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The Discomfort Zone, by Jonathan Franzen
A tale of art and lies in Middle America
Friday 20 October 2006
The creator of Peanuts, Charles Schulz, was not, according to Jonathan Franzen, "an artist because he suffered". He suffered, says Franzen in this strange and brilliant memoir, "because he was an artist". "Almost every young person experiences sorrows," he explains. It is not the sorrows that make the artist, but the daily choice of art "over the comforts of a normal life".
Readers of Franzen's sprawling slice-of-mid-American-life, The Corrections - the bestselling literary novel of the millennium so far - won't be at all surprised to learn that Franzen's own childhood was almost archetypally "normal". The late last son of an engineer and a housewife, he "grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class". They owned "one mid-sized Dodge and one 20in black-and-white TV", and lived a life constructed around the pillars of "family and house and neighbourhood and church and school and work" - one in which "a weekend's excitement might consist of the rental of a steam machine to strip off old wallpaper". All the material, then, for a Corrections-type family saga, packed with punchy dialogue, vivid vignettes and high drama.
Franzen has chosen, however, to eschew the current trend for memoir-as-ersatz-fiction. Instead, he has opted to bring a near-forensic gaze to the childhood and adolescent worlds that shaped the person - and the writer - he has become. He starts, after his mother's death, with the sale of the family home. "Est. value $350,000+", his mother has written at the bottom of a list of repairs. After entrusting the sale to a ditsy blonde in "excellent jeans", Franzen sells it for much less. This saga - one of many digressions whose relevance is not immediately apparent - takes a hefty chunk of a short book, but serves to indicate that this all-too-fallible narrator will bring the same merciless eye to himself as to others.
It's there in his descriptions of a child who has "a private, intense relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle", one who sleeps with a different stuffed animal every night. It's there in the accounts of an adolescent who "had to pretend" to be "a kid who hadn't written a book-length report on plant physiology", and in the descriptions of "Fellowship", the Christian youth group where he finally manages to shake off his reputation as "Social Death". And it's there in the glimpse of the boy who, in lessons on German literature, starts to see the members of his family as "actual people" and his own life as a performance he's increasingly keen to escape.
Some of it is very funny indeed, but it isn't played for laughs. A rich and rewarding mélange of social and family history, and of personal and political reflection, this is, most of all, a moving tale of a boy who learnt to wear a mask, a boy so alarmed by the "ever-invading sea" of his mother that he cut himself off from all emotion - a boy who never quite shook off his inner nerd. It is a book about Snoopy and Middle America, a book about art and life. And, of course, about death. The "only real story," says Franzen, "is that you die." But that, thank the Lord (the one of "Fellowship", perhaps), is where "the game of art" begins.
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