As Jonathan Franzen tells it, he was the kind of boy who was afraid of spiders,school dances, urinals, music teachers, boomerangs, popular girls and his parents.He had nothing against geeky kids except a desperate fear of being taken forone of them, a fate which would result in instant Social Death. Approachingpuberty the way a fraud artist confronts a particularly tough scam, he pretended tobe a kid who naturally said “shit” and who didn’t enjoy calculations on his new six functionTexas Instrument calculator.
The Discomfort Zone is Franzen’stale of growing up squirming in his own über-sensitive skin. It’s a multi-layeredtour de force that daringly cascades from single moments into a domino-like discourseof sometimes truculent, sometimes piercing, always entertaining investigationand insight. Whether he’s writing about the explosive dynamics of a Christianyouth fellowship in the 1970s, the effects of Kafka’s fiction on his own protractedquest to lose his virginity, or the web of connections between birdwatching, hisall-consuming marriage and the problem of global warming, Franzen is always feelinglyengaged with the world we live in now. Franzen’s personal history of a Midwesternyouth and New York adulthood is warmed by the same blend of comic scrutinyand affection that characterize his fiction; the result is an arresting portrait of aman, his family and his time.
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JONATHAN FRANZEN is the author of four novels, The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion, The Corrections, winner of the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction, and Freedom; a collection of non-fiction, How to Be Alone; and The Discomfort Zone, a memoir. He has been named one of the Granta 20 Best Novelists Under 40 and is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Harper’s. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
House for Sale
There’d been a storm that evening in St. Louis. Water was standing in steaming black pools on the pavement outside the airport, and 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.
My mother’s house, in Webster Groves, was dark except for a lamp on a timer in the living room. Letting myself inside, I went directly to the liquor shelf and poured the hammer of a drink I’d been promising myself since before the first of my two flights. I had a Viking sense of entitlement to whatever provisions I could plunder. I was about to turn forty, and my older brothers had entrusted me with the job of traveling to Missouri and choosing a realtor to sell the house. For as long as I was in Webster Groves, doing work on behalf of the estate, the liquor shelf would be mine. Mine! Ditto the air-conditioning, which I set frostily low. Ditto the kitchen freezer, which I found it necessary to open immediately and get to the bottom of, hoping to discover some breakfast sausages, some homemade beef stew, some fatty and savory thing that I could warm up and eat before I went to bed. My mother had been good about labeling food with the date she’d frozen it. Beneath multiple bags of cranberries I found a package of small-mouth bass that a fisherman neighbor had caught three years earlier. Underneath the bass was a nine-year-old beef brisket.
I went through the house and stripped the family photos out of every room. I’d been looking forward to this work almost as much as to my drink. My mother had been too attached to the formality of her living room and dining room to clutter them with snapshots, but elsewhere each windowsill and each tabletop was an eddy in which inexpensively framed photos had accumulated. I filled a shopping bag with the haul from the top of her TV cabinet. I picked another bag’s worth from a wall of the family room, as from an espaliered fruit tree. Many of the pictures were of grandchildren, but I was represented in them, too—here flashing an orthodontic smile on a beach in Florida, here looking hungover at my college graduation, here hunching my shoulders on my ill-starred wedding day, here standing three feet away from the rest of my family during an Alaskan vacation that my mother, toward the end, had spent a substantial percentage of her life savings to take us on. The Alaskan picture was so flattering to nine of us that she’d applied a blue ballpoint pen to the eyes of the tenth, a daughter-in-law, who’d blinked for the photo and who now, with her misshapen ink-dot eyes, looked quietly monstrous or insane.
I told myself that I was doing important work by depersonalizing the house before the first realtor came to see it. But if somebody had asked me why it was also necessary, that same night, to pile the hundred-plus pictures on a table in the basement and to rip or slice or pry or slide each photo out of its frame, and then dump all the frames into shopping bags, and stow the shopping bags in cabinets, and shove all the photos into an envelope, so that nobody could see them—if somebody had pointed out my resemblance to a conqueror burning the enemy’s churches and smashing its icons—I would have had to admit that I was relishing my ownership of the house.
I was the only person in the family who’d had a full childhood here. As a teenager, when my parents were going out, I’d counted the seconds until I could take temporary full possession of the house, and as long as they were gone I was sorry they were coming back. In the decades since, I’d observed the sclerotic buildup of family photographs resentfully, and I’d chafed at my mother’s usurpation of my drawer and closet space, and when she’d asked me to clear out my old boxes of books and papers, I’d reacted like a house cat in whom she was trying to instill community spirit. She seemed to think she owned the place.
Which, of course, she did. This was the house where, five days a month for ten months, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she’d grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of an afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item “Decide about afterlife” and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as “Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever.” This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words “Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fran, you look terrible,” and to which she’d returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn’t believe in supernatural beings. Her house was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she’d loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
But now we needed to put the place on the market in a hurry. We were already a week into August, and the house’s best selling point, the counterbalance to its many defects (its tiny kitchen, its negligible back yard, its too-small upstairs bathroom), was its situation in the Catholic school district attached to the church of Mary, Queen of Peace. Given the quality of the Webster Groves public schools, I didn’t understand why a family would pay extra to live in this district in order to then pay further extra for schooling by nuns, but there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about being Catholic. According to my mother, Catholic parents from all over St. Louis eagerly awaited listings in the district, and families in Webster Groves had been known to pull up stakes and move just one or two blocks to get inside its boundaries.
Unfortunately, once the school year started, three weeks from now, young parents wouldn’t be so eager. 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’d 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.
Counting had always been a comfort to her. She wasn’t a collector of anything except Danish Christmas china and mint plate blocks of U.S. postage, but she maintained lists of every trip she’d ever taken, every country she’d set foot in, every one of the “Wonderful (Exceptional) European Restaurants” she’d eaten in, every operation she’d undergone, and every insurable object in her house and her safe-deposit box. She was a founding member of a penny-ante investment club called Girl Tycoons, whose portfolio’s performance she tracked minutely. In the last two years of her life, as her prognosis worsened, she’d paid particular attention to the sale price of other houses in our neighborhood, writing down their location and square footage. On a sheet of paper marked Real Estate guide for listing property at 83 Webster Woods, she’d composed a sample advertisement the way someone else might have drafted her own obituary:
Two story solid brick three bedroom center hall colonial home on shaded lot on cul de sac on private street. There are three bedrooms...
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Book Description Picador Usa, 2006. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0007240589