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An unextraordinary life

Jonathan Franzen's memoir suffers from a lack of intensity and mundane source material. Another novel, please

By Emran Mian   November 2006

The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, £16.99

Jonathan Franzen was not abused as a child. His family was not poor. He has suffered from neither alcoholism nor drug addiction. Yet he has written a memoir. Some may ask why; it is a peculiar feature of the present that memoirs have become a vehicle only for expurgating grief and trauma. Franzen is a writer—the author of three novels, most notably The Corrections—and in this book, like many writers before him, he has turned his sensibility, intelligence and attention to his own life rather than to the lives of characters that he has invented. We shouldn’t be looking for the accompanying photographs or the clues as to what Franzen might be like to have over for dinner; this book should be judged as his novels are judged: what does the language do to us, what is the nature of the world that he captures, is there a narrative journey here that does something to the soul?

That said, the problem with this book is that Franzen has applied different standards to it than he does to his novels. There is an immediate difference in scope: The Corrections had a large cast of characters, while the new book, following only one character, is much narrower. This change in scope should mean a dividend in terms of intensity; as Franzen turns his eye to a more discrete subject, we ought to see more.

Right from the beginning though, it is obvious that the dividend is missing. This is the opening of The Discomfort Zone: “There’d been a storm that evening in St. Louis… The Saturday-night roads were saturated with a feeling of afterness, of lateness—the rain wasn’t falling, it had already fallen.” This is obviously fine writing, but compare it to the opening to The Corrections: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it; something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.”

In the memoir, he writes about a particular evening in a particular place. In the novel, he evokes a much wider, even cosmic, sense of disorder. But there is a difference too in the intensity of the writing. Surprisingly, it is the novel that is more gripping, that brings us closer to feeling the weather against our own cheeks. The storm in St Louis that opens The Discomfort Zone coincides with Franzen’s arrival in the city—his mother is ill, she isn’t in her home, and he is going there to prepare it for being sold. We do feel the effect of the storm, but we feel it because we know Jonathan Franzen, we know this is his memoir and because he soon tells us about the situation. We feel the storm because we realise that this really happened.

In the novel, Franzen has a tougher task; we need to feel the cold prairie front coming through, even though we know it isn’t really there and even though we don’t know any of his characters or have any reason to care about them. It’s no wonder that Franzen’s writing is so much better in the novel—it has to be—but it’s disappointing that he takes a more casual approach to his memoir. After all, he isn’t offering grief and trauma on the scale of other, more sensational memoirs. Most people will want to read this book because they know Franzen’s novels, and yet his own life hasn’t received the same literary attention as the lives of the characters in his novels.

The genre creates problems for Franzen in other ways. One essay is largely about the saboteur activities of a group of his high school friends. Their ambition is to get a tyre over the tall flagpole in front of the school. When they attempt to do so though, they succeed only in locking the flagpole and there follows a series of ransom notes, presented to the principal. The story is a good one, but the people behind the execution of this plan were schoolboys—the notes aren’t as funny or as clever as they could have been if they had been invented by, say, Franzen, the grown-up novelist. This may seem an odd complaint, but successful memoirs do rely on the extraordinariness of the material. Franzen doesn’t have extraordinary material.

At other points in the book, Franzen turns more to the form of the essay. There are excerpts here of his views on other writers, such as Kafka and Mann, and he begins to capture, in the final essay, some of the oddness and appeal of bird-watching, an activity he has recently taken up. Franzen writes fantastic essays—he has already published a book of them, How To Be Alone. But here, the essay sections emerge as part of the memoir—for example, the brief excurses on other peoples’ fiction are in the context of writing about his time in college—and they are therefore too brief, inconclusive, again, at least for me, they only emphasise the book that might have been. I can’t wait for Franzen’s next novel.

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