Coming in from the Cold

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen; drawing by David Levine

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…

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