December 18, 2010
Still Passionate about Franzen: The Discomfort Zone
I am not reading "The Discomfort Zone" for its narrative, rather I am perusing it, so that I may digest Franzen's sentences, vocabulary, wry humor, atmosphere. This book resembles a pamphlet in comparison to the voluminous "Freedom", and so I try to take small bites at it, rather than devour it.
These memoirs begin like "The Stranger" by Camus. Franzen's mother has passed away. Like Camus' "Stranger", the author appears indifferent. Death and melodrama are not at issue here, but the logistics are. However I sense that the book will not be existentialist in the least. It is just a clin d'oeuil to Camus. I predict that Franzen will soon go on a tangeant.
This book is supposed to be about himself but when he uses the first person I still can't seem to imagine him, the writer, living the story. How bizarre considering the fact that I thought Franzen was really Patty Berglund of Freedom, a female character. Perhaps this is explained by my perception that Franzen is a fiction writer. This book, which title is appended by "a personal story" could probably be called auto-fiction, despite its essay form. It is about him and his family but the narrative reads like fiction.
When Franzen chooses a title for his books, it is deliberate and a test for the reader to discover and analyze why he chose that particular title. As a reader, I was caught off guard every time he mentioned the title- word (Freedom, or Discomfort Zone as the case may be)
The first time I noticed the titles respectively was in their opening pages. He described his mother's house as her "zone of comfort". Later in the essays, I had the word discomfort constantly in mind, as I was reading along. Just the concept of a "discomfort zone" was a first experience for me. I had heard the expression before but had never questioned its real meaning.
The first essay is entitled "House for Sale", which brings to mind street signs and advertisements. In that chapter, he reveals that "the house had been [his] mother's novel", an imagery that put a smile to my face. As a novelist, he make the house come to life. I also thought of Marcel Pagnol's "Chateau de Ma Mere" (Castle of My Mother), two distincly different voices in literature.
My favorite parts of the "Discomfort Zone" are those relating to his writing, because I have always been curious about a novelist at work. Thus when he says "a writer pondering commas" I sympathize with this momentary modesty: admitting that commas are tricky!
A preview like this one doesn't make room for the reactions I had while reading. Many sighs at the imagery he creates. Franzen's lyricism is a wonderful melody.
Kakutani of the New York Times was ferocious in her criticism of "Discomfort Zone". She blames him for being conceited and pretentious. Who gives her the right for character judgment? Franzen is no different in Freedom which she gives flying colors. He rejected her applause publicly and I don't blame him.
Why do critics negate self-centered writings in memoirs? Why does Kakutani decry the fact that there is no place for Franzen's family in "Discomfort Zone"? The same has been said by others for Edward Said's "Out of Place". Isn't it obvious that both titles are about them, being "out of place" and "in a discomfort zone?"
Indeed, geniuses like Said and Franzen, exist on the fringe of our lives, they are non conformists who cannot relate to our world of mere mortals. They live in a different zone and will always be out of place and uncomfortable in society. It is the price they pay for the gift of superior intelligence.