard journey into mature adulthood, I get the sense that he still views himself in a comic light. Though he describes himself with great perceptiveness, he always does it with a self-effacing shrug and ironic point: look at this silly person over here. He doesn’t see himself as a character about whom books deserve to be written.
Now I know so far I’ve been giving this book scant praise, but it really is quite good. In particular, while Franzen is incapable of making you feel his trek to adulthood, he explains it perceptively and precisely. Franzen tells the story of his love for German literature (he was a German major because he didn’t want to do science and his stern father threatened not to pay for the school of someone unserious enough to major in English) as the story of his growing from child into man. Kafka’s The Trial (or as Franzen says, in German “The Case” or “The Process) mirrors his own trial of self-understanding. Mann’s The Magic Mountain traces Franzen’s own voyage into Bohemian adulthood (and sexual awakening). He describes the happy awkwardness of life as a prodigious adolescent with his constant attempts to avoid Social Death, but he also perceptively shows the sharpening of his embryonic moral sense through his following the example of a Christian youth-group leader (who he portrays in convincing detail). Taken as perceptive, artful, description of the empirical phenomenon of growing up, the book does well, but unlike the greatest of Franzen’s work, it only rarely pierces through to emotional revelation. If you’re a Franzen-lover, you’ll find the book worth your time, but if you’re looking for a memoirist to punch through a wall so you can glimpse their soul, you should probably move along.