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I had high hopes for this, having read and enjoyed "The Corrections". There is no faulting Franzen's psychological acuity and skewering of his characters' motivations and self-obsessions, and yet, I'm not sure that it amounted to much after 580 pages.
Yes, all of the characters in the Hildebrandt family (with the exception of the oblivious youngest son, Judson) are at a crossroads, as we are reminded again and again (hear the refrain of the famous blues song): the damaged children coming to terms with the poor parenting of their damaged parents, Russ and Marion. The story loses its credibility because of Franzen's need to build every relationship to a simultaneous crescendo of crisis, and the resulting multiple climaxes feel strained and artificial. For example, Perry, the brilliant pothead son, who goes from smoking a few joints to being a an out-of-his-mind cokehead in the course of a few pages. We are supposed to believe that he has inherited his mother's past history of depression and his grandfather's mental illness, and this is the reason for his addiction. But the orchestration of his downfall felt almost like it came out of Reefer Madness: the gateway drug creating desperate addiction. And Becky, his sister, who smokes a joint with some friends and then has a born-again Christian experience that changes her life. Are they smoking a little weed or taking strong psychedelics? Did Franzen have some bad cannabis experiences as a teenager? None of it seemed real. And I was also frankly bored by all of the religious angst. The pastor father, Russ is really the center of the family and the cause of its disintegration. But his present and past stories are so dull and earnest that I simply lost interest and ended up skimming huge chunks. He is neither interesting nor sympathetic in his pathological jealousy of his rival or his erotic fixation on his boring parishioner. I could offer similar critiques of every character. Save your money.
Well I have been a Franzen fan, but this book is truly tedious. I've read 50% and may endure. I don't know what went wrong here. The characters are in the main unrealistic to the point of comedic. There is no one in the family that is either likable or despicable. Perhaps because none of them are believable. Maybe if you are fascinated with Christianity then it would have appeal. I'm stunned at the stupidity of some of the main characters in the family. The prose are fine, but characters and plot are almost silly. It read like a long young adult book. Very strange.
I feel like we are bring had. The story is jam packed full of, well, I can't call them characters because I don't believe they are meant to be people in a story meant to enlighten or entertain us. I guess I'd call them cliches that never managed to absorb, entertain, or enlighten me. Unlike the Berglunds of Freedom and the people they loved and hated or had generally complicated relationships with, none of the people in Crossroads really even seem believable and I couldn't force myself to care much about their trials and tribulations, never mind find myself crying for them, feeling crushed for them, or finding my heart leaping for them the way I had with the Berglunds. Freedom proved to me that Jonathan Franzen was a great writer. Crossroads hinted to me that maybe being a great writer doesn't matter to Jonathan Franzen so much because he's not sure most people deserve to read something wonderful.
I can't shake the feeling that Franzen knows that in Crossroads, he had presented us with a dud (The first of a trilogy. Dear god, no) but enjoys reaping praise and adulation for it - not because of the accolades - which he probably doesn't care about because who enjoys being praised for something we've done that we know is beneath us? But, if I had to guess, I would speculate it may confirm a belief that people who read his books do so mostly to congratulate themselves. I mean, the man can write and he knows it - how easy it would be for him to craft something that he believed would SEEM worthy of praise to dopey people who decide what to read based on what celebrities tell us they are reading and how many pages they have to wade through - the more pages the better the book obviously and the more merit they accrue in wading through it. What a laugh that would be. Ha. Ha.
On the other hand, I'm probably wrong. I can't imagine someone of his enormous talent, empathy, capacity for outrage, and ability to elucidate it, as well as the ability to observe the small details of the world and make them large in meaning would stoop to wasting all of his myriad gifts in order to con readers. But I still can't help feeling he is having a bitter laugh at our expense. For all the detail of every mental struggle each character goes through and which are overwritten and overexamined to the point that you'd think the fate of the world rested on their resolution, their troubles are almost uniformly pedestrian - people who fail each other, or outgrow each other or who give in to sins of the flesh without much of a struggle, but also without much joy or success. The exception is the character of Marian who has been made to go through almost ludicrous levels of hell, only to end up a cordial minister's wife who is twenty pounds overweight and pretty pissed off about it. And also one of the sons who creates something like a short-term literal hell on earth...and who pretty much disappears as a character except as a permanent drain on everyone who knows him and even some who don't.
So many chapters end with cliched cliffhangers, (a car spinning out of control in snow, a woman leaning maybe a bit too far out a window, somebody driving uncomfortably fast in a sports car in Europe) or misdirections (describing someone's thought as their last before the consequences of their blindness to reality is about to really bite their ass) after which, coy hint of looming disaster dropped, give way to a chapter about another character's tedious troubles. And when characters give in to their basest desires providence manages to punish them immediately with another trouble, unrelated to the actual sin they committed but which you know is going to send them into paroxysms of guilt for the wrong thing.
I just don't understand how someone can write something (or several things) that are glorious and then give us something that is both overwrought and dull.
A Franzen novel is to the literary world what the Olympics are to the sporting world: It only comes every few years, it lasts for a long time, and even if it's not your favorite experience, you recognize its importance, and put everything else aside to witness it, and discover what the rest of the world sees in it. Most times, that diligence pays off. For example, "Purity" was a wonderful novel! It was so good that after finishing it, I immediately bought the Reader's Guide for it, to ask myself all the questions, and ponder the book even further. Not this time, I'm afraid. There were sections where I skimmed 3–4 pages in a row to get to some advancement of the plot. The characters in "Crossroads" spend an awful lot of time THINKING. Ruminating. Having internal debates. Changing their minds on a position that was previously thoroughly explained for 20 pages. One would normally assume that if a person spent that long examining their belief or reaction to an event, that person's perspective would be well-formed and nigh immovable. Not these characters. You will watch them pull 180º turns regarding their relationship with a family member right after slogging through their entire life's story in relationship to that family establishing their attitude toward that character. It happens repeatedly, and it is _exhausting_. And plot developments are 50+ pages apart, at points. Honestly, I finished this because I suffer from OCD (I do not mean that in the common vernacular; I am diagnosed). That's not to say it's poorly written. Franzen's sentences, metaphors and flourishes are stunningly brilliant, and—at times—compel you further into the narrative. Also, his characters have various internal soliloquies regarding the Christian faith that are absolutely inspired! Franzen would make an excellent pastor, were he capable of condensing his insight into twenty minute sermons. OK, that last line might be a dig. I apologize. I really did enjoy his examination of Xian theology; i wish he would've spent more time on that, and less on the petty (and not so petty) family squabbles that permeate the book. But the ending? Unforgivable. After neatly (well, relatively neatly) wrapping up all the other characters' arcs, he leaves one major plot point unresolved, and it is literally the final line of the novel. My first thought when the "Before you leave" screen came up on my Kindle was, "What; after 500 pages, you couldn't write 20 more to finish it?? Seriously?" YMMV, but this is not a book to relax with. Unless you're a professional book reviewer, reading this novel is going to be your part-time job for a couple of weeks. Consider the value of your time before starting it.
I love Franzen. I have read all of his books. This one feels as if it were dialed in and full of the cliches that seem to pervade today's fiction written by white writers. Yes. I wrote 'white writers'. I am not woke, or super liberal but for whatever reason today's white writers who feel an obligation to write what they know -- white people and white characters -- as Franzen does in Crossroads tend to include the following character types to make their white protagonists seem more, 'diverse', interesting and nuanced:
- The bi-polar character, who has had an episode in his/her youth that shapes who he/she is - The unfaithful husband with the wandering eye - The character who somehow ends up magically inheriting money from some random relative - The troublemaking child, who has inherited some psychological disability from a parent - The pretty white girl, who is popular but has a minuscule amount of complexity
Boring, boring, boring. Franzen writes the most beautiful sentences. Even at his most intensely verbose where a three-line sentence contains a 1000-card set worth of SAT words, he blows my mind. But he can do better. I am sure this book was part of some contract that he had to fulfill, but come on ... this book reeks of cynicism and authorial boredom.
I suffered through about 400 pages before giving myself a break and stopping. What a miserable, dysfunctional, crazy family. The endless minutia of their thoughts and actions was not enjoyable, and if I want to read entire prayers I will go to Church, thanks. It did, however, reinforce my opinion of so-called Christians as frauds and hypocrites.
I’m a Franzen fan, so expected to really like this book. Not so. When finished I just felt completely let down. As usual, his character development is superb but here each leads a contrived life, is so loaded down with extraneous verbal personal minutiae, and lacks any relevance to anything resembling a plot, that they just seem to have been in the book to fill the space the author aimed to fill. The ending is particularly weak. It left me thinking: so what? It was totally in character with the absence of a plot or even an overall theme to this overly ponderous tome.
I read all Franzen from The Corrections to the latest and would give them all five stars, but Crossroads stinks. Two stars only because of his overall if degraded talent. His characters are usually realistic normalish people with normal or exceptional flaws; occasionally there is an exceptional person with normal flaws. Most of them have gotten out of a stultifying midwestern life with all their dysfunctional baggage to succeed or fail spectacularly at something greater. You turn the page to see what new cringeworthy situation they’ll get themselves into. Franzen knew how to write, how to keep the momentum going and get you to turn the page. He drops more than a few bons mots and can describe a peculiarity so perfectly you laugh out loud. But the characters in this book don’t get out of the stultifying midwestern life, and if they do, their minds haven’t followed. Nothing extraordinary happens and there’s nothing extraordinary about the characters. It makes for a boring book that was a chore to read up to the last pages. Not interested in some religious neurotics and their simple-minded quandaries. Much preferred is Walter road-raging in Freedom, or the depraved Andreas in Purity with East Germany and the fall of the wall as a backdrop. And Franzen’s writing has lost its edge. It’s not bad, but there fewer impressive moments, just more Franzenisms. A more attentive editor is needed…or somebody to suggest for instance he not overuse his new pet adjective “lambent” three times within ten pages (pp. 480, 481, 488), all to describe the kid’s mind. I suspect he would defend this book’s lack of anything interesting happening by reminding us it is the first of a trilogy and that this volume is the low-key set-up for a broader epic. Maybe, but after this bore I won’t be reading another Franzen.