Reading Questions for My American Unhappiness
1. Zeke's story, though universal in its sense of loss and loneliness, is woven tightly into the experience of midwestern Americans during the post-9/11 "Dubya" years. What kinds of cues does the author use to create a sense of time and place in the novel? Do you think it would have worked equally well set in another part of the country or in another era?
2. Zeke muses, "Everybody seems happy through a window" (p. 30). Do you agree or disagree with this sentiment? Discuss how the novel offers a different kind of window through which to view the characters' happiness or unhappiness. When the novel opens, does Zeke seem happy or unhappy? In what ways is the novel his own answer to his question, "Why are you so unhappy?"
3. Compare the battle waged by Zeke's brother Cougar, who fought and died in the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, with Zeke's anti-war protests and his work in the humanities. Do you think it's fair to say that both brothers are fighting for something important, an ideal or a way of life? What do you make of Zeke's definition of and distinction between art and the humanities on page 139?
4. "The Starbucks Challenge" is a small ritual Zeke enacts daily both for Minn's entertainment and perhaps to mitigate his own increasing unhappiness. Identify and discuss other ways that characters in the novel seek to alleviate their unhappiness, if only briefly.
5. Does Zeke's description of the American condition on pages 45-47 strike you as familiar, or is Zeke, as his assistant Lara suggests, just convincing his subjects (and you the reader) of their unhappiness? Do you think the very act of asking, "Why are you so unhappy?" can influence a response so profoundly as to turn a positive outlook into a negative one? Why or why not?
6. Why aren't Mack and Joseph excited about Zeke's announcement that he's getting married? Do you think the pronouncement would have been received differently if Zeke were a woman, given that the advice he's following comes from a women's magazine? Do you think it's more socially acceptable for a woman to be on the hunt for a mate? Identify other ways Zeke's character defies stereotypes of the midwestern male in this novel.
7. When Zeke's mother has to choose whether to make her son happy or do what's best for her granddaughters, April and May, she decides she should get custody of the girls. How do you feel about her decision? What would you do?