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The Discomfort Zone A Personal History

Jonathan Franzen




Trade Paperback

208 Pages


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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year As Jonathan Franzen tells it, he was the king of boy who was afraid of spiders, school dances, urinals, music teachers, boomerangs, popular girls—and his parents. He had nothing against geeky kids except a desperate fear of being taken for one of them, a fate that would result in instant Social Death. Approaching puberty the way a fraud artist confronts a particularly tough scam, he pretended to be a kid who didn't enjoy doing calculations on his new six-function Texas Instruments calculator. The Discomfort Zone is Franzen's intimate memoir of growing up squirming in his own über-sensitive skin, from a "small and fundamentally ridiculous person," through a strangely happy adolescence, into an adult with strong and inconvenient passions. His story cascades from moments of high drama into multilayered fields of sometimes truculent, sometimes piercing, always entertaining investigation and insight. Whether he's writing about the explosive dynamics of a Christian youth fellowship in the 1970s, the effects of Kafka's fiction on his own protracted quest to lose his virginity, or the web of connections between bird-watching, his all-consuming marriage, and the problem of global warming, Franzen is always feeling engaged with the world we live in now. His personal history of a Midwestern youth and a New York adulthood is warmed by the same blend of comic scrutiny and affection that characterizes his fiction; the result is a portrait of a unique American heart and mind.


Praise for The Discomfort Zone

"The strong chapters are impossibly articulate and true. And like the born novelist that he is, Franzen keeps operating under the sign of ambivalence. We get both battling personas in The Discomfort Zone: the ironic Easterner and the upright Midwesterner. Long may they prosper!"—James Marcus, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"At once elegiac and unsentimental, mornful and joyful, [The Discomfort Zone] offers the most intimate glimpse into the author's interior life."—Dan Cryer, The Boston Globe
"[Franzen] takes experiences from his life . . . feeds them through the mixing board of his prodigious insight, and produces some beautiful music."—Bob Ivry, The Washington Post
"Franzen succeeds most neatly . . . he speaks only too directly to a generation of baby-boomers who live in umcomfortable conflict with the thrifty, hardworking, self-sacrificing values of their parents' generation."—Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor
"Franzen is most assuredly a fine stylist. There are whole passages of this book that sing with absolutely gorgeous prose, wielded with a magnificent sense of control."—John Freeman, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Finely drawn, exquisitely expressed portraits . . . related in typically lyrical Franzen prose . . . readers will be glad they came along."—Dale Singer, St. Louis Post Dispatch
"An uncommonly well-written memoir. . . Franzen is a beautiful stylist."—Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
"An intriguing collection of personal essays . . .  Franzen is too brilliant to have had a normal childhood."—Cheryl Reed, The Chicago Sun-Times
"After winning the National Book Award in fiction for The Corrections, Franzen has proven himself to be an exceptionally engaging essayist, first in How to Be Alone and now in this cycle of magnetizing meditations on family and culture, love and death, art and nature. A consummate storyteller, Franzen possesses a low-key, even sheepish sense of humor rooted in his middle-class Midwest upbringing . . . This gratifyingly unpredictable and finely crafted collection ends with a tour de force, 'My Bird Problem,' a thoughtful, wry, and edgy musing on marital bliss and misery, global warming, the wonder of birds, and our halfhearted effort to protect the environment."—Donna Seaman, Booklist
"In this entertaining portrait of the artist as a young geek, Franzen is as offhand about his geekdom and failures as he is about his talents and successes. He retraces his childhood resistance to his parents' way of life as he became a rebel in his own cause. He confesses that he has become a bird-watcher as an adult; he is like an interesting variety of one of the birds that he enjoys finding. Even while describing his personal oddities and those in the people around him, he finds awkward beauty in their quirks and imperfections. The book begins and ends with the death of his mother. Their difficult relationship is one of many he examines. He is a human watcher willing to report in detail on behavior, whether that of his parents, loved ones, or himself. As he studies who he has been and who he is now, Franzen discovers truths about the world around him. This is a world in which many teens find themselves, and seeing the ways the author navigates and survives can entertain and comfort while offering assistance in the process of self-discovery."—Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, Berkeley, California, School Library Journal
"National Book Award–winner Franzen's first foray into memoir begins and ends with his mother's death in Franzen's adulthood. In between, he takes a sarcastic, humorous and intimate look at the painful awkwardness of adolescence. As a young observer rather than a participant, Franzen offers a fresh take on the sometimes tumultuous, sometimes uneventful America of the 1960s and '70s . . . While Franzen's family was unmarked by significant tragedy, the common yet painful contradictions of growing up are at the heart of this wonderful book (parts of which appeared in the New Yorker): "You're miserable and ashamed if you don't believe your adolescent troubles matter, but you're stupid if you do."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
House for Sale
There’d been a storm that evening in St. Louis. Water was standing in steaming black pools on the pavement outside the airport, and from the back seat of my taxi I could see oak limbs shifting against low-hanging urban clouds. The Saturday-night roads were saturated with a feeling of afterness, of lateness—the rain wasn’t falling, it had already fallen.
            My mother’s house, in Webster Groves, was dark except for a lamp on a timer in the living room. Letting
Read the full excerpt



  • Jonathan Franzen on KETC "Living St. Louis"

    Watch this video to hear Jonathan Franzen talk about his hometown of Webster Groves and read from his book The Discomfort Zone.

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  • Jonathan Franzen

  • Jonathan Franzen is the author of four novels—Freedom, The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City, and Strong Motion—and two works of nonfiction, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone. He has been named one of the Granta 20 Best Novelists under 40 and is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Harper's. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.
  • Jonathan Franzen Greg Martin
    Jonathan Franzen