Daniel Mendelsohn reviews Jonathan Franzen’s new collection of essays in the New York Times:
Like the hero of some Greek play, Jonathan Franzen — apparently motivated, as so many tragic characters are, by an excessively lofty sense of himself — caused his moment of greatest triumph to disintegrate into public humiliation. The triumph, of course, was his National Book Award-winning novel, “The Corrections,” an acerbic and often searingly painful dissection of one Midwestern family’s disintegration as its stodgy values were put to the test by the go-go avidity of American culture in the 1990’s. The public humiliation (of course) was the fracas that ensued after Franzen expressed disdain for Oprah Winfrey’s choice of his novel for her book club; as he put it, his work belonged to the “high-art literary tradition,” whereas Oprah’s picks had tended, in his opinion, to be “schmaltzy.” As with Greek heroes, fervid adherence to principle did not come cheap: Oprah’s invitations, it is said, can increase sales of a given book by more than half a million copies.
Unlike Oedipus or Hippolytus, however, Franzen seems to have learned nothing from his fall. Or so you’re forced to conclude after reading “The Discomfort Zone,” an unappetizing new essay collection that makes it only too clear that the weird poles between which the author seemed to oscillate during l’affaire Oprah — a kind of smug cleverness, on the one hand, and a disarming, sometimes misguided candor, on the other; a self-involved and self-regarding precocity and an adolescent failure to grasp the effect of his grandiosity on others — frame not only the career, but the man himself.