17 Oct 2006

Too Much Snoopy; Too Little Charlie Brown

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Perhaps just a bit envious of the acclaim won by Jonathan Franzen’s recent novel The Corrections, also in last Sunday’s Times Book Review, Daniel Mendelsohn does his level best to savage Jonathan Franzen’s latest miscellaneous writings collection The Discomfort Zone.

Mendelsohn goes so far as to indict Franzen for insufficient Alzu-Karl-Braun-lichkeit.

This illumination that “The Discomfort Zone” provides about the origins of that persona helps explain, in turn, a wider failing in Franzen’s work: its lack of humanizing softness…

What can you do with someone who professes to love “Peanuts” but doesn’t understand a word of it? “The Discomfort Zone” features an odd but suggestive paean to the creator of the comic strip that, more than anything else in American popular culture for many decades, celebrated the comic side of something Franzen professes to know a lot about: discomfort — the sheer, poignant, foolish awkwardness that comes with being human. Recounting the unappealing facts of Schulz’s biography, Franzen emphasizes that the cartoonist was a difficult, embittered, resentful man — the kind of person who still seethed over perceived insults he’d received four decades before. Yet the author is quick to defend Schulz — the, um, artistically brilliant, tormented, somewhat geeky Midwestern offspring of Scandinavian parents — as a hero of Art. “To keep choosing art over the comforts of normal life … is the opposite of damaged.”

Franzen’s insistence on seeing this repugnant person as an ideal is, no doubt, what leads him to his wrongheaded interpretation of the comic strip itself. “Almost every young person experiences sorrows,” he rightly points out at the beginning of his exegesis of “Peanuts” — a sentence that gives you hope that the geeky child still hiding inside the adult Franzen is going to admit that, like everyone else, he loved “Peanuts” because he, too, identified with the perpetual awkward, perpetually failed, and yet just as perpetually optimistic Charlie Brown. But no: for Franzen, who, even as a child, “personally enjoyed winning and couldn’t see why so much fuss was made about the losers,” the real hero of “Peanuts” is not the “depressive and failure-ridden” Charlie Brown, but the grandiose beagle, Snoopy: “the protean trickster,” as Franzen calls him, “the quick-change artist who … before his virtuosity has a chance to alienate you or diminish you” can be “the eager little dog who just wants dinner.” But Snoopy’s self-proclaimed virtuosity does, in the end, alienate and diminish: he’s amusing, with his epic grudge against the Red Baron (and the Van Gogh and the spiral staircase he lost when his doghouse burned down), precisely because he represents the part of ourselves — the smugness, the avidity, the pomposity, the rank egotism — most of us know we have but try to keep decently hidden away. Franzen, like most of us, is very likely an awkward combination of Charlie and Snoopy; the difference being that whereas most of us think of ourselves as Charlie with a bit of Snoopy, Franzen clearly doesn’t mind coming off as a whole lotta Snoopy with the barest soupçon of Charlie: a person, as this lazy and perverse book demonstrates, whose very admissions of weakness, of insufficiency, smack of showboating, of grandiose self-congratulation. For my part, I’ll stick with Charlie. Who, after all, wants the company of a character so self-involved he doesn’t even realize he’s not human?

My sympathies are with Snoopy, and Franzen. I haven’t actually read the new book, but I’ve read other reviews, reviews quoting the usual sort of conformist intelligentsia condescension concerning George W. Bush, and I’d say Franzen could use a larger component of Snoopy to replace the undesirable liberal Lucy in his makeup.

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