The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History

by Jonathan Franzen

Paperback(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312426408
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/21/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 588,762
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Jonathan Franzen is the author of The Corrections, winner of the 2001 National Book Award for fiction; the novels The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion; and a collection of essays, How to Be Alone. He lives in New York City.

Hometown:

New York, New York

Date of Birth:

1959

Place of Birth:

Western Springs, Illinois

Education:

B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin

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 myself inside, I went directly to the liquor shelf and poured the hammer of a drink I’d been promising myself since before the first of my two flights. I had a Viking sense of entitlement to whatever provisions I could plunder. I was about to turn forty, and my older brothers had entrusted me with the job of traveling to Missouri and choosing a realtor to sell the house. For as long as I was in Webster Groves, doing work on behalf of the estate, the liquor shelf would be mine. Mine! Ditto the air-conditioning, which I set frostily low. Ditto the kitchen freezer, which I found it necessary to open immediately and get to the bottom of, hoping to discover some breakfast sausages, some homemade beef stew, some fatty and savory thing that I could warm up and eat before I went to bed. My mother had been good about labeling food with the date she’d frozen it. Beneath multiple bags of cranberries I found a package of small-mouth bass that a fisherman neighbor had caught three years earlier. Underneath the bass was a nine-year-old beef brisket.

I went through the house and stripped the family photos out of every room. I’d been looking forward to this work almost as much as to my drink. My mother had been too attached to the formality of her living room and dining room to clutter them with snapshots, but elsewhere each windowsill and each tabletop was an eddy in which inexpensively framed photos had accumulated. I filled a shopping bag with the haul from the top of her TV cabinet. I picked another bag’s worth from a wall of the family room, as from an espaliered fruit tree. Many of the pictures were of grandchildren, but I was represented in them, too—here flashing an orthodontic smile on a beach in Florida, here looking hungover at my college graduation, here hunching my shoulders on my ill-starred wedding day, here standing three feet away from the rest of my family during an Alaskan vacation that my mother, toward the end, had spent a substantial percentage of her life savings to take us on. The Alaskan picture was so flattering to nine of us that she’d applied a blue ballpoint pen to the eyes of the tenth, a daughter-in-law, who’d blinked for the photo and who now, with her misshapen ink-dot eyes, looked quietly monstrous or insane.

I told myself that I was doing important work by depersonalizing the house before the first realtor came to see it. But if somebody had asked me why it was also necessary, that same night, to pile the hundred-plus pictures on a table in the basement and to rip or slice or pry or slide each photo out of its frame, and then dump all the frames into shopping bags, and stow the shopping bags in cabinets, and shove all the photos into an envelope, so that nobody could see them—if somebody had pointed out my resemblance to a conqueror burning the enemy’s churches and smashing its icons—I would have had to admit that I was relishing my ownership of the house.

I was the only person in the family who’d had a full childhood here. As a teenager, when my parents were going out, I’d counted the seconds until I could take temporary full possession of the house, and as long as they were gone I was sorry they were coming back. In the decades since, I’d observed the sclerotic buildup of family photographs resentfully, and I’d chafed at my mother’s usurpation of my drawer and closet space, and when she’d asked me to clear out my old boxes of books and papers, I’d reacted like a house cat in whom she was trying to instill community spirit. She seemed to think she owned the place.

Which, of course, she did. This was the house where, five days a month for ten months, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she’d grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of an afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item “Decide about afterlife” and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as “Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever.” This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words “Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fran, you look terrible,” and to which she’d returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn’t believe in supernatural beings. Her house was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she’d loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.

But now we needed to put the place on the market in a hurry. We were already a week into August, and the house’s best selling point, the counterbalance to its many defects (its tiny kitchen, its negligible back yard, its too-small upstairs bathroom), was its situation in the Catholic school district attached to the church of Mary, Queen of Peace. Given the quality of the Webster Groves public schools, I didn’t understand why a family would pay extra to live in this district in order to then pay further extra for schooling by nuns, but there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about being Catholic. According to my mother, Catholic parents from all over St. Louis eagerly awaited listings in the district, and families in Webster Groves had been known to pull up stakes and move just one or two blocks to get inside its boundaries.

Unfortunately, once the school year started, three weeks from now, young parents wouldn’t be so eager. I felt some additional pressure to help my brother Tom, the executor of the estate, to finish his work quickly. I felt a different kind of pressure from my other brother, Bob, who had urged me to remember that we were talking about real money. (“People knock $782,000 down to $770,000 when they’re negotiating, they think it’s basically the same number,” he’d told me. “Well, no, in fact, it’s twelve thousand dollars less. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a lot of things I’d rather do with twelve thousand dollars than give it to the stranger who’s buying my house.”) But the really serious pressure came from my mother, who, before she died, had made it clear that there was no better way to honor her memory and validate the last decades of her life than to sell the house for a shocking amount of money.

Counting had always been a comfort to her. She wasn’t a collector of anything except Danish Christmas china and mint plate blocks of U.S. postage, but she maintained lists of every trip she’d ever taken, every country she’d set foot in, every one of the “Wonderful (Exceptional) European Restaurants” she’d eaten in, every operation she’d undergone, and every insurable object in her house and her safe-deposit box. She was a founding member of a penny-ante investment club called Girl Tycoons, whose portfolio’s performance she tracked minutely. In the last two years of her life, as her prognosis worsened, she’d paid particular attention to the sale price of other houses in our neighborhood, writing down their location and square footage. On a sheet of paper marked Real Estate guide for listing property at 83 Webster Woods, she’d composed a sample advertisement the way someone else might have drafted her own obituary:

Two story solid brick three bedroom center hall colonial home on shaded lot on cul de sac on private street. There are three bedrooms, living room, dining room with bay, main floor den, eat-in kitchen with new G.E. dishwasher, etc. There are two screened porches, two wood-burning fireplaces, two car attached garage, security burglary and fire system, hardwood floors throughout and divided basement.

At the bottom of the page, below a list of new appliances and recent home repairs, was her final guess about the house’s worth: “1999—Est. value $350,000.00+.” This figure was more than ten times what she and my father had paid for the place in 1965. The house not only constituted the bulk of her assets but was by far the most successful investment she’d ever made. I wasn’t a ten times happier person than my father, her grandchildren weren’t ten times better educated than she was. What else in her life had done even half so well as real estate?

“It’ll sell the house!” my father had exclaimed after he built a little half-bathroom in our basement. “It’ll sell the house!” my mother had said after she paid a contractor to redo our front walkway in brick. She repeated the phrase so many times that my father lost his temper and began to enumerate the many improvements he’d made, including the new half-bathroom, which she evidently thought would not sell the house; he wondered aloud why he’d bothered working every weekend for so many years when all it took to “sell the house” was buying a new brick walkway! He refused to have anything to do with the walkway, leaving it to my mother to scrub the moss off the bricks and to chip away gently at the ice in winter. But after he’d spent half a month of Sundays installing decorative moldings in the dining room, mitering and spackling and painting, he and she both stood and admired the finished work and said, over and over, with great satisfaction, “It’ll sell the house.”

“It’ll sell the house.”

“It’ll sell the house.”

Long past midnight, I turned off the lights downstairs and went up to my bedroom, which Tom and I had shared until he went away to college. My aunt had done some cleaning before she went back to New York, and I had now taken away all the family pictures, and the bedroom looked ready to show to buyers. The dressertops and desktop were clear; the grain of the carpeting was neatly scalloped from my aunt’s vacuuming of it; the twin beds had a freshly made look. And so I was startled, when I peeled back my bedspread, to find something on the mattress by my pillow. It was a bundle of postage stamps in little waxed-paper envelopes: my mother’s old collection of plate blocks.

The bundle was so radiantly out of place here that the back of my neck began to tingle, as if I might turn around and see my mother still standing in the doorway. She was clearly the person who’d hidden the stamps. She must have done it in July, as she was getting ready to leave the house for the last time. Some years earlier, when I’d asked her if I could have her old plate blocks, she’d said I was welcome to whatever was left when she died. And possibly she was afraid that Bob, who collected stamps, would appropriate the bundle for himself, or possibly she was just checking items off her to-do list. But she’d taken the envelopes from a drawer in the dining room and moved them upstairs to the one place I would most likely be the next person to disturb. Such micromanagerial prescience! The private message that the stamps represented, the complicit wink in her bypassing of Bob, the signal arriving when the sender was dead: it wasn’t the intimate look that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty exchange in Bonnie and Clyde an instant before they’re both shot dead, but it was as close to intimate as my mom and I were going to get. Finding the bundle now was like hearing her say, “I’m paying attention to my details. Are you paying attention to yours?”

The three realtors I interviewed the next day were as various as three suitors in a fairy tale. The first was a straw-haired, shiny-skinned woman from Century 21 for whom it appeared to be a struggle to say nice things about the house. Each room came as a fresh disappointment to her and her strongly cologned male associate; they conferred in low voices about “potential” and “additions.” My mother was a bartender’s daughter who never finished college, and her taste was what she liked to call Traditional, but it seemed to me unlikely that the other houses on Century 21’s list were decorated in substantially better taste. I was annoyed by the realtor’s failure to be charmed by my mother’s Parisian watercolors. The realtor, however, was comparing our quaint little kitchen with the hangarlike spaces in newer houses. If I wanted to list with her, she said, she would suggest asking between $340,000 and $360,000.

The second realtor, a handsome woman named Pat who was wearing an elegant summer suit, was the friend of a good family friend of ours and came highly recommended. She was accompanied by her daughter, Kim, who was in business with her. As the two of them moved from room to room, stopping to admire precisely the details that my mother had been proudest of, they seemed to me two avatars of Webster Groves domesticity. It was as if Pat were thinking of buying the house for Kim; as if Kim would soon be Pat’s age and, like Pat, would want a house where everything was quiet and the fabrics and furniture were all just right. Child replacing parent, family succeeding family, the cycle of suburban life. We sat down together in the living room.

“This is a lovely, lovely home,” Pat said. “Your mother kept it up beautifully. And I think we can get a good price for it, but we have to act fast. I’d suggest listing it at three hundred fifty thousand, putting an ad in the paper on Tuesday, and having an open house next weekend.”

“And your commission?”

“Six percent,” she said, looking at me steadily. “I know several people who would be very interested right now.”

I told her I would let her know by the end of the day.

The third realtor burst into the house an hour later. Her name was Mike, she was a pretty, short-haired blonde about my own age, and she was wearing excellent jeans. Her plate was overfull, she said in a husky voice, she was coming from her third open house of the day, but after I’d phoned her on Friday she’d driven over to see our house and had fallen in love with it from the street, its curb appeal was fantastic, she knew she had to see the inside, and, wow, just as she suspected—she was moving hungrily from room to room—it was adorable, it was dripping with charm, she liked it even better from the inside, and she would love love love love love to be the one to get to sell it, in fact if the upstairs bathroom weren’t so small she might even go as high as $405,000, this neighborhood was so hot, so hot—I knew about the Mary, Queen of Peace school district, right?—but even with the problematic bathroom and the regrettably tiny back yard she wouldn’t be surprised if the house sold in the three-nineties, plus there were other things she could do for me, her basic commission was five and a half percent, but if the buyer’s agent was from her group, she could knock that down to five, and if she herself was the buyer’s agent she could knock it all the way down to four, my God, she loved what my mother had done, she’d known it as soon as she’d seen it from the street, she wanted this house bad—“Jon, I want it bad,” she said, looking me in the eye—and, by the way, just as a matter of fact, not to brag, truly, but she’d been number one in residential real estate in Webster Groves and Kirkwood for three years running.

Mike excited me. The sweat-damp front of her blouse, the way she strode in her jeans. She was flirting with me broadly, admiring the size of my ambitions, comparing them favorably to her own (though hers were not insubstantial), holding my gaze, and talking nonstop in her lovely husky voice. She said she totally got why I wanted to live in New York. She said it was rare that she met somebody who understood, as I obviously did, about desire, about hunger. She said she’d price the house between $380,000 and $385,000 and hope to start a bidding war. As I sat there, watching her gush, I felt like a Viking.

It shouldn’t have been so hard to make the call to Pat, but it was. She seemed to me a mom I had to disappoint, a mom in the way, a nagging conscience. She seemed to know things about me and about the house—realistic things—that I wished she didn’t. The look she’d given me when she’d named her commission had been skeptical and appraising, as if any responsible adult could see that she and her daughter were obviously the best agents for the job, but she wasn’t sure if I could see it myself.

I waited until 9:30, the last possible minute, before I called her. Just as I’d feared, she didn’t hide her surprise and displeasure. Did I mind if she asked who the other realtor was?

I was conscious of the taste and shape of Mike’s name as it passed through my mouth.

“Oh,” Pat said wearily. “OK.”

Mike wouldn’t have been my mother’s type either, not one bit. I told Pat that the decision had been a very hard one, a really difficult choice, and that I was grateful that she’d come over and sorry that she and I weren’t going to be—

“Well, good luck,” she said.

After that, I got to make the fun call, the Yes-I’m-free-on-Friday-night call. Mike, at home, confided to me in a low voice, as if to keep her husband from hearing, “Jon, I knew you’d go with me. I felt the connection between us right away.” The only slight complication, she said, was that she had long-standing vacation plans with her husband and children. She was leaving town on Friday and wouldn’t be able to start showing the house until the very end of the month. “But don’t worry,” she said.

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.

Table of Contents

Contents

HOUSE FOR SALE,
TWO PONIES,
THEN JOY BREAKS THROUGH,
CENTRALLY LOCATED,
THE FOREIGN LANGUAGE,
MY BIRD PROBLEM,

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The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
SuzeJones58 More than 1 year ago
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.
booksandbosox on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Just finished listening t this on audio and found it quite enjoyable. An episodic and disjointed look at Franzen's life. I particularly enjoyed the pieces on Mutton and Fellowship, as well as Franzen's attempts to secure a girlfriend abroad. I certainly would actually like to read some Franzen now and look forward to that.
WholeHouseLibrary on LibraryThing 7 months ago
I have the audio version of this book ¿ 6 CDs, which was fairly accordant with the commute I¿m doing lately. I almost bought the hardcover when it first came out, but there were other priorities at the time, and opted for the audio version when I started having reason to spend a lot of time in my vehicle. The downside of listening to the audio version while driving is that it¿s damned difficult to jot down notes about what I just heard. Another problem is that there¿s no table of contents to refer to, so trying to find a passage `after the fact¿ is purely luck. In short, if I state something incorrectly, it¿s my fault.This is the first of anything I¿ve `read¿ by Mr. Franzen, and I was not disappointed. In a way, I¿m very glad I got the audio version, because he speaks impeccable German, and quoted several passages from Spinoza and Kafka (I think). His diction is clear, and it seemed to me that he felt more comfortable speaking the German language than speaking English. I believe this is common among authors, as they tend to be writers and not orators. Regardless, he speaks well and with enough vocal inflection that one does not get bored with the presentation.I particularly enjoyed hearing his trials and tribulations at naming birds. He always got them wrong, and other bird watchers were quick to correct him in a manner that caused him a bit of frustration and embarrassment. ¿Humiliation¿ might be a more appropriate word. In fact, scenarios like that are pretty much the theme of his story. That is not to say his stories are cookie-cutter in format, but there is a bit of predictability to them, although you¿re never sure just how it¿s going to come about.I recommend this book, as I enjoyed it quite a lot. I¿ll be looking for more books that he¿s written, mostly because of the relaxed form of his writing, despite how it came across in the audio version.
DSeanW on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I am impressed by anyone who can so unflinchingly look at their adolescence with all the earnest passions and self importance of that age. Continue to be impressed with all of Franzen¿s work that I read.
talimckell on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Though I can tell that he's a good writer, I have a feeling I'd like his fiction more. I didn't feel there was enough story for this memoir.
melancholycat on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I did not enjoy this book much at all. I am a newcomer to Franzen's writing; I just thought the book sounded interesting. However, Franzen just seems to ramble on an on, talking about one event, then going on for pages with his observations and neuroses, then finally coming back to what he was originally discussing. My other issue is that, like one other reviewer mentioned, Franzen rarely goes into a whole lot of detail about any one thing, and when he does there is a focus on aspects that seem irrelevant. The main thing in my head throughout his book was "who cares?" I believe that "who cares?" is a pretty accurate 2-word summary of this entire book. One thing I did like, though, was the cover. It was very intriguing. But I am unlikely to read anything else by Franzen.
spacecommuter on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Just because it's a book doesn't mean you have to read all of it. As far as I can tell there are three parts to this: a stunning and completely self-contained first chapter on putting his mother's house for sale after her death, an incredibly long series of chapters on his church youth group, and the whole bird watching thing at the end. I highly recommend the first chapter (he even gives it a punchy little conclusion in the humorous style of The Corrections). But there's no need to read the rest of it. He does the same thing nearly every other narrator does in 1st person accounts that makes them unworthy of anyone's time: NOTHING. Books written in the first person where the narrator does absolutely nothing except watch (and expose) the actions of other are neither credible nor fun to read. They are the ultimate unreliable narrator because it's inconceivable they would have any friends at all if they were so inert at the time these events are taking place. Nothing happens at camp, nothing happens while he's bird watching, nothing happens growing up. Except every man has to discuss his masturbatory habits after Portnoy's Complaint came out, and here is his contribution to the genre. Why do men talk about that as if it's important? You're not Wilt Chamberlain if your only partner is yourself.
rakerman on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Boring. Insufficiently dysfunctional. Ends with a tedious obsession with birdwatching.Not recommended.
allison.sivak on LibraryThing 11 months ago
I do love Jonathan Franzen, and this love started with How to Be Alone. There was something about those essays which suggested a very quiet, private struggle, of which just enough was made public, and just enough kept private. I also thought he was one of the more seriously brave writers I had read, which hinged mostly on his critique of sex advice columnists. Although he didn't say anything controversial, the quiet sureness with which he wrote about this segment of "public information" as an actual industry which traded on the insecurities of its readers / consumers was something which instilled confidence in him as a thinker. But this is a review of The Discomfort Zone. In which I didn't see as much quiet strength as I did in HTBA, but I did feel a vicarious thrill when I read one essay about his time in a non-midwestern American city, and remembered that it was at that time he sent a friend of a mine a postcard from that city, in light of a letter she had sent to him, after having read The Corrections. I also felt a strong shock of recognition as I read his descriptions of the feelings of disconnect he felt around his family. And I recognized almost every one of his descriptions of Charles Schulz's Peanuts strips within the first sentence.
geertwissink on LibraryThing 11 months ago
The protagonist is hard to identify with, but there is a lot to laugh on some pages and there's a nice analysis of cartoons (Charlie Schulz Peanuts) and Franz Kafka. A lot of other pages are hard to get through. The protagonist ends up as a birdwatcher, maybe that's the main theme of the book: someone who looks at birds from a distance instead of flying his own wings.
SamanthaCopping More than 1 year ago
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.
second_haze More than 1 year ago
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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