The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen

Review by Jamie Stanley


Reading this book made me a bit nostalgic as each chapter is about some element or story from the author’s formative years and Franzen and I are close in age. Franzen grew up in a safe, middle class suburban monoculture, and this setting has provided him with fodder for his five works of fiction. The Discomfort Zone however, is more than a faintly romanticized sentimental journey. The word discomfort in the title speaks to both the endless personal discomforts intrinsic to childhood and the teen years, but it’s also a good word to associate with the 1960s. The 1960s was a decade of tumult; the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, political assassinations and the Space Race were the backdrop against which a wave of youth counterculture grew and challenged many social norms, including within the Franzen household. His middle class parents, like most middle class parents, did not understand what was going on with their teen kids. Why were they so challenging? Franzen was still a kid during the Age of Aquarius and witnessed the drama but was not part of it. As a smart, astute child, he was trying to parse the scene. There is some great writing in this book as Franzen has a gift for conveying the weirdness of his parents, the enormous influence of older siblings, the performative hopscotch required to appear cool and knowing among peers, the comments made by teachers at school who “thought” they knew you, but had no idea, etc. In the final chapter, Franzen writes about his birding adventures, a fitting coda for a child of the sixties.

Review courtesy of Northfield Public Library

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