Jonathan Franzen may be hated on Twitter, but serious readers love him
While working on his third novel, the crisis in American literature became a crisis for Franzen personally. The book stalls, immobilized by the weight of its ambition. To feel “an overwhelming imperative to engage explicitly” in the great problems of his time – to feel obligated to be not only a novelist, but a American novelist – Franzen froze.
To put his book back in motion, he had to revise his whole sense of fiction. Lowering his views, he stopped trying to write the Great American Social Novel. Instead, he would deepen the tribulations of a single Midwestern family. And if he wrote about this family in a penetrating enough way, maybe he would end up saying something implicit but profound about America as a whole.
The resulting novel was The corrections (2001). In every way, it was Franzen’s groundbreaking book. Suddenly he was relevant. Indeed, it was too relevant for his liking. When Oprah chose the novel for her book club, Franzen publicly admitted that the accolade had “cringe”. Oprah quickly took him off her show. Franzen is a difficult man to please. This partly explains why he is such a good novelist. But it seems possible that this makes him a bit of a jerk in person.
Nine years passed before Franzen published his next novel, Freedom (2010). Again, reviews and sales were excellent. Again, Oprah invited him to her book club. This time, he graciously agreed, and the two patched things up on the air.
Franzen’s next novel was Purity (2015), which directly targeted certain major contemporary topics that bothered him, including the Internet. The book sold poorly by Franzen’s standards, and he exposed his main flaw as a novelist. His touch is not really light. It achieves its effects through painfully bald description and endless stacking of details, not stylistic refinement. So when he gets angry, his prose doesn’t get any funnier or more inventive. It just gets more aggressive.
In crossroads, Franzen is playing on its strengths. Like with The corrections, crossroads probes the dynamics of a Midwestern family. This time they are called the Hildebrandts. Franzen is interested in it so thoroughly that the current novel, which is 580 pages long, is only the first volume of a Hildebrandt trilogy project. With a nod to Walking middle, and with his tongue visibly in the cheek, Franzen titled this trilogy “A Key to All Mythologies”.
Franzen is now 62 years old and the Hildebrandt trilogy could well be his last opus. Above all, the saga takes place in the past. When crossroads ends, we are still in 1971. Franzen therefore seems to have given up his struggle to keep pace with the hyperkinetic American present.
Plus, he seems to have doubled, or tripled, the proposition that by chronicling a family’s misfortune he can say deeper things about America’s ills. In crossroads, the bet is won. Families are Franzen’s strong point. I don’t know of any other novelist who writes about them so ruthlessly. You keep asking yourself: is it really I am going to go the? And he keeps going. It makes you uncomfortable. It makes you twist.
There is a character in Purity who plans to launch a magazine called The complicating. The publication would not bend to the left or to the right. It would “punch holes on both sides at the same time.” Its sole purpose would be to tell the truth.
This is what Franzen’s books do. Like any good novelist, he is an accomplice. He insists that we are all made of twisted wood and that there are no easy answers in life. No wonder Twitter hates him. But the popularity of his novels confirms that the world still contains a stubborn quorum of serious readers, ready to take on the challenges of serious books. East crossroads the great American novel? No, but the Great American Novel is a red herring, a mythical beast. Is it a great American novel, from a great American novelist? I don’t think there can be much debate on this.
The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from book publisher Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.