book review

A So-So Franzen Novel Is Still Better Than Most Books. That Said …

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

It is 1971. The cars are boxy, the coats are sheepskin, the lapels are yawning, the potatoes are served in a cream sauce, and the rec rooms are paneled in knotty pine. We are in New Prospect, a fictional suburb of Chicago. It is winter. A midwestern family is in crisis. This could only be a Jonathan Franzen novel. In the case of Crossroads (out October 5), it is the first installment of a planned trilogy about the Hildebrandts, a unit consisting of a husband and wife who hate each other and four children who are, in descending order from the oldest: a brain, a princess, a basket case, and a 9-year-old who is too young to conform to the Breakfast Club taxonomy of humankind.

Russ Hildebrandt, the head of the family and an associate pastor at the local church, is not a fun guy. He’s a nurser of grudges, a misreader of signals, a dullard, a clown. His mode of communication, both vocationally and recreationally, is the sermon. Nearly everyone dislikes him, including me. Filling out the ranks of Russ’s haters are his children, the hot parishioner he lusts after, a large portion of his congregation, and, eventually, Russ himself.

Russ’s nemesis is Rick Ambrose, the church’s director of youth programming. Rick is young, cool, and mustachioed. He cusses. He once owned a motorcycle. He has a mesmeric effect on the adolescents of the fellowship, partly due to his belief that the teens should constantly hug one another as an expression of their Christian calling. Russ, on the other hand, drives a decrepit wagon and can neither peel himself away from scripture nor pull off a shaggy beard. (When he makes a stab at the beard, his wife tells him he looks like John the Baptist.) As one of the youths puts it, Russ is a “fucking dork.”

Half of Crossroads takes place on a single pre-Christmas winter day, the rest in that day’s aftermath. The story is delivered through what Franzen has called “interlocking novellas.” The best of these come from the perspective of Russ’s wife, Marion, and their son Perry. Marion has a troubled past — psychotic episodes, sexual trauma, abortion — which she reveals to a psychiatrist whose office is discreetly camouflaged inside a dentistry practice. (Anyone waiting to see the shrink could plausibly be waiting to get a cavity filled.) Marion’s confession sets off unexploded ordnance in her psyche and causes her to go on a rampage of murderous delusions, reckless behavior, crash dieting, and way too many cigarettes.

Perry is a sophomore in high school, shifty and stormy and clever. He is an indiscriminate gulper of drugs, a dealer of weed, a menace to his siblings. At a Christmas party, he gets wasted on glogg and buttonholes a priest and a rabbi to ask whether goodness can ever truly be its own reward or whether, consciously or not, it always serves some personal instrumentality. (The answer is: both.) When the party hostess notices Perry’s disinhibition and accuses him of getting into the glogg, which is not for children, he freaks out and sobs, “Do you think I enjoy being damned?” Reading Perry’s downward-spiraling chapters reminded me of a subway ride I took in July, when a woman boarded the downtown 1 train at 72nd with a stroller and immediately leaned over her baby to whisper, “Mommy lost her marbles and doesn’t have two screws left.” A perfect line, better than anything a screenwriter could dream up. Perry starts out with a slight marble deficit; by the end of the book, he has none left and no screws, either.

The other characters are less interesting than Marion and Perry, which is tough because they make up roughly three-fifths of the novel. The structure that worked beautifully for Franzen before feels herky-jerky in Crossroads, with each shift in perspective stalling the book’s momentum. The real problem is Russ, who is a chalk outline where a character should be. His suffering is shallow, and his grievances are petty. This is a guy whose life truly and comprehensively sucks: His parents have disowned him, his wife is staging a one-woman mutiny, the hot parishioner turns out to be a froth of nothingness, and he has squandered whatever spiritual influence he once held over the community. So why isn’t he catastrophically angry, sad, vengeful? Why does Russ drift along in a mood of lightly fluctuating resentment and unease with occasional flares of frustration? Why does his suffering have few consequences? Why is he so boring?

He is boring even on topics that wouldn’t seem to abide boringness, like adulterous desire. When Russ’s mind turns to the hot parishioner: “He felt a melting warmth in his loins.” When the parishioner hugs him: “Her warmth entered his body and funneled straight into his loins.” When she compliments him: “She could hardly have said anything more warming to his heart and loins.” (Whenever Russ’s loins came up, I pictured a pepper-crusted cut of beef being turned slowly in a pan.) Another topic that would seem snoozeproof is when Russ exchanges lacerating words with a Navajo man who is infuriated by the pastor’s clumsy attempts at outreach during a service trip. “That’s the thing about other cultures,” Russ muses after the argument. “An outsider can never really understand what’s going on.” Well, yes.

It is demonstrably possible for a novelist to write about dreary characters without producing dreary text, but too many of the Hildebrandt family are boring in exactly the same way: stubborn, narrow, flummoxed, risk averse. Where are their minds? With the exception of Marion and Perry — the designated lunatics — it is an impalpable family. Those sections are revelatory, combustible, and funny, and when I rounded onto them I could hardly stop myself from fist-pumping and yelping, “Franzen’s back, baby!” And then Russ or his loins or one of his other two children would plod around, with their turnips and their long johns and their self-pity, and my resting heart rate would reinstate itself.

Those other two children: I haven’t even named them yet. They are Becky and Clem, but they could be called Fiber Cracker and Memorial Day Traffic, or Company-Wide Email and Jury Duty. One of them is in high school, and the other is in college. One of them is popular, and the other is not. They are both nice. They say things like Okay and Wow and Whoa and Nope and Yep and Gosh and Yeah.

In the course of writing this, I mentioned to three people (separately) that I was reading the new Jonathan Franzen novel, and they all nodded and said (near-identically), “I have complicated feelings about Jonathan Franzen.” You know who else has complicated feelings about Jonathan Franzen? Jonathan Franzen. He has written and talked about his writing in a way that rubs some critics in a stop-doing-our-job sort of way but that I find pleasingly transparent and generous. There’s an instructive New Yorker essay from 2002 in which he proposes a distinction between two models of how literary fiction might relate to its audience. One, Franzen suggests, is the Status model: the idea that great novelists are geniuses who produce works of high art, and if the public is too dumb to get it, well, that’s no reflection on the quality of the work. The second is what he calls the Contract model, in which an author serves at the pleasure of his reader and ought to provide accessible connection. Contract books, Franzen writes, are the kinds of books his mother would have liked. (Rude.) The essay is long and not entirely coherent, but the incoherence, I think, is intentional, or if not that, then at least it’s effective in proving Franzen’s own ambivalence: He confesses to subscribing to both models and toggling nervously between them.

I don’t co-sign Franzen’s Contract vs. Status binary (or any of the many similar divisions floated by earlier critics and writers that it echoes), but it doesn’t matter when reading Franzen, because he does. Crossroads is an experiment in going Full Contract. It is a novel of family dynamics, the interior life, the soul — the very material at which he consistently excels! As an experiment, it should be successful. But I miss the belligerently brainy and ambitious version of the author who plumped his novels with weird words, arcane shit, and glorious tangents. This book contains fewer than five words an eighth-grader might be moved to look up in a dictionary, and the plot beeps along like a healthy reading on an EKG monitor with no tricky shifts or unparseable turns. Franzen has scrubbed away his talent for think-y digressions about the pharmaceutical industry or Lithuanian black markets or the Internet or bird-watching. There are Big Themes allegedly at work in Crossroads — consumerism, Christianity, conformity, hypocrisy, race, class — but they play in the background like a nearly inaudible score, with rare increases in volume when, for example, Russ interacts with the Black minister of an inner-city church.

Look, even a so-so Jonathan Franzen novel is better than most novels. There are breathtaking sentences in this one! Several dozen of them! But I would argue that this ratio of breathtaking to inert sentences is not favorable, not in a novel of 592 pages. There are also sentences like “The only thing better than seeing and smelling and tasting her vulva was the moment when he got to put his penis in it; and therein lay the problem.” Sentences that you can’t imagine any reader, not in a million years, underlining for reasons other than perhaps to scribble a little ? beside them.

The downside of writing two miraculous works of fiction (The Corrections and Freedom) and a really good one (Purity) is that what follows of your output will be evaluated against that standard, and by that standard Crossroads comes across as not only muddy and unstylish but determinedly and self-righteously so — like showing up at a party wearing a baggy brown turtleneck and getting annoyed when people don’t compliment your outfit.

However, if you elect not to read this one, you’re also opting out of the next two novels in the planned trilogy, which could mean spending the next 20 years wandering in a Franzenless desert. This sounds awful to me because even when Franzen misses, he takes a big swing — and not a lot of other novelists can say the same. It’s a good thing to live in a world where writers do that, even if only a few, and even if not always well. So I would suggest the following: Amble over to your neighborhood bookstore and locate a copy of Crossroads. It will be stacked right near the front, perhaps even in the window display. Handle the book gingerly, so you don’t render it unsellable with your filthy hands, and give the first ten pages a whirl. If you like those pages, proceed with your purchase; those first ten pages are an accurate sample of the 582 to come. And if you don’t? Hey, you tried.

A So-So Franzen Novel Is Better Than Most Books. That Said …