"It will sell the house!" Jon's parents say for each embellishment, each element of comfort added to the suburban family-house. At the opening of the novel, the narrator, Jon, is in charge of the unpleasant task of selling at best price the house of his youth and childhood, located in the suburbs of Saint-Louis, the capital of Middle-West. His mother has just passed away, and his elder brothers don't feel concerned about the violation of intimacy that selling this house implies. That is exactly what Franzen will realize when the time has come to empty the house full of photos. Franzen refused to yield to the temptation of going through the whole family novel. On the contrary, Franzen chose to ward off the pain of dismembering the last bastion of his youth by turning this very discomfort into a central narrative motif organizing the memories that will come back to him. Rather than lingering on events, Franzen makes us understand the role of trigger of this opening scene. As if taking photos out of their frames were similar to stepping out of a reassuring and comfortable place. It is now the narrator's task to give life to these ghosts of the past and of the most inoffensive kind since they are common memories of a middle-class child. Yet, through them, Franzen depicts the generation that followed the 70's and remained in its shade, a generation gripped between the protest 1960's and the future neo-conservative revolution. Franzen's story is the story of an aborted revolt against conservatism, of a difficult and painstaking conquest of autonomy which proves to be an illusion.
Thirty years after the colorful 1970's, hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration's failure, social inequalities are proof that America is sinking into the Discomfort Zone, along with the narrator who gives way to his discrete feeling of helplessness and invites us to live with it the way he does in a disenchanted but yet humourous way.
In The Discomfort Zone, Jonathan Franzen buckles down to the difficult, generally painful and nonetheless releasing and relieving exercise of introspection. The author of The Corrections, demonstrates his literary skill in both evading the conventional codes of the autobiographical genre and eschewing the traditional pitfalls such as an excess of pathos, the lapses of memory, or the deceitful idealization of a forgotten or mythical past. By selecting very few narrative elements around which each chapter revolves, Franzen proposes a selective treatment of his past instead of a never-ending recollection of memories. Indeed, Franzen doesn't conform to the rites of modern autobiography such as ironical nostalgia, pop references, or the explicit anchorage in a stereotyped generation. Franzen's vision of his past is bereft of mawkishness or scorn, on the contrary, he confesses in a sensitive and yet disenchanted voice.
The six chapters of the book are each structured around a narrative motif such as the epic selling of the family-house, the comfort that the magazine Peanuts brought the narrator in his lonely childhood, his adolescence spent in Christian camps, his passion for ornithology and even a literary walk across Germany. By intertwining novelesque and self-derision, Jonathan Franzen has made the choice to depict himself as an anti-hero embarrassed by his shyness,
his awkwardness, and his tendency to feel guilty for everything. His book serves the purpose of a personal and autobiographical outlet but could easily be read as a collection of brief short stories. His work looks like a patchwork whose threads would be made visible on purpose so as to emphasize clumsiness as the central and structuring element of his literary enterprise. This autobiography written by a man too young for this exercise is clearly a fine
piece of literature and could be compared to an autopsy of the frustrations of middle-class America. Franzen's book is not a fiction properly in which the events would be well linked and all tied up in a reassuring composition. Franzen avoids composition and chooses an abortive aspect for the book that precisely sublimes the common chronicle of one man's lost days and unveiled intimacy.
In The Discomfort Zone, Franzen reveals his complete identification at the age of 10 to the character of Charlie Brown, while describing the tensions that troubled his family, as well as the silences and misunderstandings. He also evokes randomly his simultaneous discovery of Thomas Mann and girls, his years spent at the university, hurricane Katrina, Bush's politics, the failure of his marriage. If Jon is an anti-hero, it is also because he identifies to characters who are epitomes of inbetweeness, of discomfort, of strangeness. For instance, Snoopy is neither a dog nor a fiction; he is the embodiment of the innocence of childhood, and all its possibilities and metamorphosis. Josef K., the hero of Kafka's Trial is also a striking image of culpability, and echoes to the idea of metaphysical discomfort by inquiring on the meaning of life.
Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone. 2006