In his new book, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen looks back at his childhood and adolescence near Chicago in the 1960s and '70s. I grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class, he writes.
A brilliantly talented author, Franzen is more aware than most Americans of the ironies of individuality and citizenship. There are many moments here that bring together the individual and group experience of being American, from Franzen's brother and father fighting over the National Guard shootings at Kent State to the mix of compassion and annoyance experienced by those beseeched for donations in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
Winner of the National Book Award in 2001 for The Corrections, Franzen is perhaps best known for his own discomfort about taking part in Oprah's TV book club. In his memoir, Franzen's story moves between his adult life as a relatively famous novelist and his childhood as a nerdy and insecure child and teen. The Discomfort Zone provides page after page of clear-eyed observation and disconcertingly candid emotion. Many readers will identify with the ongoing argument between Franzen's father and mother over where to set the thermostat in their house, a struggle that gives the book its title.
Sometimes Franzen seems to be galloping off on a tangent, but readers who stay with him will find that he has kept his topic in mind all along. For example, in exploring what he admired about Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, he examines Schulz's life and the curious way that his cartoons appealed to both squares and hippies in the 1960s. By the time Franzen gets to the kitsch and sentimentality of later Peanuts strips, he has analyzed an era and his own parents. By the time he reaches the end of this book, he has immortalized a country and a family blithely unaware of their own decline.
Michael Sims is the editor of The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel.