Jonathan Franzen’s evolution as a novelist makes for a satisfying story: he has gradually weaned himself off the postmodernist “systems novel” in favour of the realist “novel of character”, given up encyclopaedically charting an entire culture and settled for minutely dissecting a family. The trajectory, in Franzen’s telling, entailed a kind of personal growth: from flaunting his cleverness to pursuing emotional honesty, from self-display to self-examination, from exhibiting his knowledge about “issues” to investigation of “the primary psychic stuff inside me”.
Appropriately, Franzen describes this evolution as a familial, indeed oedipal, psychodrama. The influence of his father, “who admired scholars for their intellect and their large vocabularies”, marks his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), in which the domestic crisis of the Probst family is eclipsed by a complex conspiratorial plot, evidence of a desire to prove his intellectual seriousness through emulating the smart postmodernists – Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo et al.
The Corrections (2001), Franzen’s third, best-selling novel, which rocketed him to literary superstardom, represents a hybrid, mid-way point, a “softened DeLilloism”, as the critic James Wood put it, the Lambert family centre-stage but containing “leftovers” from his prior ambition to write a “social-realist masterpiece”. Now, with Crossroads, his sixth novel, the first of a planned trilogy, the transformation is complete. A work of “pure realism”, as he put it in a recent interview, which abandons concepts for “the feel for relationships” he inherited from his mother, “a lifelong anti-elitist”, Crossroads “was the long-postponed victory of my mother over my father”.
The softened aesthetic arrives with a mellower ethic: rather than “inflict[ing] painful knowledge” on his “comically blundering characters”, as Franzen once described his approach to The Corrections, he is more interested in “joining the characters in their dream”. His mother, Franzen said, “would have appreciated that [in Crossroads]. . . I love all the characters, that I’m not making fun of anyone. I’m taking them as they are.” The kindness to his characters is matched by a generosity towards his readers, to whose pleasure and entertainment Franzen is committed.
Franzen’s friendly authorial ethos shares much with the philosophy of “Crossroads”, the cultish Christian youth group at the centre of the book. More group therapy than pious gathering, its staged confrontations and screaming exercises reward – demand – emotional display and bluntness, cushioned by unconditional acceptance of others. The material of the new novel is familiar – the fraught relations between two generations of a dysfunctional family in a Midwestern suburb, a floundering marriage, the spectre of adultery – and, as in earlier novels, Franzen rotates between family members, each of whose perspectives he expertly inhabits. The Lamberts in St Jude in the 1990s (The Corrections) and the Berglunds in St Paul in the 2000s (Freedom) have been replaced by the Hildebrandts in the 1970s in New Prospect, a prosperous suburb of Chicago, where Russel (“Russ”) is an associate pastor, entitling him to live in the “Crappier Parsonage” with his wife Marion and their children – Clem, Becky, Perry and Judson.
Franzen’s embrace of character plays out in his style: where his early prose crackled with the desire to impress and amuse – straying into technical vocabularies and relishing wordplay and imagery – his mature style is plain and largely free of metaphor, aiming to provide what he calls “transparent access” to his stories. The restraint is a measure of his commitment to his characters – cleverness and comedy are only permitted in their voices, and seldom at their expense. Consider, for example, how Franzen’s unwanted sandwiches have changed. In 2001, a character “unwrapped a sandwich and opened it to a slice of bologna on which the texture of bread was lithographed in yellow mustard. His shoulders slumped. He wrapped the sandwich up again loosely in its foil and looked at Denise as if she were the latest torment of his day.” Two decades on: “The sandwich on the plate was ham and Swiss on rye. He was grateful that she’d made it, too sick with exhaustion to want it.” The Corrections’ fine-grained image has been superseded, in Crossroads, by unadorned description, and close observation of expressive behaviour by directly reported feeling.
Franzen’s gift for notating consciousness and evoking psychological states is undiminished, from the subtle – Perry “felt a little downward tug inside him, the slipping of a gear, the first shadow of the end of feeling well” – to the extreme and often substance-fuelled (Crossroads showcases varieties of stonedness, from the paranoid to the transcendent). Even in this more subdued, frugal mood, Franzen is capable of verbal inventiveness and emotional precision: when Perry turns up at the house of a friend he has offended, the friend greets him seeming “pre-annoyed”.
But the gain in “transparency” – we’re not distracted by marvelling at metaphor or required to deduce emotion from behaviour – is achieved through a studied loss of detail. At times, Franzen’s depictions of states of mind have a set-piece quality, as if insufficiently routed through the personality and body of the character. For example, in the elated aftermath of a first kiss, Becky’s parents’ alarm “wasn’t the usual cruel morning sound but a promise of everything the day ahead might hold”; she avoids mirrors, fearful “of finding the change as invisible from the outside as it felt momentous from within”. Such passages struck me not as false exactly but generic.
Franzen believes “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness”. Is “connectedness” achieved in the impression that Becky’s post-kiss glow could be mine, or yours, or anybody’s? To connect you need differentiation, without which there’s just homogeneity. One goes to characters, as to people, not just to identify with them but to collide with the bracing edge, the reassuring solidity, of otherness. Franzen has said he always makes the mistake of “trying to write from the top down” – from big ideas – and has “to learn the hard way to begin with character”. There may be evidence of a different mistake here, of starting with “the primary psychic stuff” inside all of us – universal human drives, patterns of family conflict – rather than the particular form such stuff takes in living people.
Most of the novel unfolds on a single afternoon in 1971, in which nearly all the Hildebrandts are undergoing an identity crisis. After a confrontation with his older sister Becky, the troubled, intelligent Perry decides to get rid of his stock of marijuana and spend the proceeds on a camera for his younger brother Judson. Clem, beset by a different addiction, decides he must renounce sex with his girlfriend and give up his student deferment of his draft to Vietnam. Becky, beautiful and squeaky clean, has a religious conversion and falls in love. Russ, meanwhile, is pursuing a younger, recently widowed parishioner, and Marion is preparing to visit an ex-lover in California.
Each character, introduced in the thick of a moral dilemma hingeing on a shameful pleasure, can seem too single-minded, an implausibly undistracted locus of conflict between appetite and conscience, badness and goodness – acutely preoccupied but not aimlessly confused enough. Occasional slips reveal an author perhaps too in command of over-familiar material, or who knows the workings of unhappy families well but hasn’t quite got to know this one: Clem’s “political views were a perfect replica of his father’s, and they must have been authentic, because they survived his mother’s praise of them”. The final clause has a whiff of the punchline: not a discovery of a psychological truth through close observation of his inventions, a pre-prepared insight applied to a new scenario.
The under-furnished characters may be an effect of the concentration of incident. There was something pleasingly unwieldy about the intersecting narratives of The Corrections and Freedom, whereas Crossroads is more streamlined, the cuts between perspectives brisker, chapters ending on near-cliff hangers and opening with lines such as, “The time had come to take action…” The hyper-expressive Crossroads culture might sound like a propitious environment for a novel, but the characters are too often in confrontation mode, explicitly discussing the state of their relationship. The reader is left deprived of subtext, the tragi-comic realism of what people can’t say to each other finding perverse or trivial expression in what they can. Crossroads lacks the domestic paraphernalia, incidental folklore, the random, revealing stuff that persuade you that a family has a history that extends beyond the action of the novel.
Franzen’s Crossroadsy attitude to his creations is quite unlike our relationships with real friends and relatives, whom we’re mean to, impatient with, and laugh at all the time. I don’t just want to understand characters, but to feel infuriated, repulsed, bewildered by them. The finer brushwork and thicker paint of Franzen’s earlier, more raucous canvases produced more vivid, flawed, funnier personalities. The “pure realism” of Crossroads sometimes feels purified of the clutter of reality – the behavioural debris that provides it with texture and comedy – and its living, breathing people reduced, through Franzen’s unwavering warmth, to anodyne essences; a novel of character sublimated into a novel of souls.
Fourth Estate, 592pp, £20
This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places