Having been dismayed by my lack of enjoyment when reading ‘Freedom’, I thought I would give something else of Jonathan Franzen’s a try. I found this one in the school library (The Corrections was out) and ended up thoroughly enjoying it.
As it says in the title, it is a personal history, an autobiography of him growing up in St Louis in Missouri, in the suburb of Webster Groves. It really is very funny; at once self-deprecating and poignant, as he describes himself as a ‘geek’ who is desperate to be seen as being cool. To quote the blurb on the back of the book, “…he approached puberty pretending to be a kid who naturally said ‘shit’ a lot…” Doesn’t that just say it all?
As has been lauded in ‘Freedom’, Franzen is incredibly good at describing the minutae of American suburbia and his descriptions of his home life are fantastic, down to what how much pocket money he got in 1965 and what car his father drove. He didn’t find home life particularly enjoyable – hence the title of the book – with parents who fought a great deal and an older brother who fled from home as soon as he could. He was intelligent and good at school work (another facet he tried to hide from other kids). He was scared of many things, including spiders and popular girls, many of whom he lusted after in an unhappy adolescent way.
The narrative carries on until Franzen is in his twenties and he is faced with the death of his parents. He discovers joy in birding and becomes involved in environmental issues, trying to help save the habitats of birds. (An issue that is reflected in ‘Freedom’).
I finished reading the book with a sense of regret that it didn’t carry on and with a new respect for the quality of his writing. Whether you enjoyed ‘Freedom’ or not, I would recommend ‘The Discomfort Zone’ as a humourous, insightful autobiography.