The Franzen Book


This is an incredible piece of work.

But not everybody will enjoy it. Because it’s written for a small coterie of industry insiders and Iowa Workshop believers and this makes it a bit difficult to read and is the case with all of the works lauded by these cliques, plot is secondary.

But the interior dialogue is AMAZING!

Yes, what sells best is genre fiction. Crime, mystery, romance. People read for plot. That is not “Crossroads.”

What you’ve got is a family outside Chicago in the early seventies. The father is a minister and there are four children and…what is everybody thinking?

The father is unhappy in his marriage and fixated on a young widow, who trades on her looks to get men’s attention but folds in the process. This is the nature of life, everybody has a wandering eye. How do you cope with it? After your marriage has miles, after you’ve fallen into a rut, you see someone who titillates you, you interact in the breezy way you once did with your significant other, and can you resist the pull?

I’m of a mind that you should. You’ve got history with your partner. To get this far you’ve worked through so much, made so many compromises, the new person who looks great on the surface almost never is once you peel back the layers and get close.

And the people from your past. Do you have one relationship that haunts you? That you think if you only had gone back in time and taken a different path your life would have turned out differently and you’d have ended up much happier?

And how happy are you with yourself now? You’ve gained a few pounds, you’ve lost some hair, you were just going through life and then suddenly you found you were outside the mainstream. You were doing your job, raising your children, and were less concerned with yourself and now what?

Never mind those who are so narcissistic that the focus is always them, those who never fully integrate, never mind grow up.

And just because you’re young that doesn’t mean you don’t have the equivalent interior dialogue. It’s running 24/7 through everybody. You can’t depict it in movies or TV, you can touch it in songs, but it lives most in books, assuming you decide to go there, most people don’t, some do, but almost no one as deep as Jonathan Franzen.

The best thing he ever did was reject Oprah. At the time it seemed ridiculous, a stand for nothing. Who doesn’t want to increase their audience? Well, Franzen was standing up against a system. That commoditizes books and thought. This month it’s his book, next month it’s someone else’s, aren’t we all happy together in the book group. And I’m sure book groups will assign “Crossroads” in droves, but the truth is it’s very personal. It’s nearly raw. You think about your choices, your feelings, you feel human in a world that wants to deny humanity. Humanity is for suckers, it’s all about the dollars. It’s all surface, all the time. Nitwits on parade. The uninformed denying facts. But the truth is even the lowliest laborer has an interior dialogue, it’s the essence of life.

So on one level “Crossroads” is the best book this year. Assuming you make plot secondary. If you focus on plot, read “The Great Circle,” it’s the best. But the truth is Franzen is operating on a higher plane than everybody ese. He’s reaching for the Holy Grail. He’s walking the tightrope. You have a visceral experience reading “Crossroads” that you cannot get anywhere else. He’s heads and shoulders above everybody else, and except for some of the language, Franzen is not talking down to you, he’s just relating a story.

But the word choices.

I’m an educated guy, but there were so many words I did not know. Thank god I was reading on my Kindle, so I could highlight the words and get their definitions. It’s almost akin to reading “Ulysses.” You’ve got a choice, you can skim over what you do not understand, what is not clear on the surface, to get the general feeling, to get the plot, or you can try to understand every word and have the process of reading at times slowed down to a crawl.

Which is why I believe most people won’t enjoy “Crossroads,” why even if they try they’ll stop.

There is absolutely no way these words are part of Franzen’s lexicon. I’m sure he combed the dictionary, the thesaurus, to find million dollar words to replace plain English. Why? To impress his compatriots, the industry referenced above. The truth is there’s not much money in writing novels. You read about the junk writers like James Patterson making millions, but most writers of literary fiction get by by teaching. The goal is less money than respect from their peers. It’s an insiders game that too often resembles a circle jerk. Even worse, the ever-proliferating graduate writing schools are perpetuating this syndrome. It’s all about rewriting, making the prose as dense as can be, making it less readable to appeal to a high court of readers that represents a tiny fraction of the public.

But most other writers are not even going there.

Today everybody writes a book, just like everybody makes a record. The barriers to entry are so low that everybody can play, but even worse, everybody believes they deserve attention. Writing is a skill. It’s not just words. It’s a calling, with a steep learning curve. It’s not for everybody. So thank god Franzen is attempting to climb the mountain.

But I wish he wrote a book with more plot.

For a minute there, based on the statistics at the bottom of my Kindle, I thought the final segment of the book would be an update, where everybody was today. That would have been interesting.

Instead, the period of time is quite compact. Oh, there are extended accounts of history, but just to set up what happens in this one family for a very brief period of time, a matter of months, actually.

And not all choices ring true. Certainly not those of Clem.

Then there are those touches…

You’re just walking through life a nerd, out of the mainstream, and a desirable person comes up to you and tells you you’re attractive.

Or you’re wandering through your life and someone who offends you suddenly becomes desirable and you end up in a sexual relationship that’s so fulfilling you end up questioning all your choices.

And some of the plot points are out of time and out of touch. Let me see…a sixteen year old deep into cocaine in the very early seventies?

But like I said, plot is secondary to the point being made.

And then there are the family dynamics. Who has power, who is overlooked. Does the person in trouble always get the most attention, leaving those hewing the line to sacrifice?

And in the end, no one ends up where they predicted.

That’s life.

And “Crossroads” is the greatest depiction of it this year. Nothing comes close. No other book, no movie, no song. “Crossroads” is life in a world where the public people are two-dimensional making insane comments with no regard for the truth. Public life is a play. An unbelievable comedy with tragic circumstances. Meanwhile, you’re sitting at home, watching the circus go by, feeling detached, like there’s no one on your wavelength, no one who sees the world like you, no one who feels like you, never mind feeling all the time.

But then you read “Crossroads” and find you’re not alone.

You’ll have no desire to hang with Franzen, he’s not a rock star. He’s prickly and opinionated, everything he has to say is in his words in the book. And that’s enough.

You’ll start “Crossroads” and either immediately put it down or look forward to it night after night until you unfortunately finish it. That’s right, you’d like it to continue, to see what happens to these people, how it plays out. But even more you’d like to have this literary companion, this book, to keep you rooted and warm day after day. So you’d feel less alone.

Today’s novels must be under 300 pages. Or maybe just a tad more. “Crossroads” stretches out to 681. And there’s no filler. Franzen wanted to make his statement, he didn’t want to hew to conventional wisdom re length. And it works to the book’s advantage, it’s endless, with twists and turns, just like life.

The hype has been incessant. Turning off so many of those who are paying attention. That’s right, “Crossroads” is not “The Mandalorian.” And there’s not another single in the wings, the story will not continue, the media will move on to something else imminently. But “Crossroads” will stick with those who read it. They’ll be yearning for more. But the truth is there is none. No one else is playing at this level. Never mind most people not playing at all, focusing on giving the people what they want if they’re creating at all. Franzen is giving people what they need. Too bad most people won’t read “Crossroads,” but you should. Because you’ll be touched in a way that will make you feel fully alive, and the member of a tribe. It’s not what happens on the playing field, it’s what happens inside yourself and your own personal interactions. Franzen gets that right. It’s quite an achievement.

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