The Zealot

The Zealot

Jonathan Franzen’s Midwestern broods, like horsemen of the apocalypse, ride through his books heralding various endings: of eras, of bygone mores, of novels themselves.

Jonathan Franzen gives a speech at the Budapest International Book Festival on April 23, 2015. (Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 592 pp.

Before I read any of his novels, I knew Jonathan Franzen’s face, from the cover of Time. In the magazine’s story, which coincided with the release of his fourth work of fiction, Freedom, Franzen dramatized the ascetic intensity of his ideal writing environment: he had not only removed his laptop’s wireless card, so that the computer could no longer latch onto a WiFi network; he’d superglued an ethernet cable into one of its ports and then snipped the wire, to ensure that this hunk of plastic, metal, glass, and silicon would never be able to connect to the web again. It was a conspicuous and silly PR stunt, but it compelled me enough to start his new book. Who was this Luddite?

I read both Freedom and The Corrections on an iPod Touch, surely a form of reading Franzen would’ve hated, but it was the only place I was going to get his books for free during my senior year of high school. I illegally downloaded the e-book files and scrolled through their hundreds of pages on a 3.5-inch LCD screen. What emerged was a cautious appreciation for Franzen’s unfashionable disposition, his yeoman’s sense of craft, and his dedication to the ridiculous project of writing a great American novel. Later, I came to realize that his eternal faith in literature’s supremacy over other cultural forms had value all its own.

I bring up this personal history because the bizarre circumstances of my first time reading Franzen color everything that followed. Before I knew him as the (mostly) acclaimed, liberal, grumpy face of mainstream literary fiction, I thought of Franzen as but another star in a constellation that I had yet to be versed in (a college education, social media, nonethnic white people). He was an important writer for me as I crawled my way to an understanding of the world of literary magazines and book reviews, some of which implied that Freedom was better than (or as good as) books like Middlemarch, Humboldt’s Gift, and American Pastoral. One phrase in particular—from a rhapsodic series of “responses” published in a Brooklyn-based little magazine—is still jammed in my head: the novel in Franzen’s hands was a “feeling-machine.”

It was an accurate descriptor. I marveled at the nuts and bolts of Franzen’s books, which I could admire even from a handheld screen. His plots felt meticulously crafted, his sentences and structures well-oiled and efficient. Like John Updike before him, Franzen maintains careful control of narrative space (and an abiding, blue sense of humor), constantly sowing seeds to reap later. Consider, for instance, how a memorable scene from The Corrections—in which Chip, a disgraced professor, steals a piece of salmon from a high-end grocery store by stuffing it in his pants, where it “[spreads] down into [his] underpants like a wide, warm slug”—echoes another infamous passage hundreds of pages later, when Chip’s dementia-stricken father, Alfred, defecates in bed, and his turd slowly makes its way down his leg. This is all to say that Franzen’s books are readable, funny, and embraced by the mass market because he is exceptionally good at the basic task of novel writing. And the volatile fuel of his feeling-machines is one of the oldest power sources available to the Western novelist: the heterosexual family.

Of course, ever since its invention, humans have used the novel to work out our kinks about marriage and kinship and inheritance, but The Corrections and Freedom were infected with a unique sense of desperation and survival. Despite all the debasement of our times, these novels suggested that the family—and novels about families—could not just endure but explain modern life. The many catastrophes and redemptions that might strike the average bourgeois household were the only examples one needed to understand a place and time in America. His Midwestern broods, like horsemen of the apocalypse, rode through the books’ pages heralding various endings: of eras, of bygone mores, of novels themselves. Or at least that is what I gleaned from the soft white glow of my iPod screen.

After a brief and mostly unsuccessful detour into the world of whistleblowers and internet surveillance in a highbrow airport novel called Purity, Franzen returns to the nuclear family in Crossroads, the first in a planned trilogy about the generational traumas and transformations of the Hildebrandts, a suburban Chicago clan. Beginning in the winter of 1971 and following the beats of a liturgical calendar—from one season of the Advent to the next—Crossroads is perhaps Franzen’s fustiest book, orbiting themes that might seem as dusty and brittle as a communion wafer: God, faith, and sin.

Crossroads is ultimately concerned with temptation. It comes in the most predictable forms that Americans turned to in the early 1970s: literally sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But temptation also emerges in less obvious spheres, including charity, secularism, and family itself (either in starting one or leaving one behind). Misdeeds and indulgence haunt every corner of the novel, as does the question of what it means to be virtuous in a wicked era.

The Hildebrandt patriarch is Father Russ, an associate minister at a local church. He once considered himself a hip faith leader with pacifist politics but is now starting to feel retrograde. In an attempt to dig himself out of a rut, he harbors a desire to begin an affair with one of his parishioners. His four children are Clem, Perry, Becky, and Judson; the three eldest siblings resent their parents and seek escape through all the means available to middle-class teens—addiction, lust, armed conflict, marriage. Their mother, Marion, is the most complex and compelling character of the book. She lives in fear of a dark past that is littered with mania, unprotected sex, an illegal abortion, and a fanatic embrace of Catholicism that, in the intervening decades, has softened into mush. In order to reclaim her agency, she embarks on a crash diet and plans to leave Russ for a man she loved in her youth.

The dramatis personae is, on paper, not that interesting, the definition of vanilla: a church-bound family preoccupied with the appearance of goodness, but consumed by their desires. The time period feels familiar too, even though this is Franzen’s first work set primarily in the 1970s. For any novelist trying to tell an ambitious story about the origins of contemporary American crises, the end of the Vietnam War is a good place to start. Yet what is arresting about the drama of Crossroads is how it grants this middling family almost world-historical importance. Although some of the misery that awaits the characters is harrowing (neurasthenia, costly property damage, unplanned pregnancies), the Hildebrandts are representative rather than exceptional: “It’s not just me, by the way,” Marion says to her new therapist, in an early scene. “I think everyone is bad. I think badness is the fundamental condition of humanity.”

Franzen’s depiction of this therapy session is illustrative of how he mixes and muddles the intimate and the historical. While reflecting on her father’s suicide after the stock market crash of 1929, Marion thinks, “How like a mental illness a nation’s economy was! She later wondered how much longer, if the stock market hadn’t crashed when it did, her father’s manic period might have lasted, and whether, if his illness had set in later, he could have managed to be manic in the midst of a depression.” Haunted by her family history, Marion fears passing down the wrong things (or the wrong world) to her children.

Her brood is also obsessed with inheritances, whether hereditary or material. Becky wages a cold war against her family after she is forced to share money left to her by a disliked aunt with her brothers. Clem, the oldest child, becomes a reactionary in response to Russ’s self-satisfied liberalism. “He didn’t want to be like his father,” Franzen writes, “who merely professed to have sympathy for the underprivileged.” But more consequential than money or politics is the inheritance of the previous generation’s sins: Clem gives up his student draft deferment not only because he wants to hold himself to a higher standard but also to escape a college dalliance, which has awakened in him an insatiable lust. Marion worries that Perry has inherited her family’s history of mental disturbance; he suffers a rapid breakdown, which mirrors Marion’s own. Unaccompanied and drunk at a church holiday party, he asks a rabbi and a priest “whether goodness can ever truly be its own reward, or whether, consciously or not, it always serves some personal instrumentality.” He goes on: “How do I know if I’m really being good or if I’m just pursuing a sinful advantage?”

If Franzen’s prior family dramas conjured up the anxieties of certain decades, whether it was the speed and excess of the 1990s or the liberal malaise of the 2000s, Crossroads seeks to find something deeper in what a family can represent. If the Hildebrandts are an archetype for a losing battle against inevitable evil, they do more than just reflect 1970s decline. Their struggle feels more consequential and ancient. The Hildebrandts are the family that Franzen will spend the longest time chronicling; by examining the way their relationships fracture and mutate across decades, the trilogy will set out to show just how tenuous the concept of family became as we hurtled from one century to the next. In the Hildebrandts, Franzen almost seems to argue, we can witness the moment that the nuclear family came to an end.

Sin’s bedfellow is shame, and if there is a thread that runs through the entirety of Franzen’s work, it is humiliation and disgrace. Over and over again, his characters find themselves in situations so mortifying that their community shuns them. Whether it is a college professor who begins an affair with a student, a cocaine-addicted high schooler who becomes an arsonist, or an associate pastor kicked out of a youth group for his unseemly behavior around teenage girls, Franzen has always been comfortable in the company of the pathetic. In his fixation on dramatizing the fallout of a shameful public act, and in the ire that he has always attracted from the wider public, Franzen is one of the novelists who prefigured cancel culture. Yet surpassing shame for sin more directly and dutifully—dwelling not just on the afterlife of mortification but the afterlife itself—hints at a shift in Franzen’s broader project.

Franzen is not the only writer in recent times to obsess over faith and telos: Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, and Sheila Heti’s upcoming book, Pure Colour, are both replete with characters disquieted by higher powers. Franzen, like these writers, is a generational talent who is facing God in order to understand how spirituality and reverence once gave a trajectory to life—one that feels missing in a time when the future is so uncertain. But in Crossroads, the anxiety about a life unmoored from tradition and belief is more than just a projection into the present. The book harbors a genuine desire to tell its readers what its author believes in.

Franzen has admitted to being a bit of a zealot, though of a more aesthetic sort. In his words, he was once the “kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn’t share his particular faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times.” Yes, the sign of apocalypse for Franzen, as a younger, perhaps more self-serious man, was the waning relevance of the novel. Or, as he put it in a Harper’s essay in 1996: “The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture.” Franzen’s critics have pored over these words from time to time, to bemoan their inscrutability or annoyingness, but the essay is key to understanding the inner workings of Crossroads.

Late in the book, as the Hildebrandts are careening into disaster, Marion boards a plane from Los Angeles to Arizona, with a sense of calm that reached “the very bottom of her soul,” a peace granted by a belief that God’s plan for her has been set in motion. Franzen smuggles into all this rhapsodizing a moment in which Marion devours a novel on the flight, and in it Franzen himself seems to appear, placing in his character’s head an almost oracular statement of faith: “The dream of a novel,” Marion thinks, “was more resilient than other kinds of dreaming. It could be interrupted in mid-sentence and snapped back into later.” Franzen is not just praising the novel form—as both art and entertainment—but stating his belief in its ability to dive into the unconscious and give one a sense of bearing and place in the world.

Crossroads might be the summation of that statement; indeed, this work has been widely lauded as Franzen’s return to grace. And yet it’s framed by a joke about the dangers of grandiosity that stalk such literary ambition. The trilogy that commences with Crossroads is titled A Key to All Mythologies, a reference to Casaubon’s unfinished opus from Middlemarch, and more or less a synonym for pedantic tomes on the origins of our world. Perhaps the title is Franzen’s acknowledgment of his limits, or maybe it is a sign of where his zeal has led him: even his most ambitious and lengthy work to date is fringed by his own prejudices about what is possible within the novel, what it can say, and what it can represent. Franzen conjures the dream of fiction by returning to what he knows best—another moralistic tale about another Midwestern family, hemmed in by the oldest and most traditional tropes available to the novelist. One could frame this return as a sign of his mastery over this domain, or one could see something more brittle in his conviction. As Franzen’s greatness is litigated once again, I wonder if our fascination with him signals something tired about the state of Anglo-American fiction, if his outsized importance impoverishes the possibility of something different.

Kevin Lozano is a writer and editor. His work has appeared in the Nation, the New Republic, Artforum, GQ, New York Magazine, and elsewhere.