The Great American Novel: the weight of expectations and current US obsession with Christianity is too much for Franzen’s latest effort to bear.
For a certain type of contemporary fiction lover, there exists a fascination with the pursuit of The Great American Novel. The very idea seems to me born out of a longing for old school respectability in the ranks of American commentators. American pre-eminence in the new cultures of the Twentieth century only serves to sharpen the longing for recognition of their excellence in proper culture – fine art and literary fiction – rather than the bubble gum worlds of the movies, TV and pulp fiction.
It speaks to a notion of America being both looked down on for its cultural poverty at the same time as being lionised as the world’s major superpower, politically and economically. “Give us some respect”, it seems to shout, “we’re just as good as you failed old Europeans. You’ve had your day -it’s our turn now”
This is the mindset that periodically proclaims someone to be the latest carrier of that torch. The writer in question (usually a white man) needs to have written a very long book, to be able to bear the weight of cultural expectation. It is, after all, The Big Country. The Great American novelist has been subject to regular reinvention – now a woman, now someone of colour – but the essential premise is the same: this is a great stylist, working on a large canvas, to portray some quintessential truth about a great country.
Jonathan Franzen has laboured for a good few years under the burden of this label, ever since The Corrections was published in 2001, and Crossroads is his latest epic that lays claim to the title, Great American Novel. So, how does he fare?
Well, two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose. It’s just a shame that the one he fails miserably to reach is the most important. Let’s be clear right from the outset, this novel is a long way from being great. It is certainly a novel, of sorts. And unquestionably, it’s American. Looked at from the outside, at a distance and standing in the shadows it could be mistaken for TGAN, but it really wouldn’t pass muster in an ID line up under harsh neon strip lighting. It’s big (540 pages) and it deals with a WASP family from the Midwest, with the usual stresses and fault lines just under the surface, that break out with dramatic consequences in the second half.
So far, so good. If it sounds like a duck and smells like a duck and moves like a duck, it’s probably a …well, you get the picture. Except not in this case. Because despite all the approximations, this is quite clearly not a duck. And the breathless, positive reviews it has garnered all smack of lazy journalism from people who have not actually read it, but have, instead, gone on Franzen’s back catalogue and The Duck thesis. It’s not that Franzen has phoned this in. I think he thinks he was writing a significant opus. He wouldn’t have bothered to churn out 540 pages or so if he didn’t think he was writing a book that said something important and insightful about contemporary American Society. But in a sense, that’s the problem. The minute you start to write with posterity in mind you’re holed below the waterline. Rather like sublime pop musicians who don’t have the confidence in the validity of their genre and then try to write something proper to prove their cred. And before you know it, you’re Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
The frustrating thing is that much of the essential material is good. The extended family unit and their dysfunctional dynamic works really well. The patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the head honcho at the local church and has had a reputation of late sixties counter cultural credibility. This makes his later fall from grace, at the hands of a younger, newer version of the hip vicar even harder for him to take. He loses interest in his wife Marion and starts sniffing around a young widowed member of the congregation, the foxy Frances, all the while oblivious to the travails of his various children: Clem the favoured son who having discovered sex at college is on the verge of dropping out and volunteering for service in Vietnam; Becky the well-balanced, beautiful and successful girl who also discovers sex and religion (though not in that order) and Perry, the genius rebel who is quickly disappearing down the rabbit hole of his many, undetected (by Russ at any rate) drug addictions. The characters are well drawn and there are some entertaining and well-drawn set piece scenes, with some sparkling prose at times. But for much of the time, particularly after about a third of the way in, it is painfully dull and repetitive and I found myself flicking the pages of yet more back story to get to the meat of the here and now. It’s far too long. Structurally, it’s a mess, with the momentum of the narrative repeatedly disrupted by really hefty expositions of the back stories of the main characters. In themselves, they are quite interesting, but the overall effect is of having three or four related novels clumsily stitched together to make one mega novel. As avoiding this to protect the reader’s interest in the drama of the main story is a basic rule drummed into wannabe writers by all of the agents, mentors, and creative writing tutors out there, it comes as something of a surprise that Frantzen, a veteran, seems to think the “rules” don’t apply to such as him. If this had been a first novel by a nobody, it would have garnered little but rejection slips.
And then there is the American obsession with religion. Or rather Christianity. Readers of faith may have to turn the other cheek here and forgive me, for I know not what I do. Not really, obviously I know what I do, but you’ll have to forgive me anyway. This is a portrait of a culture, of a community, a family and myriad individuals steeped in the conventions of the established Christian church. And what a stultifying, suffocating, irrelevant, dogmatic portrait it is. What possible attraction does this religion have for anyone? And where were the naysayers? Why are there no characters that push back against this rigid conformity? Becky shows admirable lack of interest at the beginning but then is tempted to join the ghastly Youth Group, the Crossroads of the title. This is initially to get closer to the boy of her dreams, but then after a ludicrous encounter with cannabis, she embraces Christianity with missionary fervour. It makes Cromwell’s puritan Britain in the seventeenth century seem like a liberal enlightenment. By the way, Frantzen’s description of what happens when you smoke a joint, reads like an extract from the reefer madness propaganda of the fifties. Ironically, he manages to serve up the most powerful anti-drug message imaginable. If this is what smoking weed does to you (turn you into a swivel-eyed Christian zealot) then no-one will want to touch it with a barge pole.
The Crossroads youth group is a terrifying manifestation of the brainwashing of vulnerable young people. Given that never -ending revelations about child abuse undertaken under the cloak of respectability provided by The Church are so familiar to us these days, it beggars belief that Frantzen offers no caveats about this highly dubious organisation led by the classic, “charismatic” young trendy religious leader. At its most innocent, it’s a portrait of a nauseatingly smug hero leader basking in the adoration of his teenage congregation. At worst, it’s a lot more sinister, but not for the author, who seems to see it as a force only for good. I imagine he had some sort of similar experience as a teenager or young man. Whether as the Messiah or the Disciple, I’m not sure.
The characters spend so much time agonising about whether they have lived up to the expectations and teaching of the scriptures, that they seem to have little left when it comes to actually treating their friends, family and community with love and respect. If they could just forget about doctrinal regulations, and put the same amount of effort into their own therapy and a better understanding of their fellow man, their lives, and those of the community, would be so much better.
Franzen appears to be aware that he could be accused of being obsessed with the emotional travails of the white American middle classes, and that these days in 2022, he runs the real risk of being cancelled, or worse, thought to be irrelevant. To counter this, he throws in a couple of tremendously awkward sub-plots, one involving the poor black community that are the focus of Russ’ do-gooding endeavours and the other centred on his relationship with a Native American community out in the wilderness of the reservation where as a young, firebrand preacher he had earned his radical, alternative stripes. There is some sense that Frantzen has the self- awareness to satirise white American liberal guilt, but only some. The overwhelming feeling is that these scenes are only there to provide a smidgeon of cred.
Finally, thankfully, the whole towering edifice collapses exhausted at the end. I have no idea why it ended where and how it did. The last third dribbles on in a meandering ineffective way. It could have ended at the full stops of any of the final several hundred sentences, but on it ploughed, as I listlessly flicked the pages praying for the end.
I’m sorry to have been so negative. Buried deep underneath the layers of subcutaneous fat here, there probably lurks a decent, interesting novel. But it’s the job to the writer to do that preliminary archaeology, not the reader. It’s what the editing process is for. 540 pages that could so easily been 280 and so much the better for it.
And guess what? It gets worse. In preparing to write this review , I discovered something I was not aware of when reading the book: Franzen plans this as the first of a trilogy. Oh dear.