The confessional mode in literature has an uncomplicated appeal for both writers and readers: the unburdening of guilt, vicarious or otherwise. But as Tobias Wolff cautioned in his mordant memoir of military service during the Vietnam War, In Pharaoh’s Army: ‘Isn’t there, in the very act of confession, an obscene self-congratulation for the virtue required to see your mistake and own up to it?’ Jonathan Franzen’s memoir, The Discomfort Zone, is an object lesson in the management of such obscenity. The book begins with a loss. After lengthy treatment for colon cancer, his widowed mother, Irene, has died. The youngest of three brothers who’ve fled the Midwest for ‘coastal lives’, Franzen is delegated the task of returning to St Louis, one summer night in 1999, to arrange the sale of her house. When he gets there, Franzen supposes that the first step is to ‘depersonalise’ the house before the realtors come to see it: no small task, since ‘each windowsill and each table top was an eddy in which inexpensively framed photos had accumulated.’ In one such photo he sees himself
standing three feet away from the rest of my family during an Alaskan vacation that my mother, toward the end, had spent a substantial percentage of her life savings to take us on. The Alaskan picture was so flattering to nine of us that she’d applied a blue ballpoint pen to the eyes of the tenth, a daughter-in-law, who’d blinked for the photo and who now, with her misshapen ink-dot eyes, looked quietly monstrous or insane.
The daughter-in-law’s isn’t the only ‘quietly monstrous’ face in his mother’s empty house that night. With a ‘hammer of a drink’ in hand, Franzen’s nocturnal industry suggests a man much further than ‘three feet away from the rest of my family’:
If somebody had asked me why it was also necessary, that same night, to pile the hundred-plus pictures on a table in the basement and to rip or slice or pry or slide each photo out of its frame, and then dump all the frames into shopping bags, and stow the shopping bags in cabinets, and shove all the photos into an envelope, so that nobody could see them – if somebody had pointed out my resemblance to a conqueror burning the enemy’s churches and smashing its icons – I would have had to admit that I was relishing my ownership of the house.
Each of The Discomfort Zone’s six sections has an ostensible subject – selling the family house, the Peanuts comic strip, Christian youth groups, teenage pranks, literary apprenticeship, bird-watching – but their deeper, shared focus is Franzen’s character. Each essay is an eddy in which autobiographical stories accumulate, largely unappealing moments drawn from the current of Franzen’s first 45 years. The second chapter, ‘Two Ponies’, is suggestive of the general approach. The year is 1970. Days after National Guardsmen killed four students for protesting against the Vietnam War at Kent State University, one of Franzen’s two big brothers, the artistically talented Tom, returns from his sophomore year of college. It isn’t long before he and his parents are at odds, the sticking point a strait-laced summer job in engineering that Earl, the father, has arranged for bell-bottomed, film-studies-majoring Tom. Late at night, a violent argument erupts, one that Jonathan, ‘a small and fundamentally ridiculous person’, listens to from his bed until a door slams: Tom has left.
‘Things like this had never happened in our house,’ Franzen recalls. ‘A scene of real wailing and open rage was completely off the map.’ He sinks into the comforts of a less inscrutable world: that of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. The comic strip, read by millions of Americans, is the centre of Franzen’s childhood imaginative life: ‘Like most of the nation’s ten-year-olds, I had a private, intense relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house . . . In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognised as a child.’ But aspects of the strip are beyond him:
Many of the more elaborate sequences, especially the ones about Charlie Brown’s humiliation and loneliness, made only a generic impression on me. In a classroom spelling bee that Charlie Brown has been looking forward to, the first word he’s asked to spell is ‘maze’. With a complacent smile, he produces ‘M-A-Y-S’. The class screams with laughter. He returns to his seat and presses his face into his desktop, and when his teacher asks him what’s wrong, he yells at her and ends up in the principal’s office. Peanuts was steeped in Schulz’s awareness that for every winner in a competition there has to be a loser, if not twenty losers, or two thousand, but I personally enjoyed winning and couldn’t see why so much fuss was made about the losers.
Even from a ten-year-old’s point of view, that final line, left to echo at the end of the paragraph, is resoundingly callow.
Consider Franzen’s behaviour during what his fifth-grade teacher, Miss Niblack called the ‘Homonym Spelldown’. A diligent, bookish child, Franzen, no Charlie Brown, ‘did some desultory homonym drilling with my mother, rattling off “sleigh” for “slay” and “slough” for “slew” the way other kids roped softballs into centre field’. For a boy who ‘enjoyed winning’, ‘the only halfway interesting question about the Spelldown was who was going to come in second.’ As to who that might be, Franzen has his suspicions:
A new kid had joined our class that year, a shrimpy black-haired striver, Chris Toczko, who had it in his head that he and I were academic rivals. I was a nice enough little boy as long as you kept away from my turf. Toczko was annoyingly unaware that I, not he, by natural right, was the best student in the class.
The mature Franzen adeptly processes the point of view of his young self, with all its shortcomings. ‘Turf’ is a childish word that conveys well the littleness of his worldview. That Toczko is said to be ‘annoyingly unaware that I, not he, by natural right, was the best student in the class’ alerts the reader to something of which the young Franzen is annoyingly unaware: his smugness. But Toczko and he are indeed the last left standing in the Spelldown. Their teacher then calls the word ‘liar’:
Toczko trembled and essayed: ‘L . . . I . . .’ And I could see that I had beaten him. I waited impatiently while, with considerable anguish, he extracted two more letters from his marrow: ‘E . . . R?’
‘I’m sorry, Chris, that’s not a word,’ Miss Niblack said.
With a sharp laugh of triumph, not even waiting for Toczko to sit down, I stepped forward and sang out, ‘L-Y-R-E! Lyre. It’s a stringed instrument.’
Perhaps it’s the lack of sportsmanship in Franzen’s ‘sharp laugh’; or perhaps it’s the pedantry of both spelling and defining the word: whatever the cause, Toczko begins to cry. Franzen, so impatiently triumphant, ‘the last person in class to realise that Toczko was having a meltdown’, becomes the first to feed it. He offers the room’s dictionary to prove that ‘lier’ isn’t the word that Toczko now angrily maintains it to be. In the principal’s office, where both misbehaving boys are sent, Webster’s International Unabridged decides the issue. The principal declares them co-winners, and Jonathan registers that ‘it might be OK, for once, to let somebody else win.’
Were this the conclusion of the Spelldown story, Franzen would merely be relating, however entertainingly, a morality tale designed to teach sportsmanship and fair play. But something else is going on here. A few months later, Franzen tells us, Toczko ran into the road and was killed by a car:
What little I knew then about the world’s badness I knew mainly from a camping trip, some years earlier, when I’d dropped a frog into a campfire and watched it shrivel and roll down the flat side of a log. My memory of that shrivelling and rolling was sui generis, distinct from my other memories. It was like a nagging, sick-making atom of rebuke in me. I felt similarly rebuked now when my mother, who knew nothing of Toczko’s rivalry with me, told me that he was dead. She was weeping as she’d wept over Tom’s disappearance some weeks earlier. She sat me down and made me write a letter of condolence to Toczko’s mother. I was very much unaccustomed to considering the interior states of people other than myself, but it was impossible not to consider Mrs Toczko’s. Though I never met her in person, in the ensuing weeks I pictured her suffering so incessantly and vividly that I could almost see her: a tiny, trim, dark-haired woman who cried the way her son did.
The half-life of that first ‘sick-making atom of rebuke’, which began with the frog, is long. Dread over his brother’s absence and his mother’s resultant anxiety have brought Franzen to a low point that nonetheless offers him an unparalleled view, as if from on high, of the pain of others. But the beginnings of a humanising softness are not without complications:
I felt guilty about Toczko. I felt guilty about the little frog. I felt guilty about shunning my mother’s hugs when she seemed to need them most. I felt guilty about the washcloths at the bottom of the stack in the linen closet, the older, thinner washcloths that we seldom used. I felt guilty for preferring my best shooter marbles, a solid-red agate and a solid-yellow agate, my king and my queen, to marbles farther down my rigid marble hierarchy. I felt guilty about the board games that I didn’t like to play – Uncle Wiggily, US Presidential Elections, Game of the States – and sometimes, when my friends weren’t around, I opened the boxes and examined the pieces in the hope of making the games feel less forgotten.
Joseph Butler said in a sermon that self-deception promotes our deepest guilt ‘for it is a corruption of the whole moral character in its principle’. Franzen, overwhelmed by his blindness to others’ feelings, now helplessly projects feeling onto everything. There is poignancy in a list that groups a dead boy and a live mother and worn washcloths and lesser marbles and forgotten games on an equal plane. But what most interests Franzen isn’t the start of generosity of feeling so much as the idea of projection.
The idea begins with Schulz. The pleasure the young Franzen takes in reading Peanuts is something the adult Franzen is unwilling to give up as merely another worn-out plaything. Rather, he maintains that there is something intrinsic to comic-reading that tells us about the discomfort we face in the world:
Scott McCloud, in his cartoon treatise Understanding Comics, argues that the image you have of yourself when you’re conversing is very different from your image of the person you’re conversing with. Your interlocutor may produce universal smiles and universal frowns, and they may help you to identify with him emotionally, but he also has a particular nose and particular skin and particular hair that continually remind you that he’s an Other. The image you have of your own face, by contrast, is highly cartoonish. When you feel yourself smile, you imagine a cartoon of smiling, not the complete skin-and-nose-and-hair package. It’s precisely the simplicity and universality of cartoon faces, the absence of Otherly particulars, that invite us to love them as we love ourselves.
Readers respond readily to cartoons, Franzen reports, because their characters’ lack of particular features permits us to project our personalities into them more easily, ‘to love them as we love ourselves’. Of course, empathy is possible only when we can, figuratively, see others as ourselves, but Franzen suggests that empathy is difficult precisely because the surfaces of others are so jammed with particulars that we can’t make out the similarities. A wish to see others clearly, Franzen hints, is a wish to see them cartoonishly, that is to say, universally.
At the end of ‘Two Ponies’ Franzen’s runaway brother has returned, but the disturbance Tom’s departure caused has yet to subside. ‘I wanted everyone in my family to get along and nothing to change,’ Franzen tells us, ‘but suddenly, after Tom ran away, it was as if the five of us looked around, asked why we should be spending time together, and failed to come up with many good answers.’ His parents bloom with conflict:
My father came home on cool nights to complain about the house’s ‘chill’. My mother countered that the house wasn’t cold if you were doing housework all day. My father marched into the dining-room to adjust the thermostat and dramatically point to its ‘Comfort Zone’, a pale-blue arc between 72 and 78 degrees. My mother said that she was so hot . . . No matter what corner of the house I hid myself in, I could hear my father bellowing, ‘LEAVE THE GOD-DAMNED THERMOSTAT ALONE!’
‘Earl, I didn’t touch it!’
‘You did! Again!’
‘I didn’t think I even moved it, I just looked at it, I didn’t mean to change it.’
‘Again! You monkeyed with it again! I had it set where I wanted it. And you moved it down to seventy!’
‘Well, if I did somehow change it, I’m sure I didn’t mean to. You’d be hot, too, if you worked all day in the kitchen.’
‘All I ask at the end of a long day at work is that the temperature be set in the Comfort Zone.’
‘Earl, it is so hot in the kitchen. You don’t know, because you’re never in here, but it is so hot.’
‘The low end of the Comfort Zone! Not even the middle! The low end! It is not too much to ask!’
‘And I wonder why “cartoonish” remains such a pejorative,’ Franzen says after delivering this exchange. ‘It took me half my life to achieve seeing my parents as cartoons.’ It is a wonderfully perverse admission, and if it courts self-congratulation, it is only the most backhanded kind. Half a life is a long time to take to see one’s parents clearly as people struggling, laughably, to communicate their needs. ‘And to become more perfectly a cartoon myself,’ Franzen goes on, ‘what a victory that would be.’
Much of The Discomfort Zone presents Franzen as what he hopes to become: perfectly cartoonish. He takes considerable relish in repeatedly describing how easily he is distracted by, as it were, the wrong features. Of the realtor he eventually and disastrously hires to sell his mother’s house he says: ‘Her name was Mike, she was a pretty, short-haired blonde about my own age, and she was wearing excellent jeans.’ The reader sees all too well what Franzen did not but does now: those jeans are going to cost you a lot of money, pal (north of $40,000, it turns out). Even bird-watching, an activity explicitly about the rewards of clear identification, proves self-incriminating. Here is Franzen, in Texas in 2005, with a friend called Manley:
I saw a pretty, dark-haired young woman taking telephoto pictures of a pair of ducks. ‘Green-winged teals’, I mentioned to Manley.
The girl looked up sharply. ‘Green-winged teals? Where?’
I nodded at her birds.
‘Those are wigeons,’ she said.
I’d made this mistake before. I knew perfectly well what a wigeon looked like, but sometimes, in the giddiness of spotting something, my brain got confused. As Manley and I retreated down the boardwalk, I showed him pictures.
‘See,’ I said, ‘the wigeon and the green-winged teal have more or less the same palette, just completely rearranged. I should have said wigeon. Now she thinks I can’t tell a wigeon from a teal.’
‘Why didn’t you just tell her that?’ Manley said. ‘Just say that the wrong word came out of your mouth.’
‘That would only have compounded it. It would have been protesting too much.’
‘But at least she’d know you know the difference.’
‘She doesn’t know my name. I’ll never see her again. That is my only conceivable consolation.’
Of course, Franzen will see her again, and will, therefore, have no consolation. One of the consistently refreshing features of Franzen’s type of memoiristic candour is his willingness to show how very little he has improved in his ability to read the world. He is just as likely to hire a realtor on the basis of her ‘excellent jeans’ in 1999, as he was not to see that a ‘little pest’ called Toczko was indistinguishable from himself in 1970.
There is change, though, in the penultimate essay, ‘The Foreign Language’, when Franzen discovers a way to temper his tendency towards short-sightedness. During a college class in German language and literature with a professor called Avery, he acquires new tools for grappling with inscrutable things. Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge immediately enraptures him with its story of a lonely young man who ‘worries about becoming a better writer and a more complete person’, but Franzen is as yet a middling reader, however enthusiastic: ‘I memorised, without ever quite grasping what I was memorising, several passages in which Malte reports on his personal growth, which reminded me pleasantly of my own journals.’ Less enjoyable is The Trial, which he sees as a story about ‘an innocent man, Josef K., caught up in a nightmarish modern bureaucracy – and it seemed to me that Kafka piled on far too many examples of bureaucratic nightmarishness. I was annoyed as well by his reluctance to use paragraph breaks, and by the irrationality of his storytelling.’ Sensing that Franzen’s class isn’t warming to Kafka, Professor Avery begins again, telling his charges that there are, in fact, three ways to read The Trial: with the assumption that Josef K. ‘is an innocent man falsely accused’; or that ‘the degree of K.’s guilt is undecidable’; and then a third option, one that knocks Franzen off his chair:
When Avery arrived at the third universe of interpretation, in which Josef K. is guilty, he stopped and looked at us expectantly, as if waiting for us to get some joke; and I felt my blood pressure spike. I was offended by the mere mention of the possibility that K. was guilty. It made me feel frustrated, cheated, injured. I was outraged that a critic was allowed even to suggest a thing like that.
‘Go back and look at what’s on the page,’ Avery said. ‘Forget the other reading for next week. You have to read what’s on the page.’
Two pages of ‘The Foreign Language’ are given over to the 20-year-old’s careful rereading of the first chapter of The Trial, to see ‘what’s on the page’. The gloss leads him to a conclusion he hadn’t been expecting, one that admits that the book in his hands is not at all what his experience with it led him to think it was:
I thought I’d read every word of the first chapter of The Trial twice, in German and in English, but when I went back now I realised that I’d never read the chapter even once. What was actually on the page, as opposed to what I’d expected to find there, was so unsettling that I’d shut my mind down and simply made believe that I was reading. I’d been so convinced of the hero’s innocence that I’d missed what the author was saying, clearly and unmistakably, in every sentence. I’d been blind the way K. himself is blind.
The Discomfort Zone is Franzen’s most clear-sighted book so far. Though his novels may hit higher pitches of emotion, none wouldn’t benefit enormously from a firmer editorial hand. A surer sense of proportion is conspicuous in The Discomfort Zone. In its not quite 200 pages, Franzen doesn’t attempt to deal with the foibles of an entire culture – that much discussed ambition of his three long novels. In place of such breadth, the memoir gives you a patient inquiry into its author’s personality over time, showing the way an absorption in self has often kept him from seeing the world fully.