Jonathan Franzen has been at a crossroads before.
In 1996, coming off moderate success with his first two literary fiction novels – The Twenty–Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992) – Franzen wrote an essay for Harper’s called “Perchance to Dream”. There, he lamented what he saw as the demise of the social novel and fiction’s diminished role in American culture as a whole. In keeping with his title’s allusion to Hamlet, he used the words “depression” and “despair” liberally, concluding, “At the heart of my despair about the novel had been a conflict between my feeling that I should Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream, and my desire to write about the things closest to me, to lose myself in the characters and locales that I loved.”
Each of his novels since has attempted to do both, or at least split the difference, moving away, but only partially, from the Pynchon-esque postmodernism of his earlier work. The post-“Perchance” novels seemed more aligned with the sense and sensibly of 19th Century British writers like Charles Dickens than, say, Joseph Heller, whom he names in his essay.
These post-millennial novels managed to feel both provincial and national, with a dash of the conspiratorial and ironic. They were personal but, at least metaphorically, political, announcing their Big Social Novel intentions on their Big Social Novel sleeves and in their Big Social Novel Titles: The Corrections (2001)! Freedom (2010)! Purity (2015)! They were about America, and The Way We Live Now. And they were also about Feelings and Family.
Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, at first glance continues the pattern. Like its predecessors, it focuses on a familiar Midwestern nuclear family, the Hildebrandts, in familiar domestic crises. At the same time, as the title implies, Franzen again seems to be breaking from his previous work, this time against the Perchance to Dream” imperative to use the novel as a way to bring news to the mainstream.
There is, by design, nothing new in Crossroads. It is so unlike the way new stories—or Stories ™, as co-opted by Instagram and Facebook—now work that it is something like the opposite of news. It is so slow, so private, so internal, so psychically subterranean, yet also intensely particular, that it underscores everything that a novel, uniquely as an art form, can do.
Franzen has not written a Social Novel. He has written an Antisocial Novel.
To its craft and credit, Crossroads pulls the reader in, to the expense of anything around, letting us lose ourselves “in characters and locals” as Franzen wanted in 1996. Although nearly 600 pages, its scope is limited, its pull intense, its characters’ feelings visceral. In many ways, it has much less to say about The Way We Live Now than it does about what novels, and novels alone, are capable of creating: a small but full world, with insight into the interiors of its characters’ psyches so that the reader knows them better than they can know themselves. We get to know the characters better than we know most of the real people in our real lives, too.
Not only is there no news, but there is no separate mainstream to bring it to. The novel’s insular world smacks of everything one associates with the mainstream in the first place but then cracks it open to find the waves of deviance beneath.
On the surface, however, it must be acknowledged that, in its basic outline and summary, nothing about Crossroads should work. Its title—shared with a dozen counseling centers, restaurants, and two films—is bland. Its family is familiar: the father and husband, contemplating his de rigueur midlife crisis affair; the wife and mother, having her own midlife realization that she has been suppressing her true self; their three teen and young adult children, each grappling with the standard-issue coming of age crises of relationships, school, and temptations. (The fourth and youngest seems fine, for now, a Rousseauian child as yet undamaged by his parents or society.) There is even a subplot involving white people learning valuable lessons from American Indians.
Neither does its prose particularly lend itself to quotation or excerpt. Franzen’s sentences, unlike those of his literary mentor, Don DeLillo; his contemporary, David Foster Wallace; or his cohorts, including Jennifer Egan or Michael Chabon, do not dazzle. They will not be analyzed for their craft in writing workshops. Lines like “Among the revelations of the night before, in front of Tanner’s VW bus, had been the excellence of lips” feel squeamish, trite. In the novel, however, the sentences do a lot of heavy lifting—this one manages to capture the period (VW bus) as well as the character’s point of view and burgeoning, conflicted religiosity. The sentences are unshowy, sometimes prosaic, but hard-working, and they get the job done. That is, even the prose is Midwestern.
The sex scenes are positively wince-inducing and would be destined for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award if they didn’t seem bad by design and, crucially, in keeping with its world and its characters’ perspectives. No wonder some readers—the very readers Franzen seemed to covet back in the days of his 2001 Oprah Winfrey controversy when he said, “I feel like I’m solidly in the high-art literary tradition”—want nothing to do with him.
And yet, they should. And yet, amazingly, it works. How?
First, Franzen jettisons any pretense of “news” by setting the story in 1971. This framing allows readers to experience dramatic irony, knowing the futures and fallout of, among other things, the Vietnam War, the Sexual Revolution, and the state of rock ‘n’ roll, in ways that remain uncertain for the characters.
More interestingly, Franzen has also largely broken not just from the mold of the social novel in its premises, but also its form. Crossroads is the first in a trilogy called A Key to All Mythologies, a (self-deprecating? Ironic?) allusion to Middlemarch. Yet, in his narrative approach and organization, if not language, Franzen seems more indebted to William Faulkner than George Eliot. In 1996, Franzen aspired toward a contemporary American Middlemarch. Instead, he may have written a midcentury, Midwestern As I Lay Dying, his sympathetic mock epic about a dysfunctional family.
It’s a kind of trickle-down Modernism, though, the kind that comes over decades of audiences trained by watching television series’ The Sopranos, then Lost, then Game of Thrones, then Orange Is the New Black, before landing on This Is Us. The multiple storylines and perspectives that may have baffled readers in the 1920s have become a standard-issue way of storytelling today, at least onscreen.
On the page, much of what makes the novel compelling, urgent, even, and a brisk read for a tome, is the way in which Franzen continuously switches perspectives chapter by chapter. Yet unlike, say, The Sound and the Fury, which is temporally hard for readers to pin down, Franzen’s story is relentlessly linear, even if his chapters are polyglot. Despite the shift in character, each chapter moves the narrative forward in time, so much so that the sections themselves are named with time markers, and they stay in the third person for formal consistency. But they change focus and perspective, alternating between family members, so that we see them from their own, each other’s, and our own, view.
As a result, those family members that might seem generic in summary become vividly, painfully, alive. The husband and father? He is Russ, a pastor of convictions and ambivalences, who nurtures grudges against his younger rival but is capable of compassion toward his congregants. That wife and mother is Marion, and she is, in fact, stifled by those very identities of “wife and mother”, and she has suffered more than her suburban surface would suggest.
Their kids are each at their own crossroads in a way that seems more in keeping with the metaphysical danger of bluesman Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil than any bland youth organization of the same name, including the one within this novel. Their crossroads are moral, theological, and ontological as much as they have to do with school (the eldest, Clem, who contemplates dropping out of college to serve in Vietnam), love (Becky, who is pulled by both eros and agape toward Tanner, the owner of that VW bus), or temptation (Perry, who suffers from daily existential crises of faith and a predisposition towards addiction). The fourth and youngest, Judson, still seems fine, but he seems primed for more agency in the planned sequels.
This approach pushes the reader into constant engagement with the interior lives of each character, yet allows for sufficient detachment so that, certainly from other perspectives, but often even from their own, we can see their flaws. Russ, as his children believe, often behaves hypocritically, but we also know that his children are predisposed to think so for their own sometimes hypocritical reasons. They each make bad yet understandable decisions. And so, for all the seeming affinities for modernist heteroglossia and interiority, Crossroads mainly engages the reader in shifting, even contradictory, acts of empathy.
In 2002, Franzen revised and republished “Perchance to Dream” in his own essay collection, How to Be Alone, under the title “Why Bother”, which didn’t bother with a question mark. Both “How to Be Alone” and “Why Bother” are far more antisocial in title and topic than “Crossroads”. In many ways, Crossroads seems a third iteration of the original essay’s ideas, and despite what I said earlier, may not be so antisocial after all. That essay was, in many ways, sprawling yet self-absorbed. Crossroads, despite being set before the internet, despite requiring solitude to read, despite its power of absorption, is finally about human connectivity. It does not ponder how to be alone, but something even more difficult: how to be together. It’s something the Hildebrandts, and maybe the rest of us, are still trying to learn.
Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads is included in PopMatters Best of Books 2021.