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Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen

November 6, 2021

Why write a novel published in 2021 that’s set in 1971? Why did Jonathan Franzen imagine that we needed yet another story about what it was like to be a groovy teenager at the height of the hippie era? The problem with his new novel Crossroads, it seems to me, is that Franzen is a good writer and can keep a reader interested, but in the end there’s no particular reason why a reader should spend 580 pages reading about the fictional family consisting of Marion and Russ and their children Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson.

The novel thoroughly explores 1970’s-style religion. Becky and Perry go to a youth group, the name of which gives the novel its title, Crossroads, and learn that “instead of comforting a friend with fibs, you told him unwelcome truths. Instead of avoiding the socially awkward, the hopelessly uncool, you sought them out and engaged with them (making sure, of course, that you were noticed doing this). Instead of choosing friends as exercise partners, you (conspicuously) introduced yourself to newcomers and conveyed your belief in their unqualified worth. Instead of being strong, you blubbered.”

Russ is a minister and the default attitude at his church and among the college-bound teenagers is protest against the Vietnam war, until the oldest son, Clem, has an awakening: “on his church’s spring trip, he’d worked for a Navajo man, Keith Durochie, who’d lost a son in Vietnam. Only seventeen, uncomfortable in the presence of a parent’s loss, Clem had tried to sympathize with Durochie by lamenting how unjust it was to die in such a war, and Durochie had gone morose and silent. Clem had said the wrong thing, but he hadn’t known why. Listening to Sharon, he understood that, far from consoling Durochie, he’d dishonored his son’s death.”

So the teenagers rebel against what they perceive to be their parents’ values; when Clem comes home from college he feels that “his family had pulled him back into the conditioned lineaments of the self he’d taken action to escape,” as so often happens when kids come home. Russ continues to ignore the needs of his wife and kids and has an affair with a woman from his church. Marion knows about the affair but eventually forgives him anyway, as the women in this novel feel that they exist only when a man is looking at them.

So many pages, and I never got to liking any of the characters, much less caring why they are at a crossroads. How is this the work of the essayist who said “you might wake up in the night and realize that you’re lonely in your marriage, or that you need to think about what your level of consumption is doing to the planet, but the next day you have a million little things to do, and the day after that you have another million things. As long as there’s no end of little things, you never have to stop and confront the bigger questions”? In these 580 pages there is no end of little things.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    November 6, 2021 7:44 am

    I have been wondering about giving this one a try. I haven’t read any of his novels since The Corrections, which I only dimly recall – but I dimly recall thinking it was pretty good. I guess it’s a sign that I wasn’t thrilled that I didn’t follow up as more books came out, although also it has been so hard to see the trees of his actual books in the forest of the discourse around him! This one intrigued me because of the Middlemarch call-out, but so far I haven’t seen any commentary on it that makes me think a lover of Middlemarch would find it particularly rewarding. What you say about his being a good enough writer just to keep you reading is interesting: I guess we shouldn’t take competence for granted, but it doesn’t sound as if there’s much pay-off.

    What essay are you quoting from at the end? I do like the sound of that.

    • November 6, 2021 7:51 am

      The essay is from his collection The End of the End of the Earth, published March 2020. I prefer his essays to his novels, which may just be saying that I like his writing in small doses.

  2. lemming permalink
    November 6, 2021 10:50 am

    This sounds like a novel that Franzen really wanted to write, and the editors at the publishing house indulged. Then again, I have first hand memories of this period, so maybe meaningful to the next generation?

    • November 7, 2021 9:03 pm

      He has a plan to write The Key to All Mythologies (as if he can finish what the guy in Middlemarch couldn’t) so maybe he’ll bring it up to the present day.
      I’m not sure what period you’re saying you have first-hand memories of–surely not 1971?

  3. November 7, 2021 8:31 pm

    As I didn’t really enjoy his earlier book, Freedom, I will stick to his essays, which as I recall, I did enjoy.

  4. November 8, 2021 6:54 am

    Heh, I have to say, I’ve never read a single thing about Jonathan Franzen that has made me remotely interested in reading Jonathan Franzen. I’m so impressed you made it through almost 600 pages of this!

    • November 9, 2021 10:17 am

      He is a good writer. I can forgive a lot for that!

  5. November 10, 2021 4:20 pm

    The critics have been fawning over this so much it was starting to make me think maybe I should give his fiction one more try. But you have saved me. Thank you!

    • November 10, 2021 7:36 pm

      There seem to be a number of critics who love anything set in the 1970s. (Look at the success of David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue.)

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