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Beautiful World, Where Are You

December 1, 2021

Rohan’s review of Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where are You is what finally decided me about reading it, particularly what she says about the emails between the two main characters which comprise a lot of the novel: “the emails are an experiment in fictionalizing an examined contemporary life. They made me think about how much we—or at least I—don’t talk about, even with those closest to us.”

I found that the charms of this novel lie in the extremely subtle teasing-out of particular attitudes that may give meaning to one individual’s life but not another’s. At first I thought those attitudes were generational, with the twenty-something characters depicted as dismissing their parents’ generation as having few feelings, while they themselves feel things deeply. But after thinking about it (and talking about it with my twenty-something daughter), the seemingly generational attitudes are part of the subtlety. For example, in a conversation with her mother when Eileen was 23 and her mother was 51, Eileen looks at her mother crying and says “I really care that you’re unhappy, I just don’t know what you want me to do.” She goes on to ask “what outcome do you want here?” and adds “I can’t give you money. I can’t go back in time and make you marry a different man. You want me to listen to you complaining about it? I’ll listen. I am listening. But I’m not sure why you think your unhappiness is more important than mine.” Except for her last sentence– which seems to be the kind of gratuitous verbal punch we throw at our loved ones during an argument–Eileen’s response teases out the truth, that there really are only two options in such a conversation.

Her teasing out of subtle truths would be more successful, though, if Eileen didn’t routinely generalize about anyone older than she is: “remembering is weaker than experiencing. Maybe that’s why middle-aged people always think their thoughts and feelings are more important than those of young people, because they can only weakly remember the feelings of their youth while allowing their present experiences to dominate their life outlook.”

It would also be more successful if Eileen knew more about modern culture, so she could put things in context. “My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence,” she says earnestly, picking a date almost a decade after the film The Graduate came out, with its derogatory use of the word “plastics” to mean a cheap, sterile, ugly, and meaningless way of life, the embodiment of everything the main character, Benjamin, loathes about the values of the older generation.

As the novel goes on, Eileen has oddly unemotional conversations with her friend Alice and the boy next door, Simon, who she will have sex with but can’t imagine a future with. Alice has similar conversations with the guy she’s hooked up with, Felix. All the characters seem to have a lack of affect and very little sense of humor or perspective. Alice worries about buying lunch at a convenience shop because she thinks that she should feel more guilty about “the various brands of soft drinks in plastic bottles and all the prepackaged lunch deals and confectionery in sealed bags and store-baked pastries—this is it, the culmination of all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the backbreaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations.”

Eileen worries about “living in a period of historical crisis,” saying that “I think even some of the more ‘suppressed’ structural symptoms, like the mass drowning of refugees and the repeated weather disasters triggered by climate change, are beginning to be understood as manifestations of a political crisis. And I believe studies show that in the last couple of years, people have been spending a lot more time reading the news and learning about current affairs. It has become normal in my life, for example, to send text messages like the following: Tillerson out at state Imaoooo.”

There is one moment of perspective—almost humor—when Alice says in an email that “the problem with museums like the d’Orsay…is that there’s far too much art, so that no matter how well you plan your route or how noble your intentions, you will always find yourself walking irritably past priceless works of profound genius looking for the bathrooms.”

There’s a good amount of musing over religion, which I think reaches its culmination in what Alice says about celebrity culture after an interviewer reports that Felix has never read her books and a popular tweet responded “this is tragic…she deserves better.” Alice says that this is
“an example of someone who genuinely believes that because she has seen my photograph and read my novels, she knows me personally—and in fact knows better than I do what is best for my life. And it’s normal! It’s normal for her not only to think these bizarre thoughts privately, but to express the in public, and receive positive feedback and attention as a result. She has no idea that she is, in this small limited respect, quite literally insane, because everyone around her is also insane in exactly the same way. They really cannot tell the difference between someone they have heard of, and someone they personally know. And they believe that the feelings they have about this person they imagine me to be—intimacy, resentment, hatred, pity—are as real as the feelings they have about their own friends. It makes we wonder whether celebrity culture has sort of metastasized to fill the emptiness left by religion. A sort of malignant growth where the sacred used to be.”

Both Alice and Eileen believe that “people our age used to get married and have children and conduct love affairs, and now everyone is still single at thirty and lives with housemates they never see.” I think this is a common belief among the generation of my adult children—they have the idea that their parents were “settled” in some essential way at the age of thirty, while I remember that most of us were still living in rentals with housemates, both married and single, with a few pieces of second-hand furniture and bookshelves made from pine boards and concrete blocks. Where did the belief come from, that previous generations committed to marriage and children and owned lots of stuff by the age of 30? I wonder if it comes from photos on social media, where we see how the wealthy live and are inspired to want what they have.

As Alice and Eileen keep writing to each other about what use it might be to write and to go on living, eventually Eileen proposes that “maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice, reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganizing the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting.”

When Eileen and Alice finally meet in person, with Simon and Felix, things start to work themselves out, because if there’s one thing we’ve all learned during the pandemic it’s that being connected is not the same as talking and seeing each other in person. At the moment they meet, the narrator asks “were they somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper, something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world?”

What all the earnestness finally comes to is Alice’s realization that her novels don’t have to solve the problems of the world and Eileen’s similar realization that the way she lives her life doesn’t have to satisfy anyone else’s expectations. It’s much ado over nothing, minus the humor. But I found it worth reading for the subtle distinctions and observations, and for the way it made me understand my childrens’ generation a little more.

Postcard Poems for the holidays

November 29, 2021

Would anyone on your gift list like a signed and personalized copy of Postcard Poems?

Because it had a second printing, I have some extra copies that I bought from the publisher, Broadstone Books, and I’m offering them for $15.00 each, with free shipping until December 17.

Just let me know the name to personalize it to and send me the shipping address in an email (my email address is under “contact me” in the headings here).

Happy holidays from the non-necromancer!

A Carnival of Snackery

November 23, 2021

I’m not usually a big fan of reading memoirs or diaries, but I’ll read anything by David Sedaris so I picked up a copy of A Carnival of Snackery and read a bit of it before going to sleep every night. It was an excellent book for that purpose, not because it was boring but because it’s divided up into small pieces so I rarely had the impulse to read “just a little more” to get to the end of a scene or a chapter.

The title of the collection comes from an Indian restaurant in London, where in 2013 you could order from a menu offering “a carnival of snackery.”

Sometimes it can be a little discouraging to find out that no matter what kind of weird shit you’ve thought up, David Sedaris has heard of something weirder. My daughter and I used to have a joke about going into a fancy women’s clothing store, taking something to the dressing room as if to try it on, and then after a few minutes asking for toilet paper, although we never actually did it. Then I pick up this book and read that “when Hugh worked at the Gap in high school, people used to shit in the dressing rooms, but at Target anywhere is fair game.”

I wasn’t paying that much attention to the cast of characters and their relationship to David and Hugh, so when he tells a story about someone he is traveling with named Joan who always has a positive attitude, making it a pleasure to travel with her, I was extra impressed when I realized that Joan is his mother-in-law.

Having heard David read once in person and many times on recordings, there are parts I was hearing in his voice, like “she said this as if being a homosexual took hours of practice, not just at the start but every day of your life. Keeping your walk up, maintaining your little outfits—people think it’s easy, but it’s not.”

The moments of self-realization in a David Sedaris book are always funny; I enjoyed the story about touring the house of a former Icelandic novelist and playwright:
“The house was not particularly grand, and the things inside it were not significant except in their relation to the writer. Here was the fifties coffee table; here was the easy chair only he was allowed to sit in. The great man’s belongings, everything from his desk to his tie rack, screamed I am an asshole! My favorite thing was a crocheted turtle lying on his wife’s bed. The two had separate bedrooms, both of which were filled with his books.
‘Do you think a tour of your house would be any better?’ Hugh asked, and after wondering what he meant by ‘your house,’ I supposed that he was right.”

There’s an entry about funny place names in England, where we once stayed at a B&B called “Hunting Butts” and had a conversation about how, as Americans, we had more freedom in choosing names for our houses, rather than accepting whatever historical name was already associated even if it was something like “The Orange Chicken of Desire.” Along those same lines, Sedaris says that “before buying our cottage in West Sussex, we considered one called Faggot Stacks that was located between the villages of Balls Cross and Titty Hill. Americans die laughing at those names but Zoe, who is British, remained straight-faced and told me that as a child she’d spent her summers in Slack Bottom, which is in Yorkshire midway between Slack Top and Big Dike.” I find that Americans die laughing at their own place names too, and I’ve demonstrated this numerous times by telling people that the place where I went to college, in Arkansas, is halfway between Pickles Gap and Toadsuck Ferry.

I also identified with the part where Hugh tells David that people don’t always understand him because he speaks “in non sequiturs,” like the time he went to the butcher shop in the English village where they were living and, when “asked how my day had been so far, I held up my hands, which were scratched and bleeding from reaching into blackberry bushes for stray bits of trash, and said ‘Don’t I look like I own a cheetah?’” I mean yeah, I guess that sounds disconnected from what’s going on but it makes perfect sense if you think about it for half a second.

Even in his diary, David Sedaris can make me laugh and cry at the same time, like about the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting:
“Hugh and I were talking about the Orlando shooting, and when I got into how easy it is to buy an automatic weapon in America, he said it didn’t matter. ‘If it was more difficult, the guy would have just made a bomb.’
‘Certain people might, but most won’t even make their own pie crust,’ I argued, ‘and I think that if you made the guns more difficult to get, they’d do like everyone else and just yell and scream when they got angry.’
‘What kind of person wouldn’t make his own pie crust?’ asked Hugh, whose question makes him gayer than all of the shooting victims combined.
I pointed out the window at the greater world. ‘There are people out there,’ I told him, ‘who don’t even make their own eggnog.’
‘But that’s so…easy,’ he said, finally as sad and confused as the rest of us.”

In the entries after 2016 it’s obvious that Sedaris is too insulated by wealth and fame to be much affected by the actions of the 45th American president, the George Floyd protests, and the worldwide pandemic, although he still has his moments, like when “Hugh frowned out the window,” saying “We just can’t win” and David comments that “I think he meant a universal ‘we,’ as looking out the window of your Upper East Side duplex is pretty much the definition of winning.”

If you’ve liked reading anything by David Sedaris before, you’ll like A Carnival of Snackery.

Fan Mail

November 20, 2021

I don’t know a lot about baseball but I do know that I like Joey Nicoletti’s poem “To Dave Kingman” from his volume of poems addressed to various baseball players, Fan Mail. Of all the poems in the volume, the one to Kingman, a famous home run hitter I’d never heard of before, seems to me to capture the essence of what it is to be a fan.

First of all, it’s addressed to “Mr. Kingman,” as if he’s someone we know, and it begins with a detail about his life, that he handed out “chrome/fountain pens/to New York-based sports reporters” on the first day of spring training. Then comes a purchased object associated with devotion to this particular kind of fandom: “your baseball card/from 1975 has arrived,/like summer.” The player’s face, already so familiar to the fan who has received this card, looks like it has “an expression of resignation,” which makes the fan wonder “why/do I feel so connected/to someone I’ve never met?”

Good question, isn’t it? Many of us have experienced this one-way feeling of connection and are well aware that our devotion is entirely one-sided, which is why these lines of the poem are amusing:

do I feel so connected

to someone I’ve never met?
How is it that being a fan
of yours: of admiring

all of the moonshots
you launched in your career,
77 of them

at the time this card was made
and distributed,
can have such an affect

on me? I mean,
would you feel empathy
for me if I got a rejection letter

from The New Yorker?”

How could Dave Kingman feel empathy for someone he’s never even heard of? He can’t, but that doesn’t make us stop wishing for an answering closeness from those we feel so close to, those we sympathize with at their low points and celebrate with when they hit a home run because we realize “that no one can be at their best/every single moment/of their work or personal lives.”

Sometimes, at least for a moment, even the most ardent fans want to reassure their hero, saying something like yes, Dave Kingman, we see how you are trying “to play well consistently/on the field, yet protect/your privacy off of it.” Occasionally we have to acknowledge that a public figure is a person and a stranger, in addition to still being my own personal hero, the one I want to know everything about.

Of course, the fan relationship can make those on either side feel vulnerable and exposed. When we were pre-teens, the year the movie Young Frankenstein came out, my cousin and I composed a fan letter to Gene Wilder. He may have never gotten it—certainly he never answered–but it was sent with lots of love and spritzed with some of my mother’s perfume. How about you–have you ever sent fan mail?

The Places We Empty

November 18, 2021

The Places We Empty, by Julie Weiss, is a volume with poems that consider recent events like the 2018 Camp Fire in California, the 2018 separations of parents from children at the border of the U.S. and Mexico, the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, the March 2020 conversion of a Madrid ice rink to a morgue for Coronavirus victims, the February 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and the June 2020 lynching of Robert Fuller.

The poems in the volume are divided into three sections with epigraphs. The poems in the first section make us feel things like what it’s like to be a person who “keeps walking, in whatever direction/feels the coldest” after losing everything:

“when her lover’s body/
lies crushed under fallen planks,

when their faithful old hound has vanished,
when all the memories they made together

have been drained of color, have ruptured and lie
under charred wood.”

In the second section, in the poem “My Name Is Alma,” a schoolgirl thinks of her mother and their journey to the border, what she said (“whatever happens out here, she whispered,/you must shut the door on your mind/and keep walking), where she is now, with “hundreds/of bodies caked in dirt, blood, and snot,” and where her mother might be, “a jumble/of piel y huesos, heaped on an identical/concrete floor, reaching for me.”

Even for someone we can’t really understand we can sympathize with the speaker of the poem “The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming”:

“I never believed in your
afterlife, your winding staircase scattered with lily petals,

your flossy angel’s wings, even as I lay in my hospital bed,
eyes closed, furrowed body curling into its chrysalis

to await transformation, even as light poured into the container
my soul would soon relinquish. Now, I’d love nothing more

than to spread my wings, supple as a butterfly’s, come to rest
on your shoulder, give you reason to say: I told you so.”

The third section begins with the title poem, which is about spoiling for a fight: “there are so many things I could say right now./The expletives would fly off my words if I opened my mouth,/released them.” The poem’s speaker feels that she

“could fill the sky with flocks of words, startling winged creatures
migrating from south to north, from the place in my stomach

where my anger has been nesting to the place on my face
where they would alight, flapping and squawking, in search of

sustenance. By sustenance I don’t mean worms or fish.
It’s blood I’m after.”

Through a sliding glass door we are shown the object of her anger, standing in “the kitchen where she’s hacking vegetables for salad” and told that “I could give her the duel she desires.” But the poem is about refraining. All these poems keep producing objects for our anger and implicitly asking us not to waste it on emotional outbursts. We must keep in our anger and give it time to turn into words and actions that might make a difference.

In one of the last poems in the third section, “Coronaversary, April 12th, 2020,” the personal becomes political; the realization that “we’re lucky to be alive” is itself a call to action in the world, where so many of us want to leave things better for our children but are instead spending our time wondering “how many more wishes will I puff into the universe/on the backs of dandelion seeds?”

Back to the library

November 16, 2021

This fall I accumulated a small pile of books on my desk, waiting to be reviewed, and this week I knocked one off the stack and decided that while I’m glad I read them, I don’t really have anything to say about them. Sometimes a book finds you at the right time. But for these books, the circumstances weren’t right for relating to something or tugging on a thread or even recommending them to anyone in particular.

They are: A Secret Woman by Rose Solari, The Break by Katherena Vermette, We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker, Unless by Carol Shields, and Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren.

These books are going back to the library or the shelf. Actually, I’m just now starting to go back to the public library. It took me a long time because I live in an area where a lot of people feel that “the virus is a hoax” and I haven’t wanted to be inside with them unless there was no choice. Now, though, vaccinated and boostered, I feel like I can have a few more choices, and the public library is one.

It’s nice to read something without having to find a place for it afterwards, and it’s good to get back to sampling new books to see if I might like them. How about you–do you read a wider variety of books when you’re able to get them from the library?

Writing about writing

November 14, 2021

I’m writing about writing today as a guest over at Trish Hopkinson’s blog, A Selfish Poet.

It’s more exciting than Tristan makes it look, really!

Our Country Friends

November 12, 2021

Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart, is a pandemic novel, and it focuses on a group of friends from the part of the U.S. first hit by the virus, New York City. This group of friends is invited to what their host, Sasha Senderovsky, calls “the House on the Hill” and its group of adjacent bungalows to escape the city during the first spring and summer of the pandemic.

They are privileged people, this group of friends. Sasha is a novelist, his wife Masha is a psychiatrist, and they are parents to an eight-year-old, Nat. Their friends are Vinod, a writer, Karen, an app developer, Ed, a wealthy traveler with culinary skills, Dee, an essayist, and the Actor, who is a movie star.

We see that their idea of what is “safe” might not be similar to our own, as very soon after we are introduced to Sasha we see him in a parking lot, in the middle of running errands in his car, drinking out of a broken bottle of whiskey, “his tongue screening out little bits of glass.” During their first two weeks together, Masha makes some feeble attempts to enforce social distancing, especially around her daughter, and some even more feeble recommendations for masking, but the friends mostly call attention to this by observing when they are breaking the distancing rules. During their first week, Masha observes one of them, “a man with one lung smoking a joint that had just touched another’s lips.”

Allusions to plays and novels and references to obscure and foreign words with no definition abound. When one person is late to dinner, Ed asks “what will our Magnificent Amberson eat when he gets here,” referring, I found out when I looked it up, to a 1918 novel adopted for film in the 1940s by H. G. Wells. Similarly, when Karen says that “Ed is the scion of a chaebol family” and Dee points out that “when using a foreign word it might be cool to explain what it is,” all the reader finds out is that the “the definition of ‘chaebol’ was patiently explained to Dee.” I guess this is to reinforce the idea that this group of friends is smart and sophisticated and cool and multicultural and so worth saving in the middle of a global pandemic.

A conversation between Ed and Dee reveals their sophistication:
“last night you said you’re Korean, right?”
“Not formally,” Ed said. “I have Swiss, UK, and Canadian citizenship. I guess I have to nab me something in the EU after Brexit. Lots of folk become Maltese.” So petrol princes and sunbaked Russian orangutans were now just folk. What was wrong with him?
“But you spend time here? In the city, I mean?”
“Sure. Plenty. Home away from home.”
“And you never felt like becoming an American?” She didn’t know why she was pressing him on this one point.
“That’s for people without options,” Ed said. “Sorry, I mean…” He trailed off.
“No, I get it. Nation in free fall.”

Even the setting is described in terms of literary allusion: “When he glanced up, the great cedar porch, the stucco main house…the stationary satellites of the bungalows, all this reared itself up before him as if it had just appeared out of nowhere, summoned by a madman out of Gogol or Cervantes.” The extended metaphor of the novel, however, is to Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya.

Senderovsky is a fictionalized version of Shteyngart himself, lightly and inconsistently satirized. The narrative includes occasional odd moments that don’t work together, like when Senderovsky is talking to the Actor and says “I see,” and the Actor replies “Do you, though? Because—” and then we’re informed that “the em dash above may make the reader think there was a break in the Actor’s speech, but it was only a break in Senderovsky’s consciousness.”

Dee, the essayist, thinks that “the artist…stood in the vicinity of history processing its raw nature through her own blemished experiences and typing the resulting observations into the Notes application of her phone. That was the job description. But what if this particular job had suddenly become irrelevant? And what if irrelevancy, not cultural tone deafness, was the real specter that haunted the bungalow colony, haunted her and Senderovsky and the Actor as well? The hour for chronicling the situation had passed; it was time to seize the telegraph station and detain the provisional government.” This is to say, what good is a satiric novel when the world itself has become so exaggerated that merely representing the kinds of things that are happening sounds satiric? Ed even thinks, at one point, that “as soon as one acquired a liberal education, huge parts of life became an elaborate joke.”

The friends’ Decameron-like idyll comes to an end with a eulogy by the narrator, who points out that
“Of course, by the logic of fiction, we are at a high point now. This respite, this happy family, these four new lovers, this child slowly losing her shyness, all of this must be slated for destruction, no? Because if we were to simply leave them feasting and ecstatic, even as the less fortunate of the world fall deeper into despair, even as hundreds of thousands perished for lack of luck, lack of sympathy, lack of rupees, would we be just in our distribution of happiness?”

And so the pandemic claims its victims even among the smart and sophisticated and we are left at the end of the novel with only Senderovsky’s desire that “the summer of 2020, that year of imperfect vision, would hold them together forever.”

Hospice Plastics

November 10, 2021

Rachel Hinton’s volume of poetry Hospice Plastics is about the extraordinary level of consumption involved with long-term illness and medical care. Anyone who has ever been inside a hospital knows how much stuff–and especially stuff made out of plastic–is involved. Months after one hospital stay for knee surgery, I found that my well-meaning friends and family had stuffed my linen closet full of plastic emesis bowls, waterproof bed pads, and bitter-smelling soaps.

The title poem appears first, an accurately devastating account of how “it’s/unnerving when the natural world/makes a mistake.”

That title poem is followed by three sections. The first section rotates around the things needed to keep a mother alive and functioning through the process of dying from cancer. With titles like “An Illness Form,” the poems weigh us down with all the things connected to the mother:
“The weight of accrual
softs down the paper mash

at the torn hole’s edge

The bent pulp
does not change my life

But there is a valve

Without her
there is a little hole in things
Air empties out of it”

To fill the emptiness, there’s the activity in “To Picture a Thing is a Kind of Hatred”:
“She bought me T-shirts at Kmart and coloring sets
and calendars stretched in a slippy but durable plastic.

T-shirts piled on T-shirts, and finally beneath the pile
rose no more pile, the bed, a mysterious cross stitch.

I thought I would never see her again. So I thought I would
Build her out of the T-shirts and bedpans, the seats of old office chairs.”

In the second section, we get so many feelings and such variation that only a spreadsheet can represent them. My favorite is “Girl Underneath a Glass Table (Actuals).”

The third section focuses on what is left, with poems like “Father as Single Man” and “Poem about My Project Management Software.” This section pulls away from its subject a little farther, offering perspective and, occasionally, humor. It includes my favorite poem from the volume:
What I Wanted When I Said God Has All the Facts
They will be served. He knows the intent of the heart
was to work in my garden. I wanted to remember my own dirt was
good for sticking the spine down, it was good for my father
when a possum smelled of iron, that I cried when
a cat licked my face. I wasn’t ready. Something
was taken away from me and I was proffered an atavism
in which I’m conserving my strength and
on those pineneedle days it felt right to tell you
you are free to do as I do
because I did walk moss-heeled with actions and decisions
and did look on the clouded street and see it was
my mercy that my bus was, thank God, approaching.

There is mercy in these poems, most of all in “Kiss-Kiss,” which starts out with
“What does that even mean
a deep humanity. As in
the novel had a deep humanity.

Here are some things that have
a deep humanity to me. When you said
you could even try

placing the dock for the
robovac under that small shelf
The emoji that hugs itself with

balloon backspace hands.
A link called “Sex Positions
for the Overweight.”

Dark grass, the jewelry box of night.
Yes, that’s good. Commemorate
cruelty’s immaculate opposite.”

What is hard, the poem “Plastic Cannulas” tells us, is that “they still hope./They want hostas.”

Those of us left alive still want so many things, even to take them into ourselves, “bitten, loved,/probably giving you cancer currently.”

This volume shows us how living can be seen as a process of accumulation and how difficult it can be for the onlookers when the body underneath is stripped away and finally all that we’re left with is what has accumulated–things, like the plastic cannula. Probably also a few emesis basins, waterproof bed pads, and lots of bitter-smelling soaps. But among all those things will be a window, some hostas, the right bus coming down the road.

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.

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