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Jonathan Franzen Goes Victorian

The novelist's latest work shines, but only because he’s finally snuffed his ego.
Cheltenham Literature Festival

Crossroads: A Novel, by Jonathan Franzen, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2021), 592 pages.

It’s hard to write about Jonathan Franzen without rifling through his baggage. After all, there’s so much: his nasty divorce, his bird fixation, his Oprah feud—I could go on ad infinitum. But I won’t. His controversies are generally tedious, and they detract from his fiction, which he is always improving. Especially in the past two decades, Franzen has consistently refined his craft, and with his latest novel, Crossroads, he has finally produced something truly worthwhile.

In Crossroads, Franzen drops his ideological pretensions in favor of simplicity, which for him means drilling deep into the rot of familial incoherence. The novel introduces the Hildebrandts, a brood of suburban Chicagoans whose patriarch, Russ, is an associate pastor at a liberal Reformed Christian church in the early 1970s. There’s also his wife, Marion, and their four children, Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson. Franzen spends most of the novel pitting the Hildebrandts against each other as he tests their individual self-absorptions. Like many of his other novels, the story is almost completely character-driven and unfolds in a series of interlocking novellas.

Crossroads also kicks off a more ambitious project, Franzen’s A Key to All Mythologies trilogy. That title comes from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872), the classic study of provincial life and Franzen’s loose guide for three generations of Hildebrandt troubles. The title doubles as a self-deprecating joke. In Middlemarch, A Key to Mythologies is the unrealized masterwork of the pompous churchman Edward Casaubon, whom Eliot skewers as “scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted”—insults that have all been lobbed at Franzen, sometimes justly.

Those same criticisms are thrown at the characters in Crossroads as they fumble through a few groovy months beginning at the end of 1971. Russ obsesses over one of his female parishioners, but he is too timid to proposition her. Marion tortures herself with a peculiarly Protestant form of Catholic guilt. Perry becomes a self-deceiving drug addict. And so on. Almost all of Franzen’s characters are self-obsessed, and they only make their plights worse with self-pity. “It was strange that self-pity wasn’t on the list of deadly sins,” Russ wonders as he contemplates adultery. “None was deadlier.”

The novel’s setting is somewhat autobiographical. When Franzen was growing up in the St. Louis suburbs, he was active in his hometown church. A few of his pastors bear some resemblance to the characters in Crossroads. That’s about it. At no point does Franzen insert himself into the story, as he has so awkwardly done before.

And at no point does Franzen ever pull away from the Hildebrandt family and its domestic concerns. This is a massive departure from his three previous novels—The Corrections (2001), Freedom (2010), and Purity (2015)—and it’s a breath of fresh air. In those other books, Franzen pads his family dramas with boring satires of late capitalism, neoconservatism, and Wikileaks, respectively. Maybe someone told him that he’s no good at the big-brained stuff, because he’s cut it out entirely.

The more likely story is that Franzen came to this realization painfully and on his own. His whole career, since he finished his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), has been a retrograde flight away from the postmoderns toward the Victorians. He’s finally reached his destination with Crossroads. It’s a miracle that he ever got there.

Like a lot of writers of his generation, Franzen began under the assumption that for a novel to be any good, it had to be about the chthonic systems that underlie the seeming chaos of the modern world. A really heady topic. In the The Twenty-Seventh City and his second novel, Strong Motion (1992), Franzen looked for guidance from writers such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, the masters of the so-called systems novel. Unsurprisingly, neither book is all that good. The Twenty-Seventh City in particular is a mess, so incomprehensible that Franzen himself disowned it when it was recently republished.

Franzen planned something similar for his third novel. He began work on a sprawling, complicated story about a lawyer investigating cases of insider trading for the United States government. When that didn’t work, Franzen was at a loss. At about that time, two things swayed him away from ever attempting to finish the project as it stood. The first was a growing friendship with David Foster Wallace, whose novel Infinite Jest (1996) was an idiosyncratic rebellion against postmodernism. Fiction, according to Wallace, is what it means “to be a f—ing human being.”

That wisdom, coupled with Franzen’s second discovery, that he has a knack for writing about his own family, allowed him to produce The Corrections. The book is a Frankenstein, and although it secured Franzen’s place as a permanent bestseller, it does not hold up so well. Its original framework—all that stuff about corporate intrigue and currency manipulation—is still there, and it’s a real slog. So are a lot of the familial interactions. The Lambert family seemed so vivid and true at the time. After two decades, they feel embarrassingly overwrought.

The same is true of Freedom, unfortunately. Franzen claims that by the time he got around to it, he had sworn off systems novels entirely. But that’s not true. The book’s first half is a biting comedy of manners about the Berglunds, a family of gentrifiers in the Twin Cities, some of his most compelling work. But soon Franzen treats his readers to all sorts of knotted-up Bush-era adventures, which have aged even more poorly than the corporate hijinks in The Corrections. Ditto with Purity, which would be a wonderful book if it weren’t for its author’s obsessive fixation on relitigating Julian Assange’s legacy.

Purity, at least, was a misstep in the right direction. In The Corrections and Freedom, it is impossible to escape the suspicion that Franzen had, as one reviewer put it, constructed the Lamberts and the Berglunds from a spreadsheet while devoting his real energy to his sermonizing. That’s not the case in Purity, where for the first time Franzen is more interested in observing how his characters behave in tough moral situations than he is in seeing how tightly he can turn the screws on them before they crack.

In Crossroads, Franzen is completely absorbed with his characters’ moral choices, particularly their often unsuccessful attempts to escape their own selfishness. Throughout the novel, characters encounter and reencounter their own versions of Eliot’s most famous image in Middlemarch, the lit candle held up to a scratched mirror. Although the scratches are random, they appear to form concentric circles around the flame.

“These things are a parable,” Eliot writes, explaining that the scratches are events and the flame is the ego of the person who thinks the world revolves around himself. The only way out is to snuff the flame.

So too with Franzen. Crossroads shines, but only because he’s finally snuffed his ego.

Nic Rowan is a reporter for the Washington Examiner.



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