The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History

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The Discomfort Zone is Jonathan Franzen's memoir of growing up squirming in his own uber-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...
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The Discomfort Zone is Jonathan Franzen's memoir of growing up squirming in his own uber-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 loose his virginity, or the web of connections between bird-watching, his all-consuming marriage, and the problem of global warming, Franzen is always feelingly engaged with the world we live in now.
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Editorial Reviews

Bob Irvy
A common thread running through the essays is the peeling away of childish illusion to reveal a second reality -- the very definition of growing up, and a discomfort zone if there ever was one. Discovering the beauty and ubiquity of birds, for instance, after a lifetime of looking at them but not seeing them, made Franzen feel as if he'd always "been mistaken about something important." Franzen may be known as The Man Who Said No To Oprah; he's written about that pop-culture melodrama elsewhere, thankfully. Here, we get the small, unexpectedly fraught moments that accumulate into a life. They're interesting merely because they happened to Franzen, who has the enviable ability to make them so.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
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. A not very popular, bookish kid, Franzen (The Corrections) and his high school buddies, in one of the book's most memorable episodes, attempt to loop a tire, ring-toss-style, over their school's 40-foot flag pole as part of a series of flailing pranks. Franzen watches his older brother storm out of the house toward a wayward hippe life, while he ultimately follows along his father's straight-and-narrow path. Franzen traces back to his teenage years the roots of his enduring trouble with women, his pursuit of a precarious career as a writer and his recent life-affirming obsession with bird-watching. 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." (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this collection of six long essays, Franzen, the author of The Corrections (the most-written-about novel of 2001 and the winner of that year's National Book Award for fiction) and two other novels and an essay collection, focuses on himself: growing up in Webster Groves, MO (a suburb of St. Louis); family matters; love and loss; and the forces that made him. Here, the personal is also the political; nowhere is this made clearer than in the last essay, where Franzen paces out some wandering, but wonderful, pathways between his environmental consciousness, his love relationships, and the real plight of wild birds. Franzen is extremely funny, winning, and not incidentally an astute social commentator. As in his previous work, the style here is energetic and engaged; many ideas are woven together, not often quickly or easily; this is not for lazy readers. A possible choice for nonfiction book clubs; strongly recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/06.]-Terren Ilana Wein, Univ. of Chicago Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School
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 MarstonCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Franzen (The Corrections, 2001, etc.) displays his mastery of nonfiction in this compact, affecting memoir, which begins with the aftermath of his mother's death and ends with a quiet epiphany about love. Today's many autobiographers could learn a lot from Franzen about focus and about the immense significance of the littlest things. He sees the relevance of almost everything-though it sometimes takes him decades. Rather than a traditional story beginning with birth and ending with the present, Franzen offers six segments that together form a rough chronology. Each could stand alone but gains great power from its juxtaposition with the others. When the author appears to be drifting away from the narrative, he is instead inviting us along on a detour that often turns out to be a shortcut to surprise through some troubled terrain. We meet and grow to care deeply for his conventional, sometimes procrustean parents and his older brothers in suburban Webster Groves, Mo. We squirm as he tells us about his geeky boyhood, compulsively reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and his awkward adolescence. An early section on Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl reveals its importance 100 pages later. We read about church camp and high-school pranks, including repeated attempts by Franzen and his friends to get an automobile tire over the school's flagpole. We learn why he majored in German in college and why he greatly admired a professor almost everyone else despised. We see the enduring conflict between man and boy that rages within him even now. He relates painful, protracted tales of his sexual awakenings and rejections; he grieves about his failed marriage. He explores what heat first thinks is his odd affinity for birds. Only rarely does he talk specifically about his emergence as a writer, but it's all there, right in front of you. Quirky, funny, poignant, self-deprecating and ultimately wise.
From the Publisher
Praise for How to Be Alone:

"This collection emphasizes [Franzen's] elegance, acumen and daring as an essayist, with an intellectually engaging self-awareness as formidable as Joan Didion's." —Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Jonathan Franzen is one of the most nuanced minds at works in the dwindling republic of letters." —Richard Lacayo, Time

"There's some boldness, then, in how Franzen reclaims his pain on the page, owning up to it and, as any good journalist will, making it our own, too." —John Freeman, The San Francisco Chronicle

"Franzen's ability to articulate the tension between our intimate and public lives is his great strength." —Valerie Ellis, The Boston Review

"How to Be Alone reaffirms the novelist's prerogative to engage in social criticism And Franzen's calm, passionate critical authority derives not from any special expertise in criminology, neurology or postal science, but rather from the fact that, as a novelist, he is principally concerned with the messy architecture of the self." —A.O. Scott, The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312426408
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 8/21/2007
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 816,024
  • Product dimensions: 4.86 (w) x 8.89 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is the author of The Corrections, winner of the National Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner. He is also the author of Freedom, selected for Oprah’s Book Club, The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion, and How to Be Alone, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In 1996, he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.


Until his award-winning novel The Corrections was published in the fall of 2001, Jonathan Franzen was probably best known for a somewhat dyspeptic 1996 essay he wrote for Harper's entitled "Perchance to Dream." In it, Franzen decried the state of modern American fiction and, by association, that of his own career.

Part of Franzen's frustration may have stemmed from the reception of his first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992). Although both books showcased his formidable literary skills and earned respectful praise from critics, neither one sold well. He won a Whiting Writer's Award for City and, in 1997, the British literary magazine Granta named him one of the 20 best American novelists under the age of 40. Still, major recognition seemed to elude him.

All that changed with The Corrections, a sprawling tale of American family dysfunction that was immediately acclaimed a "postmodern masterpiece." At long last, Franzen had found his voice, emerging from the pressure of trying to emulate his literary heroes Don DeLillo and William Gaddis. The New York Times Book Review called the novel "marvelous"; The New York Observer called it "brilliant"; and the Boston Globe called it "smart and boisterous and beautifully paced." In short, The Corrections put Franzen on the literary map.

A month later, Franzen's star lost some of its luster, when he became embroiled in a public relations fiasco. Kingmaker Oprah Winfrey selected The Corrections for her popular Book Club, but when the author expressed his discomfort with the endorsement, the show quickly withdrew its certification. A vilified Franzen hastened to explain himself, the book was re-Oprahcized -- and in a final salvo, Franzen wrote about the entire experience in a widely read New Yorker piece that only served to compound the controversy. As the line from his book goes, "What made corrections possible also doomed them." No matter; what Franzen lost in Oprah's esteem he gained in untold sales from the publicity, and The Corrections went on to win the National Book Award.

In 2002, a collection of Franzen's cultural criticism (including the famous Oprah piece and a reworked version of "Perchance to Dream") appeared under the title How to Be Alone, reaffirming his status as a writer of elegant nonfiction; and in 2006, he forayed into memoir with The Discomfort Zone, a self-lacerating look at his youth, his family, and the forces that shaped him into a writer.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1958
    2. Place of Birth:
      Western Springs, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2006 Jonathan Franzen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-29919-6

Chapter One

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 thatway. 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 by JONATHAN FRANZEN Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 26, 2010

    Good story and then...

    Franzen's opening is strong, the memior achieves a nice arc in his adolescent years and then poof! it kind of dissolves into a desalotury whine about birding and the environment.

    Altogether, the ending pages may make sense in light of how the author describes his early life...hey! hes's a sensitive guy!

    If two-thirds of a book is interesting to the point of being difficult to set down, does that make it worthwhile to read? In this case, I vote 'yes.' Reading about Franzen's high school years is a lot of fun. It's about hijinks, cute excuses and reminiscent of a particular time in the 70's.

    The paperback doesn't cost much, so the price is a good bargain for the entertainment and insight value.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2013

    Perhaps the best memoir I've read. At one point Franzen offers a

    Perhaps the best memoir I've read. At one point Franzen offers a description of adolescence that is so perfectly profound and incisive that it alone makes the book worth reading. As others have noted the ending is a bit of a departure, but it's still wonderful. I'd highly recommend it whether your'e familiar with Franzen's work or not.

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  • Posted February 2, 2013

    Great Book - Loved Every Page!

    This memoir is wonderful. It is so personal and obviously honest, and he tells each little memory in such a way that we can almost remember them ourselves. They become our memories, because what they ultimately describe are universal feelings of growing up.

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