„The Discomfort Zone“ by Jonathan Franzen consists of six stories out of Franzens life, telling you in no chronological order about his growing up and his family life. The chapters or parts of the book can be seen like subject areas, because they all tell multiple stories that are connected and seem to belong to a certain theme. There are also political, society-critical and enviromental aspects in it that give you an idea of the changes in America since the seventies.
The first story is called „House for sale“. It starts right off with Franzen returning to the house of his mother, who died three months ago, to sell it. In the course of telling about the process of selling a house, he in fact narrates the story of his mother and his relationship to her. Franzen makes it clear that his mother was a conservative, neurotic and traditional person, who always wanted to keep her world intact and tried to do that in a very pragmatic way.
Franzen‘s language is very rich and full of complicated words, but they didn‘t help me to see his mother clearly in front of me. The description of her feels quite empty and her personality isn‘t very well written out. Maybe Franzen also feels like this about his mother, but I didn‘t find it a clear, reasonable summary of her characteristics, but rather a confusing and confused series of little fractions of events that should characterize her. Franzen didn‘t manage that.
The story is also full of descriptions of his former home town, Webster Groves, with a large catholic district and a corresponding school. Also the America Franzen grew up in is described with a digression to the history of it with a lot of political and economic facts and details. In connection with that he tells about his mothers past and how the Franzen family got to live in Webster Groves.
Again, the sheer amount of fragments of little stories, facts and opinions and their loose connection to each other let this chapter seem quite confusing and without a particular purpose. You learn about his unwillingness to donate for the victims in New Orleans, about the economical changes in the USA, about his brothers and his new apartment in New York, all this in complicated words, of which I‘m sure that they‘re very smart and meaningful, but on just twenty-five pages this is too much information. On the last few sites he returns to his primal story about selling the house, but that chapter just told me that Franzen is a person with a lot of things to say, of which some he should say in another context or not at all.
The second chapter is called „Two Ponies“ is basically about his childhood hero Charles Schulz, the drawer and inventor of the Peanuts. You learn that Franzen was a shy, introverted child without much social success and few friends, like his idol Charlie Brown in Schulz‘ comic strips. Apart from the story of his hard childhood, Franzen tells about the other comic strips in the newspapers and that he didn‘t like them except the Peanuts. He‘s reciting things out of the strips and tells his thoughts about it, bringing them in connection with his own experiences.
A large part of the chapter is an excursus about Charles Schulz as a person. He too was an unpopular child and even as a young man always a little desperate. Schulz stayed always the child that never developed a personality and resulting of this he started to draw the stories about a child like him.
In the chapter there is also the story from his brother Tom, when he ran away from home. That chapter gives you a picture of the young Jonathan Franzen, a shy and, in his own words, „small and ridiculous person“. It seems to me more useful than the previous chapter, but it is still full of additional information about more or less unimportant people, about his father and a lot of thoughts about comics. Anyway, through a little story about Franzen and his rival at school and through Franzen‘s reaction to his brothers disappearance you get an idea how introverted and insecure Franzen really was and you start to understand a little better, why he‘s building in all these digressions and persnickety details: He was a little nerd when he was ten and he still is now.
In the next chapter, which is called „Then joy breaks through“, Franzen describes his time in a christian youth group called the Fellowship. He is around thirteen at that time and still small, squeaky and shy, but for some reason he feels very snug and secure in the group, even if it‘s hard for him to be accepted. For the reader it‘s hard too, because Franzen seems not to be able to stay at one subject. He jumps around in different years from one sentence to another, digresses suddenly to describe the Christendom in Americas seventies, uses confusing expressions and lets a lot of space for the reader to interpret his sentences.
He also tries to describe as many persons as possible that are connected with the Fellowship, but not in the usual way to tell the reader, how he himself saw them and what he felt for them. No, Franzen really reconstructed the personal biography of every single one them, telling their story like in a history book, with exact dates and connections to politics, religion and society. It‘s incredible annoying and uninteresting, but anyway I liked that chapter. Franzen tells a lot of little stories and anecdotes about his experiences in the Fellowship, including the use of swear-words, drugs, the revolution of the youth in the seventies and a very detailed description of the leader of the Fellowship, who was an idol for Franzen. At the end of the chapter you realize that this was the story of Franzens development to a more confident young man. The chapter is full of his first insecure attempts to get close to girls and his struggle to get respect in the group. At the end he somehow seemes to have managed some of the things he wanted and has become more happy.
The fourth chapters name is „Centrally located“. It is the story about him and his friends, now all around sixteen, who form an organization to plan pranks for other people, especially at school. Their first project is for example to get a tyre around a flagpole. The story is very comfortable to read, because Franzen uses a chronological order for the first time in the book and abandons his usual digresses and excursi. It is also so different from the other chapters because it describes just one fix project with a goal to reach and the struggle to get there. It‘s for the first time just a linear, well-written story about a group of teenagers doing nonsense. Maybe it has to do with Franzens actual state at that time: He wasn‘t anymore a kid driven by hundreds of fears and thoughts, that have to be described, but just a stupid, thoughtless and happy teenager having fun with his friends. It‘s also in that time when Franzen makes his first romantic experiences and discovers poetry for himself. According to him, this was the happiest time of his life. You also get to know his friends a little better, but again he can‘t give the reader a sharp picture of them. You can only guess how they could have been like, out of the stories Franzen tells about them.
Chapter number five has the title „The foreign laguage“. I was very pleased to read that Franzen studied German and has a lot of love for this language, because I always wondered what an american would think of our language and our writers. The chapter starts right off with a german cite of Rilke and you know immediately that this will be about the language German.
Unfortunately, Franzen turns away from that topic short after the beginning and tells about his early childhood embarrassments and his first experiences with his sexuality. It seems very odd how many pre-stories Franzen uses to finally get to the point when he describes his studies in Munich. Before that you learn about his first meeting with his best friend, the life of his brother Tom and how he starts to look at pornography.
Then he begins to tell about how he started to study German and how he discovered his love for Rilke and Kafka. He moves to Munich and tries to find a girlfriend without any luck and at the same time he starts to get deep into German literature and to interpret a lot of pieces. Franzen often recites passages in German, analyzing them and writes his smart thoughts and how he feels about them. He refers the stories of the characters in the books to his own life and spends a lot of time figuring out their situation and why they do certain things. He even summarizes the whole story of Kafkas Josef K. and tries to understand the character very hardly.
Franzen also tells about his leisure time in Munich, going to parties, meeting girls and never having luck with one of them. It‘s quite fun to read, because he always connects his experiences with his beloved literature and feels like a tragic hero in one of his books. But again Franzen suddenly turns around and tells about his parents again, who are old now and aren‘t satisfied with the way he lives his life. Franzen realizes that the family is breaking apart and a quite happy time ends.
The last chapter as the name „My bird problem“. Franzen is completely grown up now and is probably an established writer (he never looses one word about his job). The chapter starts with a description of a trip with his friend Manley to watch birds. Franzen has become a fanatic birder who tries to spot as many different species as possible. It is a very boring part, with nothing happening except some spectacular birds he finds, which he then describes with a lot of words and detailed informations about their appearance.
Except from being a „professional“ birder, Franzen starts to worry about the environment and the problem with the global warming. In the course of that he digresses to scientific facts and fragments out of history, which is again very boring and confusing to read. He also tells about his wife and their life together that didn‘t work and his next girlfriend he desperately wants a baby with, but strangely he looses very few words about these serious themes and likes it better to inform the reader about the look of the fulvous whistling-duck.
The whole chapter is quite melancholic and sad. You get the feeling that Franzen is running away from his life as he gets a bigger and bigger bird-fanatic and often goes on birding-trips to get the view of some more species. Somewhere between to stories about great bird sights he tells about his mothers death and the never-working relationship with a woman, whose name the reader doesn‘t learn.
The chapter and at the same time the book ends with his girlfriend asking him how the birding was, after he returns home from another week abroad. It‘s a phrase so full of melancholy, but also hope that you forget about the hard times you had reading some parts and understand that this is a real mans life and in a real life you can‘t just cancel some parts or change them to make it more interesting to the reader. No, the book is exactly like Franzens life: Full of ups and downs, sometimes very unclear and confusing, with a lot of thoughts rushing in, sometimes happy with a clear target in sight. To me it‘s a great book, a whole man and his life described on less than two-hundred pages with an incredible amount of additional information. A hard childhood, which was also hard to read about, a happy adolescence, which was a cheer for the reader and a complicated life as a grown-up, full of turbulences and confusions, which shows it to the reader very well how Franzen feels about his life at the moment. A truly authentic piece of american work.