Welcome to America


“This is a great time to be an American CEO, a tough time to be the CEO`s lowest paid worker. A great time to be Wal-Mart, a rough time to be in Wal-Mart`s way; a great time to be an incumbent extremist, a tough time to be a moderate challenger.”
    Jonathan Franzen`s The Discomfort Zone describes the transformation of the United States from the 1960s until today building on Franzen`s Mid-Western childhood and adult years in New York. As he elaborates in a moving and convincing manner, his nation has gone through dramatic shake-ups and ended into a big uncertainty.
    Franzen rose to international fame with his fiction novel The Corrections (2001) which from its release has been branded as one of the best modern captivations of American life. The novel was praised by critics across the board and brought him The National Book Award. Throughout his work the author has been characterised by critical analysis of his country and he does not let his audience down this time either. A continuing theme all through the Discomfort Zone is the interaction between the decency of post-war generation and confusion of the 1960s youth with capitalist freedom.

Franzen performs at his best when he trips from the personal encounters into elaborating details. He keeps a firm grasp of his reader in a way that only some pages later the reader realises that Franzen has written one page after another on details of, for example, the life of Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schultz.
    What raises him to another league is his ability to tie this all together. Without sounding corny, he uses Snoopy for showing his awkwardness with the middle-class dream of the Mid-West.
    “He was the perfect sunny egoist, starring in his ridiculous fantasies and basking in everyone`s attention. In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognised as a child.”
    The nature of stepping aside is familiar also from Franzen`s earlier works, namely the short story collection How To Be Alone, where he takes for instance an undelivered letter as his starting point and grows it into a detailed analysis of the relationship between the postal services and trust in the state.
    Franzen takes distance to the other young male authors who concentrate on being wittier than the reader. He dares to stay away from inserting a pun into every singular sentence and allows the reader to experience a range of emotions from his mother`s death to smoking joints on a summer camp. With The Discomfort Zone Jonathan Franzen continues building a reputation as an engaged but disturbed critic of the way we go forward.

Tommi Laitio

Jonathan Franzen: The Discomfort Zone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)