Birds on the Brain

Reviewed by Bob Ivry
Sunday, October 1, 2006


A Personal History

By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar Straus Giroux. 195 pp. $22

There's an expression weary writing instructors use in hopes of wringing the self- indulgence out of their egocentric students: "Just because it happened to you doesn't make it interesting." In The Discomfort Zone , a collection of six autobiographical essays, Jonathan Franzen, author of the award-winning 2001 novel The Corrections , stands that admonition on its head. He takes experiences from his life that, to be frank, aren't all that exciting, feeds them through the mixing board of his prodigious insight, and produces some beautiful music.

Most of the time, anyway. These essays focus on the events that Franzen recognizes as the ones that transformed him into the artist he is today. As the youngest, by a wide margin, of three boys who came of age in a middle-class St. Louis suburb, Franzen might have been "cocooned in cocoons that were themselves cocooned," as he puts it, but there's drama just growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. No matter how cosseted a person was, it was impossible to avoid the shrapnel from the multiple cultural explosions of the time.

In "Two Ponies," he pinpoints when family life started going south for the Franzens of Webster Groves, Mo. As a 10-year-old in 1970, he confesses he was unaware of "an epidemic" sweeping the country -- late adolescents "not just clashing with their parents but rejecting and annihilating everything about them." The epidemic hit home when Jonathan's father, a man Franzen says had spent 50 years doing exactly what his own father had wanted him to do, battled with Jonathan's brother Tom. Dad wanted Tom to be an architect; Tom preferred making plotless art films. Tom reacted by taking off.

In that "unsettled season," Franzen sought solace in a "private, intense relationship with Snoopy" and the rest of the "Peanuts" gang. The grownup Franzen can see why his pre-teen mini-me would identify so obsessively, and the reason is no less heartbreaking for its ordinariness: Nobody grows up, or apart, in a comic strip. "I wanted everyone in my family to get along and nothing to change; but suddenly, after Tom ran away, it was as if the five of us looked around, asked why we should be spending time together, and failed to come up with many good answers."

"Then Joy Breaks Through" and "Centrally Located" are less successful recreations of pivotal experiences in Franzen's life. In the former, Franzen joins a passionate church youth group called Fellowship. The latter essay recounts the pranks Franzen and his high school pals pulled off, or tried to. Both essays seem like journeys without destinations, vividly rendered and spot-on about the cringing embarrassments of adolescence, but meandering. "The Foreign Language" suffers from the same indulgences, but makes for dishy reading because it describes Franzen's first sexual exploit -- at Swarthmore College -- and, slow down the presses, it's with his own version of Charlie Brown's Little Red-Haired Girl.

Identification with the funny pages' perennial loser is no coincidence. Franzen comes clean about an adolescent nerd problem. He finds a pornographic magazine called Rogue, and actually reads the stories; he forges a note to get himself out of school so he can go home and watch the launch of Skylab. His self-portrait isn't exactly run-with-the-bulls: "giddily squeaking voice, horn-rimmed glasses, poor arm strength, too-obvious approval from my teachers, irresistible urges to shout unfunny puns, a near-eidetic acquaintance with J.R.R. Tolkien, a big chemistry lab in my basement, a penchant for intimately insulting any unfamiliar girl unwise enough to speak to me, and so on."

The best essays of The Discomfort Zone are the first, "House for Sale," in which Franzen sells off the family home after his mom dies, and the last, "My Bird Problem," in which he smothers his grief over the death of both his mother and his marriage by crisscrossing the continent in search of feathery additions to his life list -- the catalogue birdwatchers keep of the birds they've seen.

A common thread running through the essays is the peeling away of childish illusion to reveal a second reality -- the very definition of growing up, and a discomfort zone if there ever was one. Discovering the beauty and ubiquity of birds, for instance, after a lifetime of looking at them but not seeing them, made Franzen feel as if he'd always "been mistaken about something important." Franzen may be known as The Man Who Said No To Oprah; he's written about that pop-culture melodrama elsewhere, thankfully. Here, we get the small, unexpectedly fraught moments that accumulate into a life. They're interesting merely because they happened to Franzen, who has the enviable ability to make them so. ยท

Bob Ivry is a frequent reviewer for Book World.

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