Notes on Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

In the latest episode of the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast (S6E7: Frigid Cracks in the Statue with Stephanie Danler) Stephanie Danler asks if you were to be given a passage from any of Franzen’s novels, would you be able to identify it as his? Does Franzen have a discernible style? Maybe not, but it also makes me wonder if he could seemingly effortlessly make anything readable?

I am not ever on the lookout for a giant epic novel about a family, yet that is exactly what Crossroads is, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself as I ripped through it. On the other hand, I was also relieved to finally finish it, as I had felt tangled up and trapped in the tentacles of its Freudian family drama.

The motivation for nearly every character in the novel is sex or thoughts of sex. There’s even a sort of emotionally incestual relationship between a brother and sister. Yet, sex is not the only thing this book has to offer. It tries to give the totality of characters’ existences, their motivations from childhood through middle age. No one’s actions are left merely dangling with no explanation. There are no one-dimensional characters.

While describing and telling about all of these stories, about all of these characters, might seem mundane and hard to track on — and surely others without the same writing talent as Franzen would absolutely get lost in their own bullshit, dare I say their own “style” — it’s actually fascinating.

It’s 600 pages of family-drama-gossip. It’s the night when you’re just old enough to finally learn about all of your family’s and your church’s and your friends’ dirty secrets usually left in the therapist’s office. (And yes, a therapist is one of the multitude of characters as well.) It’s that night where you stay up until the sun rises enraptured with every detail, every revelation, every story that suddenly makes everything make sense.

And because of this universality I wondered repeatedly why is this novel set in the early 70s? Apparently, this is the first in a planned trilogy of novels. So, I suppose Franzen needed some runway to get up to the present by the third novel? Whatever the case, the specific time period didn’t seem relevant.

I was born in the early 70s and I could still relate to the adult characters, who are my age now and are presented as being so old and beaten down that I had to repeatedly check my pulse. How near the end am I already?! Is 50 really that old?

Franzen doesn’t indulge in nostalgia for that time period. Although, I’m guessing he was a child in the early-70s and I think there can be a fascination with looking back to the time period when you were a child with the eyes of an adult and trying to make sense of all of the things that were going on around you. People weren’t telling you things, but they were acting weird. Snippets of current events overheard but never understood until now. Family members disappearing and reappearing without explanation. This is all conjecture and a daydream idea of one possibility of what was going on in the author’s head.

If there is any nostalgia on Franzen’s part, it’s personal and domestic. There’s mention of Vietnam, which at this point was nearing an end, but no scenes of soldiers in a jungle. No protests. Only passing mentions of Nixon. Of course, I’m implying that any story set in the late-60s early-70s must be political. And of course, that’s ridiculous. And we’d all probably be better served if we were reminded that there were lots of people, the majority of them, living ordinary lives at this time. Everyone wasn’t a hippie or at Woodstock or a militant radical revolutionary.

It’s a story about childhood, adolesence, young adulthood, marriage, parenting, divorce and middle age. In short, a story about white working and middle-class American life. A kind of therapy all its own, probably most relevant to those of us in our middle age.

If you’re young, go live life for a while before picking this up, as I doubt you’ll find much in the way of sympathy for most of these characters. There’s plenty of teen drama in there that any young adult could relate to, but give it a few decades so you can absorb the full force of the reflection this mirror will reveal to you.

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