Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads is a Peanut Butter Sandwich

Frankie reviews Jonathan Franzen’s newest release, Crossroads.

By Frankie Lopes

Just because something is good doesn’t make it interesting. I can make a pretty good peanut butter sandwich, but there isn’t anything inherently special about it; and–arguably–if I tried to make it interesting–special bread cut into perfect triangles and a strawberry compote that surely isn’t just Smuckers–it’s almost worse, more disingenuous, than just taking it at face value for what it is, something good, but relatively uninteresting. I guess someone could argue that I just have bad taste and that I don’t understand the finer points of artisanal sandwiches, but I mean, c’mon. 

I read somewhere once that Franzen hates his characters and that’s what makes his work so captivating. I kind’ve get it, but I also feel that’s the most first year MFA analysis I’ve ever come across. After 600 pages of Crossroads (twice, because I was worried that I was too dumb to understand it the first time and I was distracted by fighting with my girlfriend and changing jobs) I’ve come to the conclusion that Franzen not only hates his characters, but he wants you to know that he hates his characters and he’s a better writer than you because of it. I’m not trying to be mean here, I’m not knocking Franzen who is probably the most talented white male writer in the arena right now; but I feel like if you’re going to get anything out of Crossroads–nonetheless enjoy it–you have to know what you’re getting yourself into. 

This book is smart. Really smart. But it’s a near disingenuous kind of smart. An “intro to XXX” at 9:15 AM and that kid you’ve always hated raises his hand and says “but I think it would be unfair not to consider this side of the argument” smart while the rest of the class sighs hard enough to inflate a hot air balloon. While it is written damn near perfectly, it’s borderline ingenuine. It’s not a story written in passion–clacked out madly on typewriter keys in a dizzy spell at 3 am after awakening from jolted inspiration– but instead methodically, coldly, surgically even. Every word sized twice and cut once to create a perfect thing that lacks any humanity, lacks any error. This isn’t a good or bad thing, it’s just something you feel. A master at work, someone who’s worked so long that they no longer feel they’re working. It’s not a rookie of the year late round draft pick hitting their first home run, shocking the crowd. It’s the 115 million contract hitting their 20th of the season, it’s more expected than it is exciting. 

If you don’t want spoilers, this is where I’d stop reading. Everything I’ve scrambled together prior to this should give you a good enough idea if this is the kind of book for you.

Crossroads is a family epic set in a small Chicago town. It follows a 6-unit family in a kind of linear fashion–there’s enough flashbacks as it is–through a couple month span. Each member of the family getting their sections where the 3rd person omnipotent narrator lets them be the star. And here is my first real issue with the book: 600 pages of changing perspectives of 6 different characters (I mean not really 6, one of the characters never gets their time in the spot light). It just feels, I don’t know, juvenile? Changing characters, changing perspectives. I might be nitpicking here but after the second character swap I was kind of over it. Instead of one conducive long flowing story, you get a bunch of character studies that are sewn together into a quilt of a narrative, which would be fine if all of the seams weren’t so blatantly apparent. 

You’ve got Russ, the family patriarch who is the recently shamed youth pastor of a small local liberal church. Russ really wants to fuck Frances Cottrell, a recently widowed character who really doesn’t do much else besides…. want to be fucked by Russ? I don’t know. Feminism alert. Russ, while he tries to be “good,” is painfully liberal. He listens to vintage blues records to better understand the plight of the African American. He denounces Vietnam. He spent time volunteering for the Navajo. While it’s totally clear that Russ is meant to be a commentary on the white savior complex, it’s not particularly interesting or likeable, which I guess is the point?

Then we’ve got Marion, Russ’s wife. Marion is a commentary on the mother figure in a nuclear family. She’s gained weight over the years. Russ isn’t attracted to her anymore. She feels disconnected from her children. She’s on a diet. She’s secretly seeing a therapist. Marion is probably the best character. In a flashback that feels like it takes up the majority of the book, Marion remembers her “wild years” in California and her childhood where she goes through a couple mental breakdowns, an abortion she pays for by fucking someone who dresses up as Santa Claus for work, and other things like that. 

There’s Clem, the eldest son, who feels guilty that he should have been drafted to go to ‘Nam and was able to use his white privilege to go to college instead. He gets into an ethical dilemma here when his college girlfriend makes him realize that in an effort to protest the war by not going, he inadvertently caused someone less fortunate than him to go. He leaves college because of this, writes to the draft board that he’s ready to go, and goes on a full-on head trip. Clem’s mad at his dad because he thinks his dad is all talk and Clem feels that he’s all action. Except there is no action. Clem also has a little dyad going on with his sister Becky who he tries to guide into a more cerebral existence, urging her to go to a good college and make something of herself and not get stuck in her small town etc. etc. 

Becky doesn’t do this. Becky is addicted to being the social center of the tiny town and the youth group which acts as the nucleus to the story in general. Becky wants to fuck this guy Tanner Evans who is a stereotypical 70’s musician with long hair and an acoustic guitar. He’s supposed to be a caricature. I get it. Becky gets a whole bunch of money in an inheritance from her Aunt Shirley (Marion’s sister who Marion doesn’t like) which she feuds with internally whether to divvy it up between her brothers, or keep it all for herself and use it for college plus a trip to Europe that her aunt urged her to take to be “cultured.” In a totally unsurprising twist, Becky does none of this and gets knocked up by Tanner and has a baby and stays in her tiny town, because, well, another female character that does something…. stereotypically female? I don’t want to go down this road because it’s murky, but this book just feels very anti-feminist to me. Two of the three main female characters kind of just exist to fuck some dude, and the one character who doesn’t, spends A LOT of page time getting ready to fuck some dude and then decides not to. I don’t know, something to consider.

Perry is the middle child who is super gifted but is addicted to drugs. Incredibly original. Perry has a cool gift of the magi arc evolving for a while that doesn’t really go anywhere at all. Perry buys and sells drugs, struggles whether it’s possible to be a good person or if every action is actually self-serving and even being selfless is selfish. Could this be interesting? Yeah probably, but instead it’s the son of a preacher debating if God is real, doing drugs, thinking about how smart he is, eventually going on a coke fueled binge that costs the family basically all of their money forever, and getting some good ol’ 70’s electroshock therapy.

Youngest child is Judson, who literally does nothing the entire book besides get told that his other siblings love him. Maybe I missed something here, but like, why does this character exist? I don’t even think Judson is described physically once in these 600 pages. 

There are a bunch of minor characters–Marion’s therapist, Tanner Evan’s ex-girlfriend, Frances Cottrell’s son, etc. etc. etc., but they’re exactly that, minor characters. They exist for plot points; I don’t think their feelings are ever really taken into account. 

So, there’s the real problem here: this book is a giant character study and the characters aren’t that original or interesting. Which I guess that could be the point, that it’s a commentary on how generic everything is. But that doesn’t make it interesting. Reading about an overly intellectual son of a pastor who’s addicted to every substance he can find isn’t interesting no matter how you spin it. It feels juvenile, it feels high school, it feels like if anyone but Franzen had written it, it would’ve never gotten past an editor. 

These characters just flip flop throughout the book, bump into each other, and it kind of swells into a weak crescendo where Russ, Frances, Perry, and other minor characters are on a service trip to Arizona to help the Navajos, Russ bangs Frances finally, Perry lights a barn on fire in a coked up mess; all while Marion is in California visiting her ex-lover (who sells vitamins now? what?) and Becky is home alone losing her virginity. Where’s Clem you ask? That’s in the next paragraph. This climax isn’t all that satisfying. It’s just 3 different lines of people fucking, trying to fuck, or deciding not to fuck. All 3 of the main female characters are destined to be sexual objects for a climax of the novel. It’s weak. It’s not interesting. It’s written super well and structured excellently. But it’s boring and borderline misogynistic. 

After this, we just swap characters and time skip into the future where Clem comes home from Central America (yeah, that happens, he leaves college, goes home, says he’s going to go back to college, but instead goes to New Orleans??? Then to Central America?? And works in this Kerouacian-character physical labor arc?? Then returns home at the end of the novel to see Becky’s child?? What? Why is there an entire hero’s journey crammed into like 15 pages at the end of this book? Why does Clem feel like the main character? Who even is the main character?) Russ and Marion fall back in love, Perry basically gets a lobotomy, and Becky becomes a small-town stay-at-home mom. I have no idea what happens to Judson, that’s how little of an impact he has on this story. 

I guess we could spend a bunch of time talking about how great the themes of Crossroads are; the ethics of war, white saviorism, leaving native people alone, the varying definitions of God and how characters “feel god” or “connect to god,” redemption, or other incredibly boring religious archetypes. There’s even a part where the character Russ… washes his feet… like Jesus. I mean c’mon I get it the whole book is a 70’s religious commentary but it just doesn’t feel good. I’m sure there’s someone with some wire frame glasses who’s going to push them up the bridge of their nose and hit me with a “Well Actually!” but I don’t care, it doesn’t feel good. 

The real way to describe this is that this book is something so polished, over and over and over again, that it ceases to be the object being polished and instead becomes an unrecognizable gleam. A refraction of light so bright it’s blinding. It’s perfect, but without any of its real shape. A sun flare from staring up at the sky for too long. Six (five if you don’t count Judson) character studies put together into a narrative of dyads and how they affect each other and live with each other. It’s good. It’s written well. It raises excellent questions and tackles challenging themes, but it’s so smart it’s boring. Granted, there are supposedly 2 more books in this “series” coming out, so this could all be character ground work but I can only judge it on what currently exists and is released. Then again, this is Literary Fiction, so it’s not about it being good as much as it’s about being smart. 

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