This week: a conversation with Jonathan Franzen about his novel Crossroads. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.
“Jonathan Franzen” as a cultural phenomenon represents too many things to summarize, but they include: the volatile relationship between pop and literary culture in the US; the legacy of the nineteenth-century novel; the aftermath of postmodernism; the contested meaning of “great American novel”; and, somehow, “Jonathan”-ness itself.
But Franzen himself is not the cultural phenomenon. As you’ll hear on this week’s show, he’s a football fan; an appreciative skeptic of George Eliot; a Starbucks customer; an optimist about TV; and a writer who cares about the characters of his novels, perhaps especially those of his new novel, Crossroads.
Crossroads is the first volume in a planned trilogy, called The Key to All Mythologies in a playful allusion to Casaubon’s ridiculously ambitious project in Middlemarch. When asked on this week’s show about the George Eliot connection, Franzen says:
She’s not the nineteenth-century author I look to particularly. Undeniably a brilliant writer, maybe not the best storyteller. Middlemarch is strong in almost everything, but it’s not particularly strong in surprise and it’s actually not very strong in making you cry. And that’s a long novel where you don’t cry. She was brilliant, not taking anything away from that. But I’m looking for the novels that actually make you cry.
I’m not a moralist. And I, I have a certain reservation about novels that have a moral purpose. And I think Eliot always did have a strong sense of moral purpose with her work. I prefer a psychology that is more irrational. So I’m more inclined to look to—within England—someone like Charlotte Brontë, who seems to connect better with the demonic and the unaccountable.
Among other things, Franzen traces on our show the arc of his career from a socially conscious sort of writer to the kind more interested in demonic psychology:
I had this idea that the novel can change things. If you help make people see the injustice in the world and the corruption in the world, the world will become a better place. And my life, and also my novels, got a lot better when I let go of that idea and came around to a notion of a community of readers and writers, and that the service was not to Society with a capital S, but service to that community.
Even then, it’s been a long road to letting go of an impulse to comment on contemporary reality, to engage with it at a theoretical and issue level, and to come to what I think I’m meant to be, which is a novelist of character and psychology.
When he describes central characters of Crossroads, it’s like hearing him talk about friends, or subjects of biographies he’s spent decades writing. Here’s Franzen on Russ and Marion, the married couple at the heart of the novel:
Russ grew up in a Mennonite community, hence his conscientious objection in the Second World War. Marion grew up in a secular household in San Francisco. Her father was a non-observant Jew. Her mother, by her own description, a Whiskeypalian. And it was in the aftermath of her troubles as a young woman that she found her way to the Catholic Church and the schema of the Catholic Church, wherein guilt is not just a feeling, but a real thing, a thing you have to come to terms with. And good is a real thing. God is a real thing. Evil is a real thing.
That made sense to an impressionable, rather brilliant young woman who had just been through an absolutely horrific set of experiences. And that leaves a mark. You can set it aside for long years. And frankly, Russ, for all his communication with God and the fact that he does pray, is able to just set the whole question aside for months at a time while he pursues things that God would not approve of.
When you read Crossroads, you follow these characters into dark places, furious moods. This is Franzenian entertainment. He says:
I have a very broad understanding of the word entertainment. I as a reader can be entertained by any halfway well written spy novel or police procedural. But there are other kinds of pleasure. And one of the chief ones is a sense of recognition. When someone notices something that I have noticed but never really allowed to consciousness, it makes me feel less alone. It feels like that I’m not the only one who’s felt that, I’m not the only one who has noticed that.
Sometimes you have to take a risk of being disagreeable because much of what is most interesting, most relatable, is also what is rather shameful. And the task of advanced fiction writing, I think, is to go to places that are not necessarily comfortable, but to do it in a way that nonetheless, at some level, feels entertaining because you’re in good hands. You trust the writer to have anticipated your discomfort and taken it into account and rendered something to minimize discomfort and maximize a sense of recognition.
Listen: The Mekons
Elsewhere, Franzen has already made a music recommendation: he likes The Mekons.
“If you feel like … the rest of the world is going over to the dark side, they’re the band for you,” Franzen said of the band in a documentary, Revenge of The Mekons. “And I say that not because they give you hope of ever winning the battle, but they teach you how to be gracious and amusing losers.”
Franzen turns to Charlotte Brontë for demonic psychology; here’s a demonic passage from Brontë’s Villette:
. . . deep was the pleasure I drank in with the sea-breeze; divine the delight I drew from the heaving Channel waves, from the sea-birds on their ridges, from the white sails on their dark distance, from the quiet yet beclouded sky, overhanging all. In my reverie, methought I saw the continent of Europe, like a wide dream-land, far away. Sunshine lay on it, making the long coast one line of gold; tiniest tracery of clustered town and snow-gleaming tower, of woods deep massed, of heights serrated, of smooth pasturage and veiny stream, embossed the metal-bright prospect. For background, spread a sky, solemn and dark blue, and — grand with imperial promise, soft with tints of enchantment — strode from north to south a God-bent bow, an arch of hope.
Cancel the whole of that, if you please, reader — or rather let it stand, and draw thence a moral — an alliterative, text-hand copy —
Day-dreams are delusions of the demon.
Becoming excessively sick, I faltered down into the cabin.
This week’s ephemeral library
Josephine Halvorson and Georgia O’Keefe. The wild world of school board meetings. Who is the Bad Art Friend? Bill McKibben: Facebook is to Our Minds What Exxon is to Our Air (and Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse). Hanging Out With Joan Didion: What I learned About Writing From an American Master. The Road to Tyranny, A Graphic Narrative. Our Foreign Policy Elite Has Learned Nothing from Afghanistan.America Faces Supply Chain Disruption and Shortages. Here’s Why.
See you next week, folks. Til then!
OS at the Crossroads