Thursday, 10 September 2015

THE DISCOMFORT ZONE by Jonathan Franzen

I’ve been thinking about Franzen of late because his new novel PURITY has just been released. I don’t think I’ll be reading it till I’ve seen a few reviews, as it is the dreaded book-after-the-successful-book, and I suspect a wobble. You’d have to be a titan to not overthink and overwrite after the massive hit that was FREEDOM. So I ended up reading this instead, largely because it was only 99p.
It’s a memoir of Franzen’s early life, and is often very amusing. Here he is on his efforts to sell his mother’s house after her death:
I felt some additional pressure to help my brother Tom, the executor of the estate, to finish his work quickly. I felt a different kind of pressure from my other brother, Bob, who had urged me to remember that we were talking about real money. (“People knock $782,000 down to $770,000 when they’re negotiating, they think it’s basically the same number,” he told me. “Well, no, in fact it’s twelve thousand dollars less. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a lot of things I’d rather do with twelve thousand dollars than give it to the stranger who's buying my house.”) But the really serious pressure came from my mother, who, before she died, had made it clear that there was no better way to honor her memory and validate the last decades of her life than to sell the house for a shocking amount of money.
Or here he is on his adolescence: “I spent morbid, delicious amount of time by myself, driven by the sort of hormonal instinct that I imagine leads cats to eat grass.”
Hilarious. And yet I can’t say that overall I admired it. There’s some truly leaden writing, including a long section on Charles Schultz, for no real reason, and some truly horrifying dull discussions of what he thought about German literature during his undergraduate degree. Sample “ . . as Goethe put it, in his gendered language . . “
I do wonder a bit if I’m ruined for this kind of memoir by Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose MY STRUGGLE has comprehensively closed off the area of late twentieth century male memoir, making everyone else who attempts it seem a rather sad shadow of that wonderful project.

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