Found guilty

If this new memoir is any guide, Jonathan Franzen has been a life-long connoisseur of guilt. Growing up the third son of thrift-minded parents in a middle class suburb, he carried around a mental tally of guilt-worthy sins, from “shunning my mother’s hugs” to “neglecting the stiff-limbed, scratchy pelted Mr. Bear.”

This yoke of guilt did not become less powerful as Franzen grew. His struggle to break its leash is the subject of The Discomfort Zone, a funny and oppressive memoir that paints a portrait of a man practically paralyzed with self-consciousness.

Arranged in six chapter-like essays, the book proceeds from Mr. Franzen’s childhood in a St. Louis suburb to his adulthood in New York City, where, as a middle-aged man, he worries that the pleasure he gets from bird-watching proves he is in “the grip of something diseased and bad and wrong.”

The Discomfort Zone provides a pretty thorough map to where this neurotic sense of guilt comes from. Franzen’s father was a hard-working engineer who distrusted frivolity. When he found his son lounging on the floor reading a book or playing with friends, Franzen remembers, his father would declaim, “One continuous round of pleasure!”

Franzen’s mother emerges as a scold who lived to pass judgment. In one chapter, Franzen describes how his brother came from college with a girlfriend named Lulu, which makes his mother “practically psychotic with hatred.

‘Lulu?’ ‘Lulu?’ What kind of person has a name like Lulu?’ She gave a little creaky laugh. ‘When I was a girl, a lulu was a crazy person! Did you know that?'”

It’s understandable why voices like this would send a budding artistic sensibility burrowing inward. But it also has clearly made Franzen very angry. He explored this intergenerational anger in his National Book Award-winning novel, The Corrections, but allows it to smolder at the margins here. This omission feels like it starves the book of some much needed oxygen.

The memoir is appointed with humorous material, but the build-up can be grinding. One can only hear so much about Franzen’s drastic adolescent nerdiness, his passive-aggressive attempts to meet girls, his anxiety, his high school pranks, his political anger, his college-era mind-meld with heavy German authors, before his discomfort in being himself becomes our own.

In most cases, that is the sign of good writing—and Franzen is most assuredly a fine stylist. There are whole passages of this book that sing with absolutely gorgeous prose, wielded with a magnificent sense of control.

But beauty is not enough. We read memoirs to experience a life, not just a consciousness. As an artist, Franzen allied himself to the latter a long time ago. “One Sunday night at Fellowship,” he recalls, “the group did an exercise in which it arranged itself as a continuum across the church meeting hall. One corner was designated Heart, the opposite corner Brain.

“As anyone could have predicted, most of the group went to the Heart corner. … Way over in the Brain corner, close to nobody else,” Franzen writes, “Manley and I stood shoulder to shoulder and stared back at the Heart people defiantly.”

What Mr. Franzen forgets here is that some of those people in the other corner now are his readers.