Like his 2001 novel, The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen’s new set of personal essays begins under bad weather. Strangely, neither lets us see the rain. The earlier book opens with “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. . . . Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in empty bedrooms. . . . Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude.” Steeled for a squall then, this time we’ve missed it: “There’d been a storm that evening in St. Louis . . . 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.”
It’s hard not to read those two sequences as bookends of the same storm, the former describing gusts above the aging Enid and Alfred Lambert, the latter puddles around the newly vacant home of the author’s own deceased parents, Irene and Earl Franzen. And while the itch to match doppelgängers across fictional lines should be resisted (Enid collected Viennese music boxes, while Irene prefers “Danish Christmas china and plate blocks of U.S. postage”), The Discomfort Zone plays a compelling counterpoint to
Most notably, Discomfort is all about correcting. The first deletion goes to Franzen’s own sobriety, via the “hammer of a drink” he pours himself, Gary Lambert–style, on page one of the first essay. (There are six, each with its own ostensible topic, from Charles Schulz to birding, and the same actual topic: owing up in the Midwest, and what can be done). Liquor cabinet raided, the middle-aged author tours the boyhood home that he’s returned to sell and immediately sets about sweeping Mom’s glut of “inexpensively framed” photos from the shelves, an edit he knows is less about realty than about marking territorytabs at improvement surround the Franzen that appears here, a lifelong smarty-pants who’s painfully aware of errors and wonkish in his fixes. The futile efforts start early: “[A]fter the social discouragements of seventh grade, I wanted to toughen up my image and make myself more stupid, and I was trying to do this by continually exclaiming, ‘Son of a bitch!’ ” They continue in high school, as with a prank involving stacking desks in a classroom: “Since I was fifty as well as seventeen, I’d insisted that we take along masking tape and markers and label the desks with their room numbers before moving them, to simplify the job of putting them back.” And he’s showing little progress in 2005, when he manages the neat double trick of being both nerdier and more daft than his fellow birders: “I saw a pretty, dark-haired woman taking telephoto pictures of a pair of ducks. ‘Green-winged teals,’ I mentioned to Manley. The girl looked up sharply. ‘Green-winged teals? Where?’ I nodded at her birds. ‘Those are wigeons,’ she said. ‘Right.’ ”
The editor’s pen that hovers over the author’s every bumble seems both a consequence and catalyst of a growing urge to impress the shape of fiction onto his own life. After his mother’s death, he writes, “I came to feel that the house had been my mother’s novel,” a tome being refined over decades from “homely department-store boilerplate” to a solidly furnished “final draft.” This inclination had been fanned by a college dunk in Rilke, when “For the first time in my life, I was starting to see the people in my family as actual people,” and “[o]ne of the family members I could now see more clearly as a person was the youngest son, the warm puppy who . . . wrote cute sentences in his notebook.”
But it’s Franzen’s bead on Kafka that deepens the correctional trope. As his German lit prof tells it, “Kafka was afraid of death, he had problems with sex, he had problems with women, he had problems with his job, he had problems with his parents. And he was writing fiction to try to figure these things out.” For the nascent novelist, it’s a watershed moment, fiction as exegesis of non-, and it’s now equally empowering to us, the readers of those promised novels. In short, it allows us to see The Corrections as itself a corrective measure.
Most importantly, this locates that breakthrough book as something written in the world that we, too, live in—makes it possible for a storm front over St. Jude to coincide with rain in St. Louis. It’s not that the two cities are the same—only that the difference is moot. The author’s story of losing his virginity crystallizes this: Told as “One other scene from that sort of novel,” its male lead is a boy we can only presume is named Jonathan. Fictionalizing obviously spares Franzen intimacy, but he hasn’t been reluctant to fess up to other embarrassments. More crucially, the third-person outsourcing—”Even after cigarettes, the boy could taste the magic in his mouth”(157)—proposes common ground, fends off loneliness by making the story typical. That it happened to him is only incidental. Which, in the end, is the correction that The Discomfort Zone can offer The Corrections, a book whose hopeful designation as a Great American Novel stemmed less from its qualitative greatness than the deep empathy of its manner. That it was the Lamberts, and not the Franzens, or us, was only incidental.