Jonathan Franzen's Minor Miracles

On having faith in a highly capable but somewhat uninspiring God

Jonathan Franzen, American writer, Milan, Italy, 2001. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)
Leonardo Cendamo/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Jacob Bacharach

Jonathan Franzen is the cicada of American letters. Periodically, he emerges from the soil of America, scuttles up a nearby tree, and emits a tremendous noise that is quite impossible to ignore, splendid and astonishing in its intensity. Like many of God’s strange works on this Earth, it is both magisterial and slightly disgusting. I am in awe of him, and any fiction writer who tells you otherwise is surely lying. His books contain neither magic nor dragons nor vampires nor facsimiles of British boarding schools; where violence occurs — a deadly car wreck in Freedom, a murder in Purity — it has an slapstick quality, although it is rarely played for laughs. Despite this, he has become that rarest of creatures: an actually famous novelist. Goddamnit. Mirabile dictu.

His newest novel is called Crossroads, ostensibly the name of the encounter group-style Christian youth organization at the center of the book, but also one of those Franzen titles that is preciously pregnant with multivalent meanings. Set in the churchy-but-liberal, Protestant, 1970s Midwest from which Franzen himself hails (he would have been around 12 in the year the novel’s “present” takes place), it centers, as did Freedom and The Corrections before it, on the trials of a single family. The Hildebrandts are a frankly rather boring clan whose petty moral travails are far less significant than they themselves seem to imagine.

This may or may not be an authorial joke. With Franzen it is hard to tell. The writer and reviewer Alan Cheuse said of Freedom that “every line, every insight, seems covered with a light film of disdain. Franzen seems never to have met a normal, decent, struggling human being whom he didn’t want to make us feel ever so slightly superior to.” In the past, I would have emphatically agreed; now, I am not so sure. Franzen does seem to have genuine affection for his newest creations, and so it is hard to tell if their histrionic spiritual and ethical convulsions are meant to be the subject of satire or an object of wonderment and fellow-feeling.

Part of my confusion may simply be that this is a novel about religion, or at least about faith. The Hildebrandts are, to varying degrees, a religious family. Russ, the paterfamilias, is a “junior” minister in his church, a spiritually (and financially, and romantically, and sexually) frustrated preacher with a sadly wandering eye; his wife, Marion, is a half-Jewish Christian who, following a fraught pre-War romance and mental crackup became a sort of ecstatic Roman Catholic before surrendering to the — you’ll pardon the expression — ministrations of Russ’s youthful dick. He is inexperienced, but, Franzen later assures us, he is also “rather large.” Their children — righteous but atheistic Clem; popular but perpetually-seeking Becky; stoned and precocious Perry; affectless and angelic Judson — each experience, across six-hundred-plus pages, various metaphysical crisis to which they mostly respond in the most boneheaded fashion possible. Except Judson, who exists primarily to give Clem and Marion someone to drag around from time to time.

Ron Charles, in a review for The Washington Post, called the result “a story of spiritual crises with a narrative range more expansive than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels, which can sometimes feel liturgical in their arcane ruminations.” In an arcane way, this strikes me as proof positive of Jennifer Weiner’s famous complaint that in order to be lauded as works of genius, a women’s book must be written by a man, especially if that man happens to be Jonathan Franzen. The spiritual and narrative crises of Crossroads are in fact quite domestic and quotidian: whether to cheat on one’s spouse; how and when to lose one’s virginity; whether or not to get stoned. Even the great question of Vietnam, which looms in the background, lands with a bit of a plop: eldest son Clem comes to agonize over his college draft deferment, but when he quits school and makes himself draft eligible . . . the war ends; he doesn’t get drafted; he takes some money from his mom and goes to New Orleans. Sure, all of these characters spend a great deal of time agonizing if they are right and if they are good, but compared to Robinson’s liturgical ruminations, their engagement with the numinous and indelible questions of right and wrong, of God’s presence or absence, are hardly “expansive.”

A novelist can’t be blamed for his own reviews, and it isn’t Franzen’s fault that he gets favorably — though incorrectly — compared to better, or at least smarter, writers. Maybe this is my own prejudice, too: as a Jew (and half-Catholic, like Marion herself!), I find these little internal character dramas about whether or not they hear the whisper of a rather banal and boring Protestant deity simultaneously, and paradoxically, ersatz and singularly interior. Marilynne Robinson novels may proceed in a more stately fashion than Franzen’s more antically plotted books, but they are full of The Mystery. Among the Hildebrandts and their religious milieu, one senses mostly a combination of special pleading with a search for something between an excuse and a life-instruction manual.

Franzen actually manages a very good joke about this, in a book with very few jokes. At a holiday party, a drunk Perry blunders into a conversation with, of course, a Reverend and a Rabbi. The young man inquires as to the nature of both goodness and belief. If you ever did something good, the Reverend tells him, and “felt a glow in your heart, then that’s a little message from God. He’s telling you that Christ is in you, and that you have the freedom and capacity to pursue a closer relationship with him. ‘Seek and ye shall find.’”

“It’s approximately the same if you’re a Jew,” the rabbi deadpans, “although we tend to emphasize that you’re a Jew whether you like it or not. It’s more a matter of God tracking you down than of you finding God.”

Here again, it’s hard to say where the authorial intention lies, and I take this as more proof of my basic thesis, which is that Jonathan Franzen is a very good novelist, but not necessarily a successful one. Writers, especially in this era of the MFA, have adopted a convention of speaking about writing as a “craft,” in implied, if not explicit, opposition to an art. Franzen is emphatically not the product of an MFA program, and he is very self-consciously an artist, but it is in his later books — particularly Freedom and now Crossroads — that we can ironically experience a consummate, master craftsman who simply cannot produce a work of art. There is no denying his formal mastery, but these books have the feeling of a very well-made dining-room table: nice to look at, functional, and not nearly rare enough to put into a museum. A great book leaves you with something; a Franzen novel does not.

Crossroads is meant to be the beginning of a trilogy called “A Key to All Mythologies,” and it seems clear that it will be an attempt to construct a kind of moral genealogy of the American experience, at least that part of it which has been coterminous with the life of one Jonathan Franzen. The book’s several awkward field trips — to the impoverished inner city and an even more impoverished Navajo reservation — are less cringe-worthy than you might expect from Franzen. Yes, the Black and Native characters are largely cyphers against which the White players enact their moral dilemmas, but Franzen is quite conscious that that is what his White characters are doing, and that, in a small way, is an amends for some less defensible choices and portrayals in his own earlier works.

And yet it was in a flawed early work like his debut, The Twenty-Seventh City, whose seams and nails were still visible and whose depictions of minorities (in this case, some occasionally cartoonish Indian-American baddies) ranged from dubious to problematic, that Franzen showed what type of more difficult and daring artist he might have become: a writer with a capacious imagination for the way systems of money and politics create social conditions. If anything, it’s a bit curious that his critical elevation into the pantheon of American greats — not a Morrison or an Updike or a Pynchon, of course, but a major figure in his own time, at least — tracked with his writerly domestication. There is of course nothing wrong with domestic writing: many of the best books are about families of one kind or another. But while the subjects of any novel are extraordinary simply by dint of being the subject of a book, it is the idiosyncratic Franzenness of the characters in Crossroads that makes it impossible to view them as existing in any sort of conversation: with other novels, with life, with America. Though they are in society, and often perplexed, challenged, frustrated, or annoyed by it, the people of Franzen-world are also atomized and unsociable — like Americans, utterly and entirely alone with themselves. Perhaps this is also their nearest hint of genius.

So what should we make of this guy? I think he is something essential: like the rather circumscribed and un-miraculous God of this stodgy brand of middle-American Christianity, he is, in the end, kind of just another dude. Whatever his early aspirations to an omnipresent encompassing of society and humanity, he has learned to content himself with being a minor household deity, a family spirit who appears on certain holidays and occasionally offers suggestions that border on a conscience. If he lacks the majesty of a creator of universes, he can still spin a decent dinner-table myth. Personally I don’t believe in him, but I am glad that those who do have kept him around.

Jacob Bacharach is a writer in Pittsburgh.