Jonathan Franzen has written three novels, The Twenty-seventh City (1988), Strong Motion (1992), and—his best to date—The Corrections(2001). A book of essays, How to Be Alone, was published in 2002. And now we have a memoir, a “personal history.” He has also given many interviews, some of which have been published in magazines. Readers who want as much autobiographical detail as he is willing to provide should read The Discomfort Zone along with How to Be Alone. The theme common to both books is: how I learned to make my peace with the world and, by reading books, to be alone but not too alone; how I came in from the cold of being a difficult young man.
The Discomfort Zone consists of six essays, beginning with “House for Sale,” an account of Franzen’s arranging to sell his mother’s house in Webster Groves, St. Louis, Missouri, a few weeks after her death. As an essayist, Franzen lets one motif lead him to another without logical fuss, so we hear a good deal about his family, his father Earl Franzen, his mother Irene, his brothers Tom and Bob, and twenty minutes on a merry-go-round:
I stared at the merry-go-round’s chevroned metal floor and radiated shame, mentally vomiting back the treat they’d tried to give me. My mother, ever the dutiful traveler, took pictures of my father and me on our uncomfortably small horses, but beneath her forcible cheer she was angry at me, because she knew she was the one I was getting even with, because of our fight about clothes. My father, his fingers loosely grasping a horse-impaling metal pole, gazed into the distance with a look of resignation that summarized his life. I don’t see how either of them bore it.
The essay “Two Ponies” is a recollection of Franzen’s childhood, and particularly his affection for Charles Schulz’s comic-sad cartoons of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Schroeder, and Linus:
Chapter 1, verses 1–4, of what I knew about disillusionment: Charlie Brown passes the house of the Little Red-Haired Girl, the object of his eternal fruitless longing. He sits down with Snoopy and says, “I wish I had two ponies.” He imagines offering one of the ponies to the Little Red-Haired Girl, riding out into the countryside with her, and sitting down with her beneath a tree. Suddenly he’s scowling at Snoopy and asking, “Why aren’t you two ponies?” Snoopy, rolling his eyes, thinks: “I knew we’d get around to that.”
Earl and Irene appear again in this essay, definitively unhappy together. The third essay, “Then Joy Breaks Through,” takes its title from a book by George Benson, a Christian psychologist-theologian who was the inspiring eminence behind the Fellowship movement among young people in St. Louis and elsewhere when Franzen was in high school. A boy’s woes and the social practices of Webster Groves occupy him in this essay while he waits impatiently for joy to break through. Father and mother are still the most painful forces:
Of the many things I was afraid of in those days—spiders, insomnia, fish hooks, school dances, hardball, heights, bees, urinals, puberty, music teachers, dogs, the school cafeteria, censure, older teenagers, jellyfish, locker rooms, boomerangs, popular girls, the high dive—I was probably most afraid of my parents. My father had almost never spanked me, but his anger had been Jehovan when he did. My mother possessed claws with which, when I was three or four years old and neighbor kids had filled my hair with Vaseline to achieve a kind of Baby Greaser effect, she’d repeatedly attacked my scalp between dousings of scalding-hot water.
“Centrally Located” is Franzen’s Tom Sawyer essay, a tale of high school pranks indulgent to the large, loose emotions that were beginning to declare themselves:
A night wind coming across the football practice field carried the smell of thawed winter earth, the great sorrowful world-smell of being alive beneath a sky.
Looking back on those years and a few later ones, Franzen is still tender toward them:
At forty-five, I feel grateful almost daily to be the adult I wished I could be when I was seventeen. I work on my arm strength at the gym; I’ve become pretty good with tools. At the same time, almost daily, I lose battles with the seventeen-year-old who’s still inside me. I eat half a box of Oreos for lunch, I binge on TV, I make sweeping moral judgments, I run around town in torn jeans, I drink martinis on a Tuesday night, I stare at beer-commercial cleavage, I define as uncool any group to which I can’t belong, I feel the urge to key Range Rovers and slash their tires; I pretend I’m never going to die.
In “The Foreign Language”—the major essay in the book, in my view—Franzen tells of his learning German and reading The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge as preparation for taking a seminar at Swarthmore College with George Avery, a great teacher despite his eccentricities. Avery led his students through Kafka’s The Trial and Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Outside the classroom, Franzen also read Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexan-derplatz. A line he misremembered from Malte defined for him a grand ambition:
For the first time in my life, I was starting to see the people in my family as actual people, not merely as relations, because I’d been reading German literature and was becoming a person myself. Aber diesmal wird es geschrieben werden [But this time, it will be written], I wrote in my notebook on my first evening in St. Louis. I meant that this holiday with my family, unlike all the holidays in the past, would be recorded and analyzed in writing. I thought I was quoting from Malte. But Rilke’s actual line is much crazier: Aber diesmal werde ich geschrieben werden [But this time, I will be written]. Malte is envisioning a moment when, instead of being the maker of the writing (“I write”), he will be its product (“I am written”): instead of a performance, a transmission; instead of a focus on the self, a shining through the world.
Meanwhile in this eloquent essay we hear more of Franzen’s family, especially of the endlessly exasperating Irene.
The final essay, “My Bird Problem,” is a charming account of Franzen’s late-felt love of birds, his taking up birding in the summer of 1999 after his mother’s death, his pursuit of this interest all over the country, and some of the oddities he met among his fellow birders. “That’s the great thing about fog,” one of them remarked, “you can see whatever you want.” Along the way, Franzen comes up with notions so enchanting that I am pleased to find they are also true; this among many:
Birds were what became of dinosaurs. Those mountains of flesh whose petrified bones were on display at the Museum of Natural History had done some brilliant retooling over the ages and could now be found living in the form of orioles in the sycamores across the street. As solutions to the problem of earthly existence, the dinosaurs had been pretty great, but blue-headed vireos and yellow warblers and white-throated sparrows—feather-light, hollow-boned, full of song—were even greater. Birds were like dinosaurs’ better selves. They had short lives and long summers. We all should be so lucky as to leave behind such heirs.
In the background, there is still Franzen’s family: we read of his mother’s illnesses, his wife, the decline and fall of their marriage, his politics—Democratic, environmentalist, anti-Bush, and therefore woebegone.
The Discomfort Zone and How to Be Alone throw strong light on Franzen’s novels. The family holiday he refers to in “The Foreign Language” is, I assume, the source of the Christmas visit in The Corrections: “‘I just want us all to be together!’ Enid said.”A chapter of How to Be Alone called “Mr. Difficult” describes his experience of reading modern novels:
I grew up in a friendly egalitarian suburb reading books for pleasure. I consider myself a slattern of a reader. I have started (in many cases, more than once) Moby-Dick, The Man without Qualities, Mason & Dixon, Don Quixote, Remembrance of Things Past, Doctor Faustus, Naked Lunch, The Golden Bowl, and The Golden Notebook without coming anywhere near finishing them. Indeed, by a comfortable margin, the most difficult book I ever voluntarily read in its entirety was Gaddis’s 956-page first novel, The Recognitions.
A few pages later, he enlarges on the topic:
I liked the idea of socially engaged fiction…and I craved academic and hipster respect of the kind that Pynchon and Gaddis got and Saul Bellow and Ann Beattie didn’t. But Bellow and Beattie, not to mention Dickens and Conrad and Brontë [Which of them?] and Dostoevsky and Christina Stead, were the writers I actually, unhiply enjoyed reading. If Robert Coover’s Public Burningand Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 moved me, it was mainly because I liked Coover’s character Richard Nixon and Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas. But postmodern fiction wasn’t supposed to be about sympathetic characters. Characters, properly speaking, weren’t even supposed to exist. Characters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself, like the human soul. Nevertheless, to my shame, I seemed to need them.
He appears not to be on speaking terms with Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, or Beckett. They don’t write social novels. Again in “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen reports that “the work of reading Gaddis makes me wonder if our brains might even be hard-wired for conventional storytelling, structurally eager to form pictures from sentences as featureless as ‘She stood up.’” That doesn’t seem to be a good argument for featureless sentences.
Franzen is still committed to the social novel, and to the stability implied by story and character, but he is troubled by the conditions in which he has to practice the genre:
It had long been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted of its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context…. Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?
Franzen envies Victorian novelists who had no competition to fear but newspapers and a few magazines. He refers to “the banal ascendancy of television, the electronic fragmentation of public discourse.” Television, he thinks, “has killed the novel of social reportage”:
The big, obvious reason for the decline of the social novel is that modern technologies do a much better job of social instruction. Television, radio, and photographs are vivid, instantaneous media. Print journalism, too, in the wake of In Cold Blood, has become a viable creative alternative to the novel. Because they command large audiences, TV and magazines can afford to gather vast quantities of information quickly.
Two responses occur to Franzen. One: “As the country grows ever more distracted and mesmerized by mass culture,…literature has a function, beyond entertainment, as a form of social opposition.” He settles for being “a fly in the ointment.” So in Strong Motion he attacks the chemical industry, toxic waste, TV, and other pollutants. In The Corrections he denounces the culture of consumerism, the stock exchange, and corruption in politics from here to Lithuania. In The Discomfort Zone he has severe sentences about “the for-profit future now plotted by the conservatives in Washington,” “the Lincoln Navigator, the mansion with a two-story atrium and a five-acre lawn, the second home in Laguna Beach,” and the advertising agents who offer everybody “electronic simulacra of luxuries to wish for.” His second response to these exacerbations is that the social novel may take up the task of preservation:
Whether they think about it or not, novelists are preserving a tradition of precise, expressive language; a habit of looking past surfaces into interiors; maybe an understanding of private experience and public context as distinct but interpenetrating; maybe mystery, maybe manners. Above all, they are preserving a community of readers and writers, and the way in which members of this community recognize each other is that nothing in the world seems simple to them.
It was not a good idea for Franzen in that passage to quote and adopt Flannery O’Connor’s formula: “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners.” The unfortunate word in the sentence is “embody.” Mystery can’t be embodied through manners, though it can be occluded by them. A sense of mystery may be provoked by one’s reflecting that there is a world, or something—but why something rather than nothing?—and that you and I are present in it—but again why? We may feel a sense of mystery—or a conviction of it—when we come to the end of manners, having been diverted by their profusion, and find ourselves asking: Is that it, is that all?
The motif of mystery has more point in O’Connor than in Franzen. He is a social novelist, a novelist of manners, as she was not; he has no evident religious sense, as she had. He defines “mystery” as “how human beings avoid or confront the meaning of existence” and “manners” as “the nuts and bolts of how human beings behave.” But both definitions seem lacking. “Mystery,” as he thinks of it, may be the habit of brooding on the meaning of existence, as if one were trying to finish a crossword puzzle or solve a conundrum. Such a practice is easily accommodated by “manners.” Psychology is there to explain it. But religion, metaphysics, and theology do not offer to resolve one’s conviction of mystery or explain it away. Franzen thinks that if he brings forward social manners and behaviors in sufficient detail and variety, what is produced will cover the whole scene of being, or appear to do so. He has evidently decided to leave the abyss alone. As is his right. In his novels, we have characters, their motives and actions. From time to time they engage in introspection, they wonder about their lives. But meanwhile the outer world goes on, minding its rough business. Reality demands only to be assented to. Mostly, these characters are known by the things they are shown as doing; like Martin Probst in The Twenty-seventh City as seen by his wife Barbara:
In the first weeks of their marriage she’d dropped a twice-read newspaper into a waste basket and he’d retrieved it. “These are useful,” he said.
He never used them. He turned off the hot water while he soaped his hands. He put bricks in the toilet tank. The old house on Algonquin Place was lit largely by 40-watt bulbs. He burned the barbecue charcoal twice. If she threw out old Timemagazines he sulked or raged. He pocketed matchbooks from restaurant ashtrays.
One wonders what was going on in Martin’s mind, but one rarely finds him in the concentrated relation to himself that might explain it. In The Discomfort Zone Franzen is preoccupied, according to the notebook he kept in college, with the way he appeared to other people, as in this remarkable passage about dancing with the French major he had been chasing:
Ekström and I had cleared the furniture from my bedroom and made it the dance floor. Well past midnight, after the Averys and our less good friends had gone home, I found myself alone on the floor, dancing to Elvis Costello’s “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” in my tightly wound way, while a group of people watched. They were watching my expressivity, I wrote in my notebook the next day, on a plane to St. Louis. I knew this, and about a minute into the song I cast an “Oh so much attention showered upon modest me” smile at the whole line of them. But I think my real expressivity was in that smile. Why is he embarrassed? He’s not embarrassed, he loves attention. Well, he’s embarrassed to get it, because he can’t believe that other people can so quietly be party to his exhibition. He’s smiling with goodhearted disdain. Then “Chelsea” gave way to “Miss You,” the Stones’ moment in disco, and the French major joined me on the floor. She said, “Now we’re going to dance like we’re freaked out!” The two of us brought our faces close together, reached for each other, dodged each other, and danced nose to nose in a freaked-out parody of attraction, while people watched.
This passage, in which the young Franzen finds satisfaction in being looked at, is more characteristic of his sensibility than the moods of introspection he also engaged in. The social novel, with its particles of story, characters, and contexts, suits his talent well. Despite the cultural exacerbations, he finds such a novel still possible, and writing it a decent, serious activity. The only formal problem with it is that his characters, to be socially credible, are often too limited to serve his ambition. He comes to the end of them before they have done the work he had in mind. So he has to intervene on their behalf, thinking, feeling, and expressing beyond their range. In The Twenty-seventh City Martin is perceptive enough to reflect on “the bitter superiority of the less advantaged” but we are given no reason to think he could rise to other phrases that Franzen gives him:
She kissed his hand, but he pulled it away. He was beginning to feel betrayed. Barbara had defected to the world at large, to its optimisms, its smooth mechanisms of love and remorse, and like everyone else now she wanted to have Probst in her camp.
The mechanisms of love and remorse are Franzen’s idea, not Martin’s as he has been shown. It is an example of narrative ventriloquism. As again in The Corrections:
The disappointment on Enid’s face was disproportionately large. It was an ancient disappointment with the refusal of the world in general and her children in particular to participate in her preferred enchantments.
“Preferred enchantments” is beautiful, but it is not credible as a mark of Enid’s mind. In Chapter 8 of Strong Motion Franzen writes a little essay on the social differences between men and women and he attaches it to Renée’s musings, but it doesn’t stay attached; we can believe in it only as a sociological notion expounded by Franzen. The Corrections is Franzen’s best novel so far because it has a solid base in a story he credits and the main characters are, for the most part, answerable to the demands he makes on them. Father Alfred, mother Enid, and their three grown-up children, Chip, Gary, and Denise, are continuously vivid, and for comic or farcical relief we have a wild Lithuanian called Gitanas. The story is simple: Will the children agree to spend Christmas with their arduous parents? Alfred is sinking into dementia, but until now he has been a metallurgist in his spare time and has been trying to invent “a substance which could be poured or molded but which after treatment (perhaps with an electrical current) had steel’s superior strength and conductivity and resistance to fatigue.” His mind is—or has been—such that nearly every perception and desire that Franzen wants him to have is available to him, often in memorably expressive terms. Ventriloquism is not an issue:
He was seeking a material that could, in effect, electroplate itself. He was growing crystals in unusual materials in the presence of electric currents.
It wasn’t hard science but the brute probabilism of trial and error, a groping for accidents that he might profit from. One college classmate of his had already made his first million with the results of a chance discovery.
That he might someday not have to worry about money: it was a dream identical to the dream of being comforted by a woman, truly comforted, when the misery overcame him.
The dream of radical transformation: of one day waking up and finding himself a wholly different (more confident, more serene) kind of person, of escaping that prison of the given, of feeling divinely capable.
He had clays and gels of silicate. He had silicone putties. He had slushy ferric salts succumbing to their own deliquescence. Ambivalent acetylacetonates and tetracarbonyls with low melting points. A chunk of gallium the size of a damson plum.
Franzen himself is not beset by the “prison of the given.” He delights in abundance and miscellany. His favorite word appears to be “and,” his favorite marks of punctuation the comma and the semicolon that divide coordinate phrases while linking them in an equal destiny. He commonly names objects without thinking it necessary to distinguish their values: it is enough that for the imagined moment they inhabit the same world. One apprehension and then another: that is his practice, and it implies as much theory as he needs. Here is his description of Mr. Knight, the high school principal in The Discomfort Zone:
Mr. Knight was a red-haired, red-bearded, Nordic-looking giant. He had a sideways, shambling way of walking, with frequent pauses to hitch up his pants, and he stood with the stooped posture of a man who spent his days listening to smaller people. We knew his voice from his all-school intercom announcements. His first words—“Teachers, excuse the interruption”—often sounded strained, as if he’d been nervously hesitating at his microphone, but after that his cadences were gentle and offhanded.
To write like that, you have to pay attention to other people, interpreting their gestures, stances, and tones. You then have to choose the words you regard as precise, adequate by custom and convention to what they refer to. You probably take in your stride the internal rhyme of “stood” and “stooped” and decide that it doesn’t matter. It is not a time to fuss. Normally, Franzen observes the strictures of description and resemblance; he gives himself flourishes of eloquence only when the character in the case seems too stolid to be borne. As a responsible writer, he takes care of his sentences, and mostly makes sure that they do not seize the reins and gallop away from him. I was not surprised to find him scolding William H. Gass for his introduction—“sophistry”—to The Recognitions and for Gass’s urging readers to put behind them “the bias for ‘realism’ we were normally brought up with.” Franzen, too, was brought up with that bias, and he is resolute in its defense.