“I write what I can write, and I happen to have a white middle class experience of the world,” Jonathan Franzen, the American novelist, is saying over the telephone. The best-selling, critically admired and endlessly berated writer is now 62 years old. He’s just published Crossroads, his sixth novel and eleventh book, and it’s already controversial. “If I started thinking about what angry people are going to say,” Franzen adds, “I would never write anything. Do we need to hear any more about white people? Well, it depends on how the story is told.”
Crossroads is told very well. Its 580 gripping pages are set in 1971 and track the once morally cohesive but suddenly splintering lives of Russ Hildebrandt, a minister, and his very white, very middle-class, very Middle American family. It’s Franzen’s most sympathetic and most character-driven novel (which is saying something) – less satirical and biting than The Corrections (2001), the novel that thrust him into the limelight at the age of 42; less convoluted and psychologically extreme than its predecessors, Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015); more realistic and centred than his debut, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and its follow-up, Strong Motion (1992).
Russ Hildebrandt, the second-string minister at First Reformed Church of Chicago, is confronting his lust for a sexy, recently widowed parishioner, and all the guilt that comes with it. Russ’s smarter, pudgier, more imaginative wife Marion – Franzen’s best answer yet to critics who claim he can’t create believable females – is overwhelmed by secrets of her own. Oldest son Clem is back from university afire with condescending moral certainty, eager to wound his pacifist father; daughter Becky, the prettiest, most popular and productive girl in high school, is slipping down the drain of the counterculture; son Perry, a genius, is also the school’s drug dealer, and headed for a violent comeuppance. Only Judson, their youngest, watches from the sidelines, as yet untainted by the human need to create a set of moral values to justify our mendacity, our doubts and our defensiveness.
This to and fro is refracted through Crossroads, a Christian youth group that changes the lives of all the characters, though never in the way the church intends. All the Hildebrandts seek the path to virtue. But there is no such prescribed path, as all the best novels teach us.
Franzen belonged to a Christian youth group for six years as a teenager. “Even though it did not penetrate that deeply, it was a milieu, a habit of mind that I knew well,” he tells me over the phone. “And that’s gold for a novelist.” It also gave him a social life he otherwise wouldn’t have had as a brainy, admittedly immature teenager. He later looked up and interviewed his kumbaya pals as research for a chapter in The Discomfort Zone, his 2006 collection of essays. (He has published five others.) He drew on that 100-page, single-spaced ream of transcripts to re-create the harrowing “encounter” exercises in Crossroads – the enforced touchy-feeliness of a certain era that passed as a means to personal growth. They will make you run, not walk, for the haven of non-intimacy.
The rest of the book Franzen simply remembered and invented. “I grew up in the seventies,” he points out. “That was my decade. I knew all of those kids and I knew what they were listening to and I knew what their bedrooms looked like and I knew the way they spoke. All of that stuff is still vivid in my head. I didn’t have to write it down in a notebook.”
But the novel kept expanding – which is saying something, given the brickish heft of Franzen’s novels. “There have been families in all my other books,” he notes, “but the families have been kind of an organizing principle more than the main subject. And I thought it would be interesting at this stage of my life to attempt to do a true family novel that spans several generations, that spans 50 years.”
What he originally thought might be his last novel morphed into volume one of a trilogy. “The next volume” – which he hasn’t written – ”jumps forward by several decades and then the third volume will jump something closer to the present. But the present is such a damn moving target these days. I’m happy to put off dealing with the present for another volume.” Crossroad’s subtitle is A Key to All Mythologies, Volume 1. Sound familiar? It’s the title of the never-to-be-finished, never-to-be read magnum opioid of Rev. Edward Casaubon, the aging, desiccated dullard who sucks the life out of young Dorothea Brooke in George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Franzen’s (mostly younger) detractors can try all they want to rev their own reputations by taking down Elder Jonathan, calling him old-fashioned and out of touch: This time, Franzen has beaten them to the punchline.
In Crossroads, Franzen sets out to track nothing less than the evolution of an American Dream, from its optimistic peak in the early 1970s to its stark, dark, sad and relentlessly split pessimism today. Volume 1 is about innocence, and losing it, and – this being Franzen – trying to rediscover it, in a much reduced but more realistic form. Paradise is lost, but another man-made paradise greater still may lie just over the horizon, at least until it too comes a cropper.
Franzen’s fictional process is as follows: He invents a fictional character and filter, and then strains his consciousness through it. “I’m not a natural fan of auto-fiction,” he says of the current rage for fictionalized autobiography (see Sheila Heti and Tao Lin and even Sally Rooney, among others). That’s exactly the kind of cranky, provocative, Old-Man-Franzen crack that earns him outrage (and therefore free publicity) on Twitter. “To me, going straight at one’s own experience in a linear, direct way is not the way to get at the deep, dark stuff. Because I just have too much shame and too much of a sense of privacy to ever reveal that stuff directly. The mechanism for me has always been to invent a character who is clearly not like me, and to outfit that character with a story that is not my story, and then – in the course of imagining that character in that story – draw on the stuff I otherwise could not directly talk about. You know, little that happens in Kafka – as far as we know – actually happened to Kafka. He did not camp outside a castle trying to gain an audience. He was not arrested. And he certainly did not turn into a bug. He invented other situations.”
Franzen admits, however, that there are other ways to write. This agreeableness is a newer feature of the older Franzen, and parallels the ebbing snarkiness of his novels. (“He hates his characters” was a common complaint among Franzen critics.) After all, this is a guy who has always known how to create a commotion. He got his novel (The Corrections) deselected as an Oprah Winfrey selection after he questioned just how meaningful such a selection was for anything except sales. (They’ve since made up; the book is reported to have sold more than 1.5 million copies in hardcover.) He routinely insults everyone on Twitter. (He claims no one with a social media account can write good fiction.) He infuriated legions on both sides of the climate change debate when he published “What if we stopped pretending?,” an essay in which he maintained that living with climate change is now just as important as trying (hopelessly) to reverse it.
Here is something surprising about Franzen: Talking to him, it’s easy to forget how famous he is. After he published the reviled and admired (and best-selling) Freedom, for instance, Time magazine put him on its cover beside the headline “Great American Novelist.” That wattage of accolade has ruined many a gifted writer. But if anything, Franzen has used his fame to retreat from public view.
He doesn’t write non-fiction unless a subject truly grips him, and hence hasn’t written anything in two years. He sold his apartment on New York’s Upper East side – he wasn’t using it – and moved permanently to low profile Santa Cruz. “Mostly,” he claims, “I’m able to live a very ordinary life. I have the good fortune of having been in a relationship with a woman, Kathy Chetkovich, since 1998. [Crossroads is dedicated to her, his second “spouse-equivalent.”] I was a goofy, broke, skinny kid who had published a couple of novels many years earlier when I got together with her. And that continuity of being with someone who knew me and seemed to like me when I was in that position has been a real steadying force.”
He insists he never wanted to be famous. ”And to my surprise The Corrections did really well, and suddenly I was a different kind of writer. And it has always sat a little uncomfortably with me. I was suddenly not just the writer of the words I’d published but also a public figure onto which people could project things – a kind of second self who went by my name and followed me around. As long as I had only one self, I took its privacy for granted. After The Corrections, I had to take more active practical and psychological steps to defend it. The last thing you want is to let your public self into the writing process. The results are never pretty.”
The pandemic made hiding easier. He spent four months finishing Crossroads, and another two tinkering with the text as his first readers reported in. He built a bookcase. “I really, really cleaned the garage. And then I suffered the way a super-privileged person suffered, which was: I was stuck at home. Finally, I had nothing else to do. So much sooner than I might have liked. I set about thinking about the next novel.” Normally, he says, “two years is a good break.”
He watched TV, too. The Corrections and Purity were both optioned for television. Both attempts languished. Franzen hopes the deeper pace of Crossroads will finally help it onto the screen.
But even on this point he is sanguine, calmly resigned. “On the one hand,” he says, “I take a certain pride in the failure to put my novels on a screen, a triumph for the novel as a form. On the other hand, I would love to see what great actors could do with this material because you get a lot of value added if it goes right.”
He thinks TV has upped its game. “People follow Succession, whose third season I’m greatly looking forward to, in the same way they would wait for the installments of Dickens back in the day. And TV has gotten so good – which is to say, has partaken of some of the central tenets of literature, like moral ambiguity and internal contradiction of character – that it affords some of the same pleasures. It will never do what a novel can. The world has been constructed for you when you watch a visual form. The novel, on the other hand, gets roots into you because you are actively involved in creating the world as you read it. So I think novels aren’t going anywhere. But it’s true that perhaps – well, certainly I read fewer novels than I used to because I have to spend more time watching good television.”
The rest of the time, Jonathan Franzen does what all of us do, which is get older and closer to dying – perhaps his most persistent theme. (He has a degree in German literature, after all.) He thinks about his parents more now that he is the age they were when he knew them best.
What hasn’t changed, at least for famous fractious Jonathan Franzen, is how difficult it is, still, to write a novel. He approaches the challenge the way Rev. Hildebrandt approaches a moral dilemma – in a panic.
“There are extremely thoughtful novelists,” Franzen says, “who say, ‘Well, I have an idea, and I’m just going to make an outline of a book, and then I’m going to write the book from the outline.’” He isn’t one of them. But, “however painful it is, it’s better to start a novel with the feeling you have no idea how to do it. So that the writing of a novel is a process of discovering how to do it. Obviously I have a body of skills now that make it easier, but I’m still terrified. The refrain is still I don’t know what this book is about. I don’t know if I have a book.” It was a refrain he repeated throughout the writing of Crossroads. “It seemed to me that I had gotten stuck in sort of small potato land.” He devoted 40 pages to the consequences of a teenage girl being kissed for the first time, gave 85 pages over to a single one of Marion’s therapy sessions. “Like, what am I doing? Is there a novel here? And that doubt, although it is excruciating to experience, also tells me that I have not lost the adventure of learning how to write a novel.”
And the reward for writing one? “Time becomes very different. It both speeds up and slows down. And it makes me happy.” Pause for thinking. “I’m all the more grateful when I can get into a piece of writing and have that paradoxical sense of sitting down at 7:30 in the morning and finding out it’s suddenly 1 o’clock, because I’ve been working. The paradoxical part is that I don’t know where that time went. And yet it feels like life was paused in a good way. I defeated the passage of time for a little while.” That’s one of the consolations of reading Crossroads.
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