Love him or hate him, Jonathan Franzen sparks conversation

You’ve seen it on the subway or the bus, tucked under an arm or ostentatiously on display; you’ve seen it in the airport, piled up in a ziggurat in front of a thousand bookstores that only sell three books; you haven’t opened up a major newspaper or literary journal (including this one) without seeing a review, a reflection, a brief notice: It is Crossroads, the latest notice that Jonathan Franzen Is Officially Back. Love him or hate him, Franzen gets the clicks, as the kids say these days. (I am almost certain I have used that phrase correctly.)

Like Halley’s Comet, Jonathan Franzen draws great attention on the rare if regular occasion a new novel appears. One review will note that he is “widely regarded as the leading novelist of his generation,” another that he is a George Eliot for our time, spawning a thousand outraged reactions and hot takes—note the glee with which the Los Angeles Times asked “Is Jonathan Franzen too big to fail?” Because you know Jonathan Franzen has half a dozen unfinished manuscripts about a mediocre white guy in 2008 who works for a bank that was too big to fail.

Robert Rubsam: “It takes guts to put oneself on the level of our language’s greatest social novel, and Franzen has more than earned the right to try.”

Franzen seemed to burst on the scene already a legend in 2001 with The Corrections, a book that garnered him a 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. (He lost out on the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction to Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.) The Corrections accomplished what seems impossible for the modern novel: It was critically acclaimed and a commercial hit at the same time.

Franzen had actually published his first novel in 1988 and a second four years later, but The Corrections was the one that Oprah Winfrey selected for her behemoth of a book club (then rescinded the selection when Franzen acted like a bit of a cad about the selection). While his novels since have not found the commercial or critical success of The Corrections, he remains among the select few novelists who can vie for a Pulitzer Prize and the top spot on best-seller lists every time out of the gate.

Crossroads might win him both. While critical views have been mixed, the book has made his name and face ubiquitous this past month, with critics (including Robert Rubsam in America) calling the novel Franzen’s attempt at a modern-day Middlemarch, the great “social novel” of the English language. “It takes guts to put oneself on the level of our language’s greatest social novel, and Franzen has more than earned the right to try,” Rubsam writes of Crossroads.

Through the sprawling tale of one family’s sins and struggles, “he wants to weave together those forces that defined life for much of the American century, from economic turmoil and radical politics to evangelicalism, the counterculture, the legacies of colonialism at home and their enactment worldwide via the Cold War. Through this disintegrating family he will show the disintegration of a country.”

Rubsam is not entirely sold on Franzen’s tale of the Hildebrandt family, each of whose members is on a quest for ill-conceived self-fulfillment; he notes the “peculiarly petty feeling” of the story. “Crossroads funnels every gesture, every experience, back to whoever happens to be in frame. The characters suck in every last bit of light, leaving the world in all its richness and tumult feeling oddly drab and occluded,” he writes. “The novel’s cinematic sweep can at times look like a painted panorama, overflowing with detail but without relief. It frequently seems as if the 20th century has conspired to ruin this one suburban family.”

Over the years, America has reviewed a number of other Franzen books, including his 2010 novel Freedom, his 2015 novel Purity and his 2011 collection of essays, Farther Away. True bookworms will also enjoy this 2014 review by America deputy editor in chief Maurice Timothy Reidy of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, the story of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the small publishing house that nevertheless publishes many of the nation’s literary lights—including Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides.

NB: All of Franzen’s books—novels or memoirs or books of essays—are husky endeavors, and Crossroads is no exception at 592 pages. Just a warning if you’re planning on using it to replace Franny and Zooey as your ostentatious subway read.

Crossroads is 592 pages long. Just a warning if you’re planning on using it to replace Franny and Zooey as your ostentatious subway read.

If you noticed the above is a bit of a deeper dive into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. If you’re reading this line, actually, you have an attention span longer than 95 percent of readers. But you are right to notice something different, a new venture for readers and fans of the Catholic Book Club: This is the first in what we hope will become a weekly column on all things books. In this space every week, we will feature reviews and literary commentary (both new and old; our archives span 112 years), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

On that topic, October marks the arrival of America’s “Fall Literary Review 2021,” one of two special print issues we put out every year that focus exclusively on the world of literature (notwithstanding the occasional advertisement on winning the battle for bladder control). The broad range of genres and styles makes it difficult to pick a particular theme for any collection like this; while I can try to link Edgar Allan Poe’s jones for science to what it’s like to grow up Catholic in Las Vegas, it’s a stretch. With apologies to Walt Whitman, this issue was large: It contains multitudes.

One of our two features in the issue was an excerpt from W. Ralph Eubanks’s literary memoir, A Place Called Mississippi. Writing about his home state, Eubanks asks and answers an intriguing question: Why does a small, economically struggling state occupy such an outsized place in the world of American letters? “It is the beauty of the land mixed with the state’s complex history that inspires and perplexes its writers,” he writes. “That is the burden one feels when writing about Mississippi, because it is a place that everyone knows about—or at least claims to—yet few are willing to understand.”

Mitali Perkins: “Each time I reread a novel I loved as a child, the encounter is richer and deeper, perhaps because I myself am changed as a reader.”

Few people think of Mississippi without then thinking of Moscow (what?), and our second feature was a profile of a Russian writer who remains somewhat unknown in the United States but is a prominent intellectual figure in her home country: Olga Sedakova. A poet, essayist, translator and ethnographer, she is also “the most important Christian poet in the world today,” according to Jim Curtis. In his survey of her literary output, Mr. Curtis muses on an intriguing theme: “Is Olga Sedakova Russia’s next Nobel laureate?”

On a lighter note, the issue also featured Mitali Perkins on books from childhood—and why we should read them again, and again. While perhaps readers should not be encouraged to take the advice of Katherine Rundell, to “think of children’s books as literary vodka,” Perkins makes a strong argument that the classics we read as children still have much to offer us as adults.

“Each time I reread a novel I loved as a child, the encounter is richer and deeper, perhaps because I myself am changed as a reader. Like aromatic leaves that eventually turn water into tea, so those stories changed my psyche,” Perkins writes. “But the process takes time. Madeleine L’Engle told a class of fourth-graders in 1985, ‘The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.’ When we reread books, we encounter them as all the ages we have been as well as the age we are now. Our souls are steeped in stories.”

There’s plenty else to find, including Mike Mastromatteo on the writings of Roland Merullo, Hannah E. Ryan on Flannery O’Connor, René Ostberg on the deChristianization of Ireland and more.

Two poems also graced this special issue, including “Eviction—Paterson 2020,” by Gerald McCarthy. Readers (You’ve subscribed, haven’t you?) can access all of America’s poetry here. And if you are interested in joining us in the Catholic Book Club, we are reading and discussing Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut novel, The Five Wounds; you can visit our Facebook page for the latest updates, as well as our web page.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane