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This new book by Jonathan Franzen, sigh, is terrific.
In fact, “Crossroads” is one of his best, overflowing with family crisis, morality, mundanity — a nearly 19th century potboiler of ordinariness, across 600 pages, set in suburban Chicago. It is the first of a trilogy saddled with a weighty title: “The Key to All Mythologies,” itself a nod to “Middlemarch.” It is, in other words, that most Franzen of Franzen family epics, civic, private, encompassing, engrossing. Which will annoy certain people. Franzen, child of Western Springs, chronicler of contemporary America, Exhibit A of the Great White Male American Novelist (circa 2021), reflexively detested, never arrives on the page now without a huff, a herald or a hand-wringing. He seems to publish only once he has held a finger in the wind and decoded what ails us. Which is a novelist’s job description.
But since this is Franzen, because the haters don’t even want to look at his smug face, because of his tortured history of irritating social media and Oprah’s Book Club (he was hesitant when Oprah picked “The Corrections”) it gets hard to ignore reputation (snob, Luddite, Oprah denier), and, well ... you know you’re divisive when even the Audubon Society has problems with you.
“It’s not clear what the Audubon Society did to piss off Jonathan Franzen,” the editor of Audubon magazine once wrote, in response to Franzen’s 2015 New Yorker piece on the conservation movement’s perceived failing to protect threatened, endangered species.
Franzen, in a sense, is the Kanye of the literati.
Too vital to brush off, too frustrating to embrace without reservations, all of the noise serving as a distraction from the vaunted ambition of the work itself. However, unlike Kanye, Franzen only hailed from greater Chicago and was raised in suburban St. Louis — in Webster Groves, which, for what it’s worth, is the hometown of Harry Caray. His father was an engineer, his mother a homemaker and Franzen was never encouraged to be a writer. For a while he collected seismic data at Harvard; for much longer, he was a well-reviewed but little-known novelist of narrow aims. Then, after “The Corrections” in 2001, and with every new bestselling publication, he seemed to gather up the cultural swirl of the country itself, as seen in rumpus rooms, at kitchen tables, family dinners, his characters weathering social media, foodie scenes, the sanctimony of universities, Iraq, WikiLeaks.
“Crossroads,” both familiar and a leap ahead, is Franzen first period piece. It tells the story of the Hildebrandts of fictional New Prospect, Illinois. The father is a pastor, the mother is pulling away, the kids are drawing apart, to religion, drugs, purpose. But though it’s set in the 1970s, it captures how the social upheavals of the ‘70s didn’t continue into the ‘80s but found a wormhole to the 2020s. Presumably, new installments of the trilogy will trace the moral life of the Hildebrandts to today. The questions facing them in 1971 — can you live a moral life if you’re registering your goodness? What are the blind spots of a well-meaning conscience? How can you act as a good person? — ripple on.
The following interview with Jonathan Franzen, conducted on the phone from his home in Santa Cruz, California, is a shorter version of a longer conversation, edited and condensed for clarity and length:
Q: Your novels are often set in the Midwest, but why set a trilogy in suburban Chicago?
A: I wanted it near a major metropolitan area in the Midwest. I wanted it big because my recollection of the early 1970s is strongest ‘73 onward. I was in suburban St. Louis and the stuff that was happening in suburban St. Louis was probably happening a year or two earlier in Chicago. For that reason, the book begins in late 1971. I could be more assured of getting the cultural references and spirit right. But also, gosh, the Midwest just recurs in my work, right? I was born in suburban Chicago, I knew Chicago starting from the mid-70s on. Both of my brothers moved to Chicago, and with a novel, it’s nice to feel like you know the streets in a place. It’s that extra research you don’t have to do.
Q: Why begin specifically in 1971?
A: Because it’s hard to imagine a decade that lays more lasting memories. From 11 to 21-years old, that was the ‘70s for me — I was 11 when they started, 21 when they ended. I became a person in that decade. The first time I kissed someone, first time I had sex — all in the ‘70s. Also weather experiences. Faulkner said something about a person being the sum of their experiences with weather, and it’s the first time I was aware of spring, the first time I remember a snowstorm. And also, being an adolescent then, I was surrounded by kids doing drugs and in trouble, but I was part of a youth fellowship then. It was all at hand and crazily, I had never written about it in my fiction.
Q: You were part of a Christian youth fellowship.
A: And it was formative. I was a Cub Scout then tried Boy Scouts in 7th grade and I hated it so much, I couldn’t bear to go. My father was not happy to see me drop out of Boy Scouts. He said I needed to do something. There was a youth group at church and I was obliged to try it out, and it was a lot better than Boy Scouts. There were girls and activities and you got to go on retreats — on those retreats there weren’t nasty high-school-age Boy Scouts playing pranks on you. No, it was definitely out with the cool kids. Half of which were female. It was a very liberal church and the fellowship was even more progressive. Because it was the ‘70s, Christianity had not yet been taken away from progressives. It was my schooling in feminism. I think the first time I heard the word “patriarchy” was then, 10th grade. The values that still matter to me — honesty, authenticity, kindness — were at the center of that experience, though if I was headed in that direction or the fellowship gave me that push, I don’t know. But it was big for me.
Q: Was your family religious?
A: Not really. We went to church but, no. We religiously went to church! My father thought it was part of being a civilized person, that structures like that were part of the glue that kept society together, and for my mother, it was a social imperative. It was unthinkable not to belong to a church, though I don’t think either of (my parents) believed in anything supernatural or miraculous. I was a science kid, and if you’re like me, you find miraculous stuff unsupportable, certainly unprovable. Intellectually I was like Clem (the oldest son in “Crossroad), completely unimpressed with the argument of anything metaphysical. Yet starting in the first grade I was hearing Bible stories. You become steeped in the liturgy and church calendar but especially, in these Bible stories. Which are powerful. Through sheer repetition, something happens in you and they become foundational texts, even with the absence of what you might call true faith.
Q: Why make the family patriarch a pastor then?
A: This book was supposed to be the first part of a larger book and for reasons pertaining to later sections in that (version), it was important the father have a Mennonite background, that he come from a family of ministers. But there is no reason intrinsically in “Crossroads” to choose that vocation. I mean, the Mennonites are so out there — not my thing. But I do have considerable intellectual respect for their positions.
Q: Which part?
A: That notion of, hey, you can read the Bible and the Gospels and try to imagine what Jesus would want our lives to look like. They take that idea super seriously, probably because of a history of being prosecuted. But there’s also a genuine intense respect for the message of the Gospels. They came up with a hardcore way of living and I would have no interest in that, but it is more consistent with the fundamental message. All due respect to the Catholic Church, I don’t think Jesus was imagining a pharisaical megastructure of a church following in his wake. You get no glimpse of that anywhere in four Gospels. As I said, I respect Mennonites but it’s also not my world, so I am not going to set the book in a tiny community in Indiana. I have been reading evolutionary science books lately that are somewhat pertinent to the sequel to this novel and what makes (the genetic variation in) evolution work is random. Certain gene combinations get expressed in random ways and sometimes those get selected. It’s like writing a novel. When it’s done, it seems of a piece and well planned. Which is the way nature works, as if it were proceeding according to plan. Fundamentalists say it is. But in fact, at least with a novel, it starts with random chunks. I wasn’t writing about my fellowship exactly. There was a rivalry between professors at the college I went to; they had offices next door and hadn’t spoken, literally, in 15 years. I thought that was funny and horrible. So who could Russ (the main pastor in “Crossroads”) be in a not-speaking relationship with? See, you start with these random scraps then suddenly you have a whole story.
Q: You’ve become known for grand gestures that seem to take stock of the way we live. But is that fair with “Crossroads,” which is a period novel? What were you trying to accomplish?
A: I would be interested in your guess. I want to write a story that takes care of you and gives you a good time. Makes you laugh. Maybe you’re inclined to cry. If you are tempted to those things, I don’t have anything else to say, in terms of intention. There were some crafty considerations. I wanted to write a more quietly realistic story than I have attempted. I was trying to do a whole book where no one is famous and no one is rich. There is no one with any direct connection to major happenings, and no external craziness — no new technology, no earthquakes. Just straight forward realism, which was a challenge. The present is always tugging at my sleeve. So it made it easier that it was set in the past. But I also feel readers should draw their own conclusions. I actually don’t like to look back. The polarization in this country and where it comes from, I was writing about it in “Freedom.” That rage — that was obvious 10 years ago. I have been writing about Silicon Valley, I have been writing about social media. Why do that now?
Q: You do tie things together so well, I wonder: Do you follow conspiracies?
A: A little, with sadness. I was very into Pynchon and that conspiratorial worldview when I was younger. I have included conspiracy in my own work because they are fun. It’s harder to know how much to take something like QAnon. How seriously do its own followers take the narrators of conspiracy? I suspect, within those communities, it’s not that much different from my enjoyment of Pynchon. Except in this case, it’s interactive.
Q: You became a household name at exactly the same time as the Sept. 11 attacks happened, when “The Corrections” came out that same week. Two decades later, now that there are expectations on you, and now that people feel certain ways about you, is the work harder?
A: The last 20 years is not a monolith. I have made mistakes and upset some people with various strongly-held opinions, but mainly I have learned not to care very much what people say. Which is to say, with effort, I have managed to preserve at least an illusion of private ordinary life. That has to do with the continuity of friendships and my domestic situation. I feel motivated by something like a readership. That’s something I didn’t have pre-“Corrections.” Then I had the sense that no one noticed or cared. I do think I am getting better, slowly, a little bit, as a novelist. There are certain things at the micro-craft level of page and sentence that I really know how to do now and how it should all feel. But I am getting older and I don’t have 35-year-old energy. I’ve also used massive amounts of personal experience. And so more and more has to be invented from scratch. In short, a greater demand for invention, coupled with declining energy.
Q: You’re the Elton John of novelists. Always retiring.
A: Because I am so completely spent at the end of each book, and the only time I give an interview is when a new book is out, so I am always being caught at that lowest ebb.
Q: “Crossroads” will still be a trilogy?
A: If I live long enough.
Q: You don’t feel hemmed in by a trilogy, having to follow through?
A: I am that lazy kind of person who needs a deadline or a contract in order to get working. Complete freedom of choice is not the novelist’s friend. You can write anything. How do you pick? In that sense having choices made in advance, having a universe of possibility narrowed, it’s a plus. We don’t know what this trilogy might look like. In a way, I thought I would only finish six novels (in his lifetime), so by that yardstick, I am done.