Jonathan Franzen includes the words "A Personal History" on the cover of his new book The Discomfort Zone, but the book isn't a memoir per se, but a collection of memories, arranged around six themes. Franzen looks at who he was and he is, through the prism of his boyhood obsession with Peanuts, his teenage devotion to a church youth group, his high school experiences as a prankster, his college fumblings with sex and German literature, his attempt to sell his parents' house, and his adult obsession with bird-watching. Ultimately, The Discomfort Zone's six essays cohere into a study of why Franzen thinks he's such a hard nut to crack, emotionally speaking.
Between navel-gazing episodes, Franzen tosses around a lot of names and nicknames of people that he remembers vividly, but that he introduces to the reader mainly in terms of how they seemed—like the cool girls in his church group, described as having "wavy album-art hair and personalities that were sweet the way bruises on a peach are sweet." Externally, Franzen deals in impressions. Internally, he studies himself intensely, recalling that he was a well-liked, funny little boy, and then, unexpectedly, a nerdy pre-teen who was "social death." Much of what happened to him next—up to and including becoming a writer—has to do with him trying to become that little boy again.
The Discomfort Zone will likely resonate strongest with people who had childhoods similar to Franzen's, right down to the oppressively pleasant Midwestern suburban home, the conservative worrywart parents, and the wannabe-hip church and school authority figures. For those people—people who came of age in the '70s, in other words—the book should ring clear as a bell. As Franzen charts the way he cleaved to his parents, then scrambled desperately away, then discovered a new kind of individualism, he notes the thousand lingering disappointments and the thousand small satisfactions that each seem equally painful now. And while he stops just short of wishing his younger self had handled everything differently, that may be because he knows there's an older Franzen to come, doomed to look back at this book and wince.