Jonathan Franzen rose to the literary spotlight in 2001 when his third novel, The Corrections, won the National Book Award. The book describes the drama of family members learning to deal with each other’s flaws, while capturing contemporary America’s obsession with self-improvement. With its detailed portraits and its dark humor, The Corrections was both a bestseller and a critical success, making Mr. Franzen one of the most well-known living American novelists. Hundreds of fans filled the room at the Rutgers Student Center on March 29 to hear the famous novelist read from his newest work, a memoir called The Discomfort Zone.
Mr. Franzen’s writing style has gone through major transformations. His first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, is a plot-driven dark comedy about a quiet city disrupted by political conspiracy. Strong Motion, his second book, is a novel with elements of a thriller, centered upon one man’s strange encounters in Boston. Although both The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion received praise from critics and readers, Mr. Franzen’s third novel took an unexpected turn in style toward an elaborate, informative mode of storytelling. “This book is not plot-driven,” Mr. Franzen has said, “but I think it’s full of story, and that’s a distinction that’s come to matter more to me.” The Corrections explores both the present trials and the emotional history of the Lambert family, the five main characters of the book.
His growing interest in elaboration brought him to attempt yet another different kind of writing, the memoir. At the Rutgers reading, Mr. Franzen joked about resisting the idea of writing a memoir because he always felt his life was not interesting enough. His upcoming book, The Discomfort Zone (available in September), is a collection of personal stories that combines retellings of events in his life with larger reflections on contemporary culture. Part autobiography and part expository essay, The Discomfort Zone offers readers a glimpse of contemporary issues in America as seen through the lens of Mr. Franzen’s individual experiences.
For Writers at Rutgers, Mr. Franzen read an excerpt titled “My Bird Problem,” first published in The New Yorker. This essay connects the writer’s concern about global warming with his birdwatching hobby. He describes attending Al Gore’s speech on global warming, mostly with the intention of poking fun at the former Vice President. Instead, he finds himself surprisingly compelled by the issue. Even though he wants to ignore the potential disaster of climate change, his love of birds brings him around:
Human beings could probably adapt to future changes, we were famously creative at averting disasters and at making up great stories when we couldn’t, but birds didn’t have our variety of options. Birds needed help. And this, I realized, was the true disaster for a comfortable modern New Yorker. This was the scenario I’d been at pains to avert for many years: not the world’s falling apart in the future, but my feeling inconveniently obliged to care about it in the present. This was my bird problem.
But Mr. Franzen’s “bird problem” turns out to be just one example of the narrator’s many worries, “something to be anxious about,” as a friend says to him in the essay, “if you want to be anxious about something.” The narrative takes many turns, starting with the breakup of the narrator’s marriage and his obsession with environmentalism, through the 1980s and 90s. Mr. Franzen’s writing shows how social and personal issues intertwine in our emotions and our memories:
To worry about the Kleenexes and paper towels I was wasting and the water I was letting run while I shaved and the sections of the Sunday Times I was throwing away unread and the pollutants I was helping to fill the sky with every time I took an airplane came naturally to me. [...] Every time I washed out a peanut-butter jar, I tried to calculate whether less petroleum might be used in manufacturing a new jar than in heating the dishwater and transporting the old jar to a recycling center.
My wife moved out in December 1990. A friend had invited her to come and live in Colorado Springs, and she was ready to escape the pollution of her living space by me.
“My Bird Problem” continues to move between topics and approaches, merging a discussion of the politics of environmentalism with recollections of the writer’s now deceased mother, his relationships after his divorce, and finally, a fuller description of his growing passion for birding. In wandering through so many different subjects, Mr. Franzen brings the detail, background, and humor familiar from his fiction to this memoir.
In a long question and answer session following the reading, Mr. Franzen discussed his thoughts about writing fiction and memoirs at greater length. Rutgers English Professor Kate Flint noted how funny the essay seemed when he read it aloud, and asked whether he thought readers would understand the humorous nuances in print. Mr. Franzen responded that he used to do fewer public readings, feeling like the words of a text should stand on their own. However, he had lately realized that reading his work to an audience helps them hear it more like the way he imagines it when he writes, deepening their understanding of the piece and of his work in general. “Also,” he added, “it’s a lot of fun.”
The audience agreed, asking questions until Mr. Franzen nearly lost his voice, then enjoying the reception and book-signing until late in the evening. Jonathan Franzen’s visit was a great finale to an amazing year for the Writers at Rutgers Reading Series.
Jonathan Franzen’s website
A recent Franzen story in The New Yorker