Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen

The story that I read in the Chicago Tribune announcing that Oprah Winfrey had chosen Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for her book club surprised me, but not for the reason it surprised many others. I noticed that the story claimed that Franzen was born in Western Springs, the Chicago suburb served by the Thomas Ford Memorial Library, my workplace. Could this be true? The closest hospitals are in LaGrange and Hinsdale. Was he born at home? Did he live in Western Springs? Being a reference librarian, I had to look it up. What I found was confusion. Some reference sources say Western Springs while others say Chicago. I found no birth notice in the local newspaper.

Hoping to find an answer from the author himself and finding none on his website, I started skimming his autobiographical memoir The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Skimming turned into reading, so I checked the book out and started again from page 3 (the first page of actual text).

I don't have any desire to read his novels, but I enjoyed his humorously frank stories about his own life in Webster Groves, Missouri and beyond. I read with interest about his love of reading Peanuts in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the tactics he applied to the problem of being a nerdy guy wishing to be popular, and the ways that he was embarrassed by his parents. His anguish from being forced to wear uncool clothes and his inability to talk sensibly to girls spoke to me. The Christian youth group to which he belonged in high school reminded me of the cultishly hip religious fellowships that I encountered in college at about the same time. Though much of Franzen's youth was far different than mine, he succeeded in getting me to identify and sympathize with his troubles. However, I would never have tried to put steel-belted radial tires on top of the high school flag pole or remove the knockers from all the classroom bells.

While there is much that is funny about The Discomfort Zone, Franzen is pretty tough on himself at times. He admits to betrayals and insensitivity. He knows that he was at times unfair to his parents and later to lovers and spouses, but he does not overlook their faults either. I assume a lot of this has been reworked in his highly popular novels.

The final essay "My Bird Problem" seems more lighthearted to me. He still mentions some of his relationship problems but in the context of his recent obsession with bird watching, a nerdy preoccupation to which I also aspire. He also seems a bit befuddled by little brown birds. I cheered that his 400th bird was the whooping crane.

By the way, Franzen says on page 119 that he was born in Chicago. Alan at the Western Springs Historical Society found an E. Franzen living in LaGrange in 1951 (possibly his father Earl), and Franzen's publisher has sent us the message that the Franzen's lived in LaGrange. Franzen says that he was always told he was born in Western Springs.

Today, we went back to the Western Springs Citizen and searched another week of the paper. Finally, in the second section page 9 of the September 3, 1959 issue we found the birth announcement under the banner "Hello World." Jonathan Earl Franzen was born August 17 at Community Memorial General Hospital, a hospital opened in 1955. His parents lived at 617 S. Stone Ave. in LaGrange. The Community Development Department at the Village of LaGrange verified that the hospital was at that date within LaGrange. So all the reference books are wrong. Franzen was born in LaGrange, Illinois.

Franzen, Jonathan. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. ISBN 9780374299194.

1 comment:

laura said...

Oh, how interesting -- I had somehow missed the whole possible Western Springs connection. I like Franzen's novels, but I love his essays.