'Discomfort Zone' Stares into Ugly Adolescence

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Jonathan Franzen reads an excerpt from his new essay collection The Discomfort Zone. The essays explore the painful rituals of adolescence. In this excerpt,15-year-old Jonathan is dragged to Disney World by his parents.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Most of us want to forget those mortifying moments of adolescence, when we were embarrassed to be seen with our parents, when we felt self-conscious and ugly and uncool.

Jonathan Franzen is writing about those moments and we asked him to read for us. Franzen is best known for his novel The Corrections. It won the National Book Award in 2001. But he's also been publishing personal essays for years. Some of them are collected in a new book called The Discomfort Zone. In this excerpt he recalls a doomed summer vacation. He was 15 years old.

JONATHAN RANZEN reporting:

At the end of the week, my parents and I drove deeper into Florida so that I could be taken to Disney World. My father was big on fairness and because my brothers had once spent a day at Disneyland many years earlier, it was unthinkable that I not be given the equivalent treat of a day at Disney World, whether or not I was too old for it and whether or not I wanted to be there.

In our hotel room in Orlando I begged my mother to let me wear my cut off jeans and a T-shirt for the day, but my mother won the argument and I arrived at Disney World in an ensemble of pleated shirts and a Bing Crosby-ish sports shirt. Dressed like this, miserable with self-consciousness, I moved my feet only when I was directly ordered to. All I wanted to do was go sit in our car and read.

In front of each themed ride my mother asked me if it didn't look like lots of fun. I saw the other teenagers waiting in line and I felt their eyes on my clothes and my parents and my throat ached and I said the line was too long. My mother tried to cajole me but my father cut her off. Irene, he doesn't want to ride this one.

We trudged on through defuse burning Florida sunshine to the next crowded ride where again, the same story. You have to ride something my father said finally after we'd had lunch. We were standing in the lei of an eatery while tawny-legged tourist girls thronged towards the water rides.

My eyes fell on the nearby merry-go-round that was empty except for a few toddlers. I'll ride that, I said in a dull voice. For the next 20 minutes the three of us boarded and re-boarded the dismal merry-go-round, ensuring that our ride tickets weren't going to waste. I stared at the merry-go-round's chevroned metal floor and radiated shame, mentally vomiting back the treat they tried to give me.

My mother, ever the dutiful traveler, took pictures of my father and me on our uncomfortably small horses. But beneath her forcible cheer, she was angry at me because she knew she was the one I was getting even with because of our fight about clothes. My father, his fingers loosely grasping a horse impaling metal pole, gazed into the distance with a look of resignation that summarized his life.

I don't see how either of them bore it. I'd been their late happy child and now there was nothing I wanted more than to get away from them. My mother seemed to me hideously conformist and hopelessly obsessed with money and appearances. My father seemed to be allergic to every kind of fun. I didn't want the things they wanted. I didn't value what they valued. And we were all equally sorry to be riding the merry-go-round.

And we were all equally at a loss to explain what had happened to us.

BLOCK: Jonathan Franzen reading an excerpt from his new collection of essays. It's called the Discomfort Zone.

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