JONATHAN FRANZEN’S THE DISCOMFORT ZONE – A Personal History – analysis of one man’s identity by V Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone is essentially a collection of Franzen’s essays published in The New Yorker that deal with problems, life – time experiences, both social and emotional aspect of the author’s life. This essay will focus mainly on Franzen’s effectual attempt to create a self – portrait and at the same time make it legible and comprehensive in a way that anyone could cope with the problems and experiences he had during his maturation.
The book contains six essays : “House for Sale“, “Two Ponies“, “Then Joy Breaks Through“, “Centrally Located“, “The Foreing Language“ and “My Bird Problem“ which are written in an autobiographical, chronological way that enables the reader to follow his life from childhood, adolescence to his maturation. In the firts section of the book, entitled “House for Sale“, Jonathan returns to his family home in St. Louis after his mother’s death, in attempt to sell the house wher he spent most of his life.
Here is where Franzen shows his witty and humorous mind, regardless of how serious and grevious the situtaion is : „I went through the house and stripped the family photos out of every room. I’d been looking forward to do this almost as much as to my drink. My mother had been too attached to the formality of her living room and dining room to clutter them with snaphots, but elsewhere each wndowsill and each table-top was an eddy in which inexpensively framed photos had accumulated. “ (4) He compares his mother’s house to a novel which she continuously reorganized and rearranged throughout the years.
When talking about his mother’s lifetime struggle to keep everything inside and outside the house in order, he feels the melancholy and dissatisfaction with the way things ended. On one hand he wanted the house to be sold and even disliked it , but on the other, as he says : „ … I’d outgrown the novel I’d once been so happy to live in, and how little I even cared about the final sale price. “(25) Franzen also managed to fit some of his political an social ideas and opinions in this section.
He talks about the social situation in America during his childhood which was shaped by the idea that the middle – working class would always feel the debt to its society. He revises both liberal and conservative political concept of the time – being and puts himself in the „middle“: „In the middle of the middle, though, as I watched the old wallpaper come off in heavy, skinlike, pulp – smelling masses that reglued themselves to my fathers work boots, there was nothing but my family and house and church and school and work. “ (15)
In “Two Ponies“ we follow the life of Jonathan as a 10 – year – old boy and his reflections on both family life and current social situations around him. The opening part of this section actually provides a hint about the relationships inside the Franzen family. He was growing up alongside his two brothers, Tom and Bob, whom he appreciated and respected infinitely. According to Jonathan, Tom is a true representative of the social epidemic of that era, a rebellious adolescent who ran away from home in a search for his own identity: Late adolescents in suburbs like ours had suddenly gone berserk, running away to other cities to have sex and not ot go to college, ingesting every substance they could get.. For a while, the parents were so frightened… and so ashamed that each family, especilly mine, quarantined itself and suffered by itself… Tom’s bed, neatly made, was the bed of a kid carried off by the epidemic. “(32) In spite of being a child, Jonathan is able to provide comfort to his mother in times she felt sadness and shame because of Tom’s leaving.
He is therefore unconciously building up his emotional strength and at the same time bonding with his mother like never before. The insatiable obsession with Charles M. Schulz’s „Peanut Treasury“ is peculiar at times. As he lives a life of an extremely excellent student, he almost always and at all occasions compares his neighborhood, school, friends, family with the „Peanuts“. In his fantasy and in his dreams he became a part of that comic strip.
In The Washington Post review Birds on the Brain – A novelist exposes his life as a nerd, Bob Ivry wrote : „In that “unsettled season,” Franzen sought solace in a “private, intense relationship with Snoopy” and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang. The grownup Franzen can see why his pre-teen mini-me would identify so obsessively, and the reason is no less heartbreaking for its ordinariness: Nobody grows up, or apart, in a comic strip. ” Charlie Brown represents an on – going inspiration for Franzen. The world as he knew it was shaped by the ideas from the very character.
Many of his school activities resemble a lot to the stories in „Peanut Treasury“, such as the spelling bee, where he actually found out he was very much competitive and enjoyed exposing his great knowledge and his „geek“ spirit to others. „Our brains are like cartoonists – and cartoons are like our brains, simplifying and exaggerating, subordinating facial detail to abstract comic concepts. “(40) Jonathan loves comic books and cartoons just as much as any other child his age, but unlike others, in search of another, better reality, he „sticks around“ a lot more than others, weirdly up till end of his adolescent years.
It is in this section that Franzen mentiones the „Comfort Zone“ , the thermostat regulator which was of great importance to his father, and a subject of jokes for his mother and him. “Then Joy Breaks Through“ is one of the interesting parts of the book where Jonathan is in his adolescent years and is resisting the common teenage temptations. Jonathan joins a group of young people called „Fellowship“ which was sponsored by the First Congregational Church.
During a weekend retreat with the „Fellowship“ the children are engaged in different activities typicall for such camping trips, but are also allured by various temptations (drugs, alcohol,sex etc) which are obviously forbidden. However, all Jonathan concernes about is how to avoid „Social Death“ and not having to face the embarasement in case someone found his mother’s letter where she addressed him as „Dearest Jonathan“. He struggles so hard not to expose his „nerd“ personality: „The well – being I felt in returning to Shannondale as a ninth grader, in wearing jeans and racing through the woods at night, was acquired mainly by fraud.
I had to pretend to be a kid who naturally said „shit“ a lot, a kid who hadn’t written a book – length report on plant physiology, a kid who didn’t enjoy calculating absolute stellar magnitudes on his new six funtion calculator… “(57) At times, it is noticeable that he is uneasy about being the last child in the family, which he also assosiates with being a „latecomer“ in the Fellowship and at times not knowing the facts and events that happened in the past.
For him, it seems as if those around him wanted to spare him of something which thy thought was wrong : „It was as if I went through life wearing a sing that said KEEP HIM IN THE DARK. “(69) The „dark“ ment him not knowing anything about man – woman physical relations or anything about drugs : „I didn’t even know how to call the stuff that kids were smoking. The word „pot“ to me had the quotation – marked ring of moms and teachers trying to sound hipper than they really were, which was unpleasently close to a descripiton of myself. “(69)
This intelligent young fellow was deep down inside a frightened child, especially when it comes to his parents: „Of the many things I was afraid of in those days – spiders, insomnia, fish hooks, school dances… puberty… the school cafeteria, censure, old teenagers… locker rooms… popular girls… – I was probably most afraid of my parents. “(74) But, all these fears cannot cope with the happiness he felt becoming a part, moreover, an important part of elects for the new council in the Fellowship. For the first time, he was recognized, acknowledged to be one of the rest.
Though he wanted, he never showed such aspirations, which reveals a side of Franzen’s self – oriented character. The section “Centrally Located” deals with Franzen being a vivacious, perky teenager experiencing the ups and downs of high school. Together with a few of his friends, he forms another fellowship (U. N. C. L. E. / DIOTI), only this time based upon another idea. They are set to perform a series of childish pranks, which are at times very well organized and deeply thought – out. Of course, their main goal is to be recognized by the principle, school teachers and other students.
In other words, they want to get caught. Nevertheless, throughout these passages we see how Jonathan transforms when it comes to emotions and his relationships with girls. He falls in love on several occasions, never successful enough, but still, he appears more open – minded: “…Hoener’s friends at her school were doing the ordinary cool things – drinking, experimenting with sex and drugs – that I wasn’t… she and I shared romantic views of childhood. We were old enough to not to be ashamed of playing like little kids, young enough to still become engrossed in it…I was close to whispering “I love you”. (95) “I wanted all of her and resented other boys for wanting any part of her” (105) Moreover, Jonathan becomes almost fully aware or his existence. He sees himself as a “fifty – year – old boy” and the “unofficial adolescent”. He thinks that one can enjoy his adolescence years only by not being aware or conscious about the reality or the world. “You never stop waiting for the real story to start, because the real story, in the end, is that you die. ” (113)
The following section, “The Foreign Language”, talks about Franzen’s first sexual experience, his interests in German language and literature. Together with his parents, he visits his brother Bob at his dorm room, and immediately after the visit, accidentally or not, he becomes interested in reading pornographic magazines, such as Rouge, but finds the pictures not as interesting as the stories in it. Curiously enough, after being stunned by Schulz’s Peanuts, thanks to his favorite professor Avery, he begins to focus mainly on the works of Kafka and Mann.
Reading “The Process”, he engages himself entirely in the story of Joseph K. , and after having discussed it with Avery, he found out that Kafka’s novel was more or less the story about him: “Kafka was afraid of death, he had problems with sex, he had problems with women, he had problems with his job, he had problems with his parents. And he was writing fiction to try to figure these things out. ”(140) It was precisely Avery who helped him understand Kafka in his essence: “… ll three of the dimensions in Kafka: that a man could be a sweet, sympathetic, comically needy victim and lascivious, self – aggrandizing, grudge – bearing bore, and also, crucially, a third thing: a flicker consciousness, a simultaneity of culpable urge and poignant self – reproach, a person in process”(146) The review “An Inner Life Outgrown“ by Benjamin Lytal in “NY The Sun” explains: “In “The Foreign Language,” he relates his dawning understanding of Kafka, in stages, and thus covers a great deal of his personal growth in college.
He characteristically talks about two things at once — the original and now perhaps forgotten subversiveness of Peanuts helps explain the surprisingly complex mores of his upscale St. Louis neighborhood. Mr. Franzen goes beyond the simple use of metaphor; he glues his characters to history. ” Finally, in this section, we see Jonathan’s first steps in his literature – journalism career. The last section emphasizes Franzen as a grown, mature person, as a Man. My Bird Problem” addresses his elevated consciousness about ecological issues, like global warning, which is interconnected with his immense preoccupation and care for the birds (later on, this care turns into a form of obsession). The marriage crisis is something Jonathan and his wife are dealing very seriously with. They both wanted “in” and “out”, searching and travelling to places far from their home in attempt to preserve what was left of their love, but eventually they separate. This is when he found his “escape”, his avocation in bird watching.
He engaged in several different love affairs, one of them being actually successful. He deals with issues of being a father and having children, and eventually gives up. His mother’s death strikes him deeply, but he manages to carry on and continue his life and carrier, alongside his girlfriend – the Californian. In conclusion, I would like to point that Jonathan Franzen’s “The Discomfort Zone” is not a typical autobiographical story of one man’s maturation, it is also a deeply thought out, even philosophically treated memoir of a man reminiscing and exploring his life from its basis.
The essays are written in an easy, relaxing language, which enables the readers to lightly follow his life story and remain focused on his personal development throughout the years. From an insecure, innocent, but yet incredibly intelligent young boy, Jonathan develops into a somewhat weird grown up. He manages to tell his story and interest his public even more with the use of his witty, sharp and humorous puns. He entertains with legerity while at the same time he occupies with important, life – forming issues.
To end with, as Bob Ivry said: “A common thread running through the essays is the peeling away of childish illusion to reveal a second reality — the very definition of growing up, and a discomfort zone if there ever was one. Discovering the beauty and ubiquity of birds, for instance, after a lifetime of looking at them but not seeing them, made Franzen feel as if he’d always “been mistaken about something important. ” Franzen may be known as The Man Who Said No To Oprah; he’s written about that pop-culture melodrama elsewhere, thankfully.
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. Works cited: | | | | | • Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone – A PERSONAL HISTORY, Harper Perennial, London, 2007 • Bob Ivry, Birds on the Brain – A novelist exposes his life as a nerd,The Washington Post, October 1, 2006 www. washingtonpost. com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/28/AR2006092801374. htm • Benjamin Lytal, An inner Life Outgrown, The NY Sun, August 30, 2006 www. nysun. com/arts/inner-life-outgrown/38822/