The Discomfort Zone – 4/5 Stars
The Discomfort Zone of the title of this book is play on a constant fight that Jonathan Franzen explains his parents had over the course of their marriage. His mother, tired and hot from working in the house all day, prefers to set the thermostat cool, the implication being more the lack of heat than the turning on of the air conditioner. His father expects to come home to a warm house or a temperate house and refers to his compromised allowance as “The Comfort Zone”. This book then, place not us, but Franzen himself in the discomfort zone. If you read his nonfiction, you might agree in general that Franzen is never too hard on himself, but fairly honest with his choices, thoughts, actions, and their various implications. This is the old world Protestant in him, who might be a little judgmental of others, but also doesn’t spare the judgment for himself. Things he judges himself about: the breakup of his first marriage, being part of a teenage prank gang, being bad at birding, etc.
His marriage becomes a kind of center point in this memoir in part because it stands in contrast to his parents’. It’s not that his marriage is immeasurably different from theirs, but in fact maybe the opposite. The difference of course at least in form is that more available forms of divorce. Franzen marries when he’s very young, like 21 or 22, and this to me feels a bit anachronistic. For how he’s placed, it’s important to remember that Jonathan Franzen is a young Boomer, and in some ways, the last of the Boomers, where his parents and the way he writes about parents in general feels very much like a Gen X repulsion at Boomer parents, but it’s more complicated than that.
The memoir then spends a lot of time with other topics like German language study, summer camp, pranks, birding, art in the age of Bush, and most importantly, Youth Bible Study, which has become the subject of his new book Crossroads.