My fascination with Jonathan Franzen has been called pathological and unhealthy, perhaps due to my tendency to praise the man and announce my disgust for him in the same paragraph. With the release of his second collection of essays, I know my Franzen-fever is acting up again because I am both thoroughly enjoying and feeling queasy about The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2006), just in at the Merc.
Franzen is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a publicity stunt, or that’s what ditching out of being selected as an Oprah Book Club author, as he did for his novel The Corrections looked like to me. And then there’s the contradiction between the author of an essay, in How to Be Alone (Picador, 2003) lamenting the loss to an information age of his privacy–this from a writer with a demostrated, unabashed willingness to admit anything, and I mean anything about himself, for your reading enjoyment. Whatever the case, Franzen wants to be liked and he’s willing to write well and colorfully for your attention.
I won’t even bore you with the sordid story of the infamous essay “Perchance to Dream” (Harper’s. 292, no. 1751, (1996)) in which Franzen whined about the reception of his previous novel, lamented the decline of The American Novel, and bragged about his plan to rectify the situation with his next book. Whether The Corrections lives up to Franzen’s braggadocio, The Discomfort Zone firmly establishes his place as a loveable, intellectual, fun-to-read nitwit.