Ink-Dot Eyes

Wyatt Mason

  • The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen
    Harper Perennial, 195 pp, £8.99, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 00 723425 7

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.

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