by Jonathan Franzen
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 hang over this book just as they've hung over Americans' lives. The first reference to "the great national tragedy" (1.1.137) is right in the introductory chapter, as the Berglunds prepare to sell their house and move to Washington, D.C. That it immediately follows a mention of a "Gore/Lieberman" sign still stuck in the Berglunds' yard ties the attacks to the fateful election of George W. Bush in 2000 (1.1.137).
Since much of the action in the book takes place in 2004, we don't get that much dialogue about 9/11. Instead, the weeks and months following the attacks are evoked by a few poignant images scattered through the text. We discuss Joey Berglund's uniquely cranky view in "Characters," but the descriptions of scenes on his college campus are affecting in and of themselves:
In the days after 9/11, everything suddenly seemed extremely stupid to Joey. It was stupid that a "Vigil of Concern" was held for no conceivable practical reason, it was stupid that people kept watching the same disaster footage over and over, it was stupid that Chi Phi boys hung a banner of "support" from their house, it was stupid that the football game against Penn State was canceled, it was stupid that so many kids left Grounds to be with their family [...] The four liberal kids had endless stupid arguments with the twenty conservative kids, as if anybody cared what a bunch of eighteen-year-olds thought about the Middle East. A stupidly big fuss was made about the students who'd lost relatives or family friends in the attacks, as if the other kinds of horrible death that were constantly occurring in the world mattered less, and there was stupid applause when a vanful of upperclassmen solemnly departed for New York to give succor to the Ground Zero workers, as if there weren't enough people in New York to do the job. Joey just wanted normal life to return as fast as possible. (3.2.3)
A few months later, when Joey travels to Manhattan, he is no longer protected by the gilded walls of a college campus and has a more intense experience of the new world order:
Solemn firefighters nodding to the crowd assembled by a 9/11 shrine outside a station house. [...] National Guard troops patrolling Grand Central with highly advanced weapons [...] each encounter was like a poem he instantly memorized. (3.2.510)
Interestingly, however, even though Joey claims he would like see the wreckage at Ground Zero (3.2.417), something (perhaps his youth?) prevents him from actually doing so. Richard Katz, on the other hand, is world-weary and cynical enough to stand on a rooftop downtown and survey the devastation of the "pinch point of the world [...] the World Trade Center cicatrix" (3.1.65).