Review: Jonathan Franzen’s novel “Crossroads” Too Big to Fail?
On the bookshelf
By Jonathan Franzen
FSG: 592 pages, $ 30
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I have long had a soft spot for Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Why Bother?” Originally published in Harper’s in 1996, his manifesto for more socially engaged literature – the kind he went on to write – incorporated some of my favorite Franzen fashions: melancholy, serious, esoteric, a little whiny. He had published two novels that no one seemed to have read. He was angry. He had the writer’s block. He was tired, terrified of not writing for anyone. Pre-Oprah, pre-adulation; it’s like those snapshots in Us Weekly: J Franz, he’s like US!
Then, of course, “The Corrections” happened. Then “Freedom”. “Purity” sold less than an eighth of the previous two novels, but still did better than almost any other book in 2015 (and I would say it was formally more interesting). Three years later, Franzen reportedly said he “doesn’t know if anyone has more than six fully-made novels”. And yet, here is “Crossroads”, his sixth – but the first in a proposed trilogy.
The title of the trilogy, “A Key to All Mythologies”, is also the name of Reverend Casaubon’s unfinished theological scholarship in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”. The irony holds true here: Casaubon, much like so many of Franzen’s male characters, is smug, pompous, largely ineffective. Something of a joke.
The family in “crossroadsIs also imbued with God. The Hildebrandts are made up of Russ, an associate pastor; Marion, a stay-at-home mom; and four children – Clem, Becky, Perry and Judson. The first section is titled “Advent”. It is December 23, 1971, in the suburbs of Chicago. The city is New Prospect; dad drives a Fury; Crossroads is the name of the group of young people created by Rick Ambrose, the young protégé of Russ who became an archenemy. Subtlety was never Franzen’s thing.
Russ plans to cheat. Three years ago, he suffered a humiliation which he attributed in part to his wife. “Marion was inseparable from an identity that had proven to be humiliating. It had taken Frances Cottrell to redeem it. Frances is her new quest: “No sag, no pocket, flawless, no line, an appearance of vitality in a comfortable cashmere sleeveless dress” 10 years her junior, with a teenage son, a year after the loss of a husband whom she did not particularly like.
Franzen’s stature remains extraordinary. Here is Taffy Brodesser-Akner in her wonderful New York Times Magazine 2018 Profile of Franzen: “There is no point that can be distilled into a few words and still be understood in their magnitude. The width is the point. It also makes it difficult to cite the novel. The sentences are often good, but it is the way they accumulate and interact, pile up over the pages, that gives them their effect.
The world he builds is lush and complicated, immersive and alive. You internalize the house and church floor plans, learn to navigate the streets of New Prospect. The pace is slow and careful. There is interpersonal pressure, a small-scale suspense: Clem’s girlfriend calls out to him about his privileged avoidance of Vietnam; Marion starts seeing a psychiatrist, reaches out to an old sort of boyfriend, starts smoking and losing weight again; Becky gets a heavy and unexpected windfall, has a crush on someone else’s boyfriend, betrays her dad, is less than good for the first time in her life; Perry’s weed traffic escalates.
Each character inhabits an individual scale version of a timely social crisis – each on the verge or in the midst of a change or rupture. And yet, while they are all under pressure, the present action stagnates; changes in time and between characters make it harder to feel the pressure of the thrill or threat.
And then, on page 358, the intrigue resumed: my skin had this good spiciness. Events were promised, consequences were looming, and because Franzen is a man in full swing, they came. And they felt heavier because of everything that came before them. If anything, this slow burn was emboldened. What, after all, are we reading for? To rush headlong into an intrigue as if it were a Netflix treatment? How many such novels have I read that made me want to die? What about a deliberate engagement with the characters, an unfolding of their story and their thinking, an attempt at care and intimacy? Plus, there’s something inherently fun about getting caught up in the whirlwind of a Franzen novel (except the first two, which I won’t claim to have finished reading).
It must be said that the characters do not feel fully human; they feel allegorical. We talk a lot about God and goodness; past traumas are over. The place we find Marion towards the end seems both inevitable (by the logic of the novel) and absurd (by that of life). The characters feel, in other words, like characters: incredibly well-constructed pieces move around the equally well-constructed world of the novel.
Leave the acute description of individual human consciousness to the post-Franzen vanguard: Lerner, Cusk, Knausgaard. Franzen, meanwhile, has always been seen as a step backwards – but to whom or when, I can never quite place. Dickens is too busy, Faulkner much more difficult; Roth, Updike, and Bellow all seem less interested in women. The books may seem as clearly political as DeLillo, but (other than the pre-Oprah novels) Franzen is not a systems novelist. Two influences claimed by Franzen are Paula Fox and Penelope Fitzgerald – two of my favorite writers – but their brilliance is linked not only to precision and verisimilitude, but also to their brevity.
Franzen can spin a stellar thread; “Crossroads” is further proof of this. However, sentences can get sloppy, attention lags. One wonders why these seven good to good sentences, when one or two sharper could have contained them all? In the end, I felt like the story was just starting to take off.
Admittedly, this is the start of a trilogy, but what about the presumption that the reader will keep coming back to a project that has not yet shown that he knows how or where to land? The lump can create a feeling of fullness, but also of exhaustion. “Who has the time? Another mom said when picking up from camp when she saw me read “Crossroads” and I told her it was the first of three.
After I finished the novel, I re-read a lot of Franzen’s non-fiction, including the Harper essay. As unfair as it may be to resubmit her character for a review, it would be absurd not to admit that I have a complicated relationship with the idea of him, as a novelist who sometimes feels like the only way to go. ‘getting traction as a novelist (woman) cultivates a certain cold detachment that Franzen manages to disavow.
It is also true that his relationship to the world is inseparable from his faults as a novelist. I realized, this time – from reading Harper’s essay, interviews and profiles – that Franzen had never really known failure, at least not in the way most of us have. made. These first two books nevertheless earned him sufficiently large advances to enable him to write full time; there’s a quick mention in the essay of a limo ride to a Vogue photoshoot when promoting one of those “failed books.” He’s a man who disowned Oprah and still thrived. He is, has been his entire career, to use a terrible capitalist term, too big to fail.
I have less of a criticism than a request for Franzen. Great work often seems to sit right on the precipice of failure; so much of what enlightens me is just below total guts. I wonder about the stubborn certainty with which “Crossroads” seems to have been written, the almost unfathomable confidence (to me) that there is an inherent value in all the (many) things the writer has to say. In “Crossroads” I felt the solid knowledge that must come from decades of success, a writer in full possession of his powers, etc. What I didn’t feel was the thrill of the threat of failure.
I have often wondered, afterwards, what that could be like for Franzen – who is an extraordinary novelist. How, truly fearing failure, he might find ways to surprise us and himself. What I hope for the next two volumes of this “Key to all mythologies” is that they engage just as carefully and deliberately as “Crossroads” with the world it builds, but also pushes to reimagine what books and their writers might be capable of.
Strong is the critic and author, most recently, of the novel “Want”.