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Classic review: The Discomfort Zone

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The essays then jump back to Franzen's childhood and adolescence, on through some high school pranks, and then to college lit classes (Franzen's parents fret as he renounces calculus for a German major but he mostly obsesses about women) and finish with the collapse of his marriage even as he embraces bird-watching.

The two standouts of the collection are "Then Joy Breaks Through," about Franzen's teenage experiences with a Christian youth group, and the final "My Bird Problem."

In "Then Joy Breaks Through," Franzen describes his teenage self as "Social Death" itself, a hapless misfit who "failed to foresee the social penalties that a person might pay for bringing in his stuffed Kanga and Roo toys to illustrate his speech about Australian wildlife." (He was also afflicted, he tells us, with "irresistible urges to shout unfunny puns, a near eidetic acquaintance with J.R.R. Tolkien, a big chemistry lab in my basement, a penchant for insulting any unfamiliar girl unwise enough to speak to me....")

But it's not just his social malfeasance that Franzen sketches in this essay. He also evokes, partly through Bob Mutton, the youth minister (who, "in poor light was mistakable for Charles Manson"), a well-meaning phase of the 1970s when long hair, self-examination, and group hugs passed for spirituality. (And then, just when least expected, this piece ends with a sweet moment of unalloyed happiness.)

In "My Bird Problem," Franzen compares the way he and his wife squandered their marital bliss with global warming. Franzen is deeply disturbed by both crises – but not sufficiently so to do the hard work required to ameliorate either.

He could, he realizes, become the better person who would make his wife happy. "Radically changing myself, however, was about as appetizing (and likely to happen) as volunteering for the drab, homespun, post-consumerist society that the 'deep ecologists' tell us is the only long-term hope for humans on the planet." So, in both cases, he decides to do nothing and calmly await calamity instead.

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