The Wonderful Franzen

I’ve read most of what Jonathan Franzen has published. Not surprisingly, my introduction to him was via The Corrections, his Oprah-endorsed novel.

That put him onto my list of authors to watch. While I waited for his next novel (Freedom), I read his essays (How Not to Be Alone) and his memoir (The Discomfort Zone).

I love The Discomfort Zone. I like memoirs, and this one did not disappoint. I love the feeling of being invited to pull up a chair with the author, sit a spell, and hear about their mildly dysfunctional childhood and their tendency to overanalyze. If, after all, they didn’t have a tendency to overanalyze, they wouldn’t be writing a memoir.

Franzen is so nerdy and familiar. (Of his ten-year old self: “my involvement with my collection of stuffed animals was on the verge of becoming age-inappropriate” p. 29.) I expected so much more of a sophisticated artiste. But, no, just a middle class Midwesterner, coming to terms with his relationship with his parents after their passing in his middle age.

His parents were strict. He wasn’t allowed to wear jeans to school, or a t-shirt to Disney World. (I had similar clothing prohibitions–no shorts to school! It was California, for goodness’ sake. No clothes with logos. Seriously. No patterned shorts when we went to San Diego county.) When his parents are on a trip to Europe and he goes to his youth group’s retreat: “I was wearing my jeans and desert boots and windbreaker, my antianxiety ensemble” (p. 54). (LK: I need an antianxiety ensemble.)

On pulling a prank at school (filling a room with desks): “Since I was fifty as well as seventeen, I’d insisted that we take masking tape and markers and label the desks with their room numbers” (p. 109).

He describes his last visit with his mother, before she dies of cancer. His mother is grilling him about his girlfriend and their future plans together. Then he describes a conversation with his girlfriend after his mother dies, where he himself grills her about their future: “In the style of my mother, who had been a gifted abrader of the sensitivities of people she was unhappy with…” (p. 178).

A gifted abrader of sensitivities. I know a few of those.

The video in this interview with The Guardian makes me smile. At 0:26: “What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? It’s like every second that passes is sending the message ‘he can hardly think of anything he doesn’t like about himself!’ When in fact, there are so many things I don’t like about myself that it’s hard to choose the single trait I most deplore.” Seems like a regular guy to me.

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