Franzen Enters 'The Discomfort Zone'

Discomfort Zone

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Writer Jonathan Franzen's massive 2001 bestseller The Corrections was based, in part, on his own life. His new book is a memoir, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Franzen explores his middle-class upbringing in 1970s Missouri, as well as events in his adulthood, such as the death of his mother, his affinity for bird-watching and his marriage.

Franzen's other books include The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion and How to be Alone.

Excerpt: 'The Discomfort Zone'

Our friend Kirby, it turned out, had charmed the owner of the Florida house, and the beer keg was fully operational, and so our last week of living like rich people unfolded amicably. I spent morbid, delicious amounts of time by myself, driven by the sort of hormonal instinct that I imagine leads cats to eat grass. The half-finished high-rises to our east were poised to engulf our idyll, even if we'd wanted to come back another year, but the transformation of a quiet, sandpiper-friendly beach into a high-density population center was such a novelty for us that we didn't even have a category for the loss it represented. I studied the skeletal towers the way I studied bad weather.

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. I might not have minded going with my friend Manley, or with my not-girlfriend Hoener, and mocking and subverting the place and allowing myself to like it that way. But mocking and subverting in the presence of my parents was out of the question.

In our hotel room in Orlando, I begged my mother to let me wear my cutoff 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 shorts and a Bing Crosbyish sport 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, but 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 diffuse, 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 lee of an eatery while tawny-legged tourist girls thronged toward the water rides. My eyes fell on a 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 twenty 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'd 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 me 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.

Excerpted from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Franzen. Published in September, 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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The Discomfort Zone
The Discomfort Zone

A Personal History

by Jonathan Franzen

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