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Sure signs of a budding artist: anxiety, anguish, and self-doubt

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 195 pp., $22

Readers of ``The Corrections" know Jonathan Franzen as a brilliant novelist. Television viewers, however, are more likely to recall the socially inept ingrate who almost killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.

After 15 years of suffering for his art -- he had previously published two fine but commercially unsuccessful novels -- Franzen was foolish enough to insult Oprah Winfrey, the star who helped make him a millionaire by choosing ``The Corrections" for her book club. He refused to go on her TV show. So much for book smarts.

Franzen's new collection of personal essays, ``The Discomfort Zone," tells us a lot about the youth who eventually became the rich and famous writer. And it reveals much about the anguish and self-doubt integral to that transformation.

The author's previous collection, ``How to Be Alone," focused on what he called ``the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture." Whether analyzing the role of literature in such a culture or narrating the poignant story of his father's descent into Alzheimer's, Franzen displayed an incisive, supple intelligence.

In the new book, the gaze is almost entirely inward. It escorts us into a 1970s household in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves . Dad works as a civil engineer. Mom is a homemaker. Jonathan is a late arrival, the youngest of three sons.

Discomfort zone, indeed: ``My parents were adversaries and my brothers were rivals, and each of them complained about each of the others, but they were all united in finding me amusing."

This summary is true, if a bit misleading. The Franzens generally played out their conflicts in low-key, Midwestern, Protestant style -- simmering in silence rather than shouting. Still, in the author's self-portrayal, he's very much a creature of anxieties, about where he fit in at home, at school , and with girls.

Until early adolescence, home was haven, a place for immersing himself in A. A. Milne , rock collections, even stuffed animals, well after being age-appropriate. The comic strip ``Peanuts," before it morphed into a cottage industry of merchandising, served as his earliest mentor in themes of humiliation and loneliness.

The strip's comedy impresses the adult Franzen as skilled, and not, as some suggest, the result of Charles Schulz's early psychic wounds. In a commentary equally applicable to his own career, the novelist argues that the cartoonist suffered because he was an artist. ``To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life," he writes, is ``the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make."

Whatever Franzen possesses of those qualities came only after long struggle. In junior high, he embodied nothing less than ``social death": ``a large vocabulary, a giddily squeaking voice, horn-rimmed glasses, poor arm strength . . . a near-eidetic acquaintance with J.R.R. Tolkien, a big chemistry lab in my basement."

Oddly enough, the youth group at First Congregational Church became Franzen's ticket to social respectability. The essay ``Then Joy Breaks Through" neatly conveys an era when bearded young clergymen liked to be thought of as hipsters, thrived on sensitivity training, and looked like Jesus.

Franzen's relationship to the group seems a classic case of psychology's approach-avoidance syndrome. Did he want to be here? Did he believe the religious message? He wasn't nearly as hip as most kids, didn't smoke pot, and his parents forbade him from wearing jeans to school. But by 10th grade, he was tapped for the inner circle, the group's governing board.

I admire the way Franzen refrains from making melodrama out of his adolescence, or of rendering the suburbs as stereotypically stultifying. Webster Groves was merely ``friendly" and ``unpretentious." At the public high school, he ran with a smart set and earned a reputation as a writer of plays. Misbehavior was limited to imaginative and altogether harmless pranks, like trying to attach a tire to the top of a flagpole.

Still, chafing at the straight-and-narrow imposed by his parents, he evolved into antipodal versions of himself, ``the official fifty-year-old boy and the unofficial adolescent." Only gradually was the latter able to speak frankly, announcing that he ``didn't want the things they wanted," didn't ``value what they valued."

Franzen's skills as an essayist shine brightest in ``The Foreign Language" and ``My Bird Problem."

German and sex are the languages foreign to the young Franzen. The essay begins, winningly, with a scene of 10-year-old Jonathan trying, and failing, to pay attention to the instructions of a voluptuous 19-year-old Austrian tutor. It ends, fittingly, with his loss of virginity in his senior year at Swarthmore. In between, we witness this German major's seduction by the sonic beauty of Rilke's and Goethe's poetry.

The final essay , ``My Bird Problem," glides smoothly from global warming to the dissolution of Franzen's marriage to his love of birding to the death of his mother. At once elegiac and unsentimental, mournful and joyful, it offers the most intimate glimpse into the author's interior life.

As people and relationships slipped away, birds emerged as metaphors for life's preciousness and fragility. Birding became a source of solace, an unexpected delight. ``My response to this happiness, naturally," he writes, ``was to worry that I was in the grip of something diseased and bad and wrong."

Now do you understand, Oprah?

Dan Cryer, who has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, is a freelance writer in New York.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of Jonathan Franzen's ``The Discomfort Zone" in Sunday's Books section incorrectly stated that Franzen refused to go on ``The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2001 after his novel ``The Corrections" had been chosen by Winfrey as part of her book club. Although Franzen did not directly refuse to appear, his public statements expressing reluctance about being on the show, and about the quality of the book club's other selections, caused Winfrey to cancel her invitation.)

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