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 not suffered from either alcoholism or drug addiction. Yet he has written a memoir. Why? The question is an odd one and Franzen has resisted answering it in interviews. 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?
All that said, the problem with this book is that Franzen has applied different standards than he has to his novels—he unfortunately also seems to regard the memoir as something quite different to the novel.
Immediately, there is a difference in scope. The Corrections had a large cast of characters, ranging from the new economics of eastern Europe (one of the sons participates in an elaborate scam to lure investors to an invented ex-communist country) to the new science of happiness (almost all the characters, except the father who has Parkinson’s disease, contemplate using anti-depressants). This new book, as it follows only one character, the author, is obviously much narrower. The book consists of a series of essays that move between episodes in Franzen’s life—travelling to St Louis to arrange the sale of his mother’s house, playing pranks in high school, starting college. The change in scope should mean that there is 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…