As It Happens

Jonathan Franzen's new novel Crossroads is a window into American exceptionalism

The novelist and essayist says his characters' convictions about their inherent goodness mirror the "annoying" convictions his country has about itself as a nation.

In his 6th novel, Franzen depicts a suburban pastor’s family and the intersecting crises of 1970s America

Jonathan Franzen, right, pictured alongside the cover for his sixth novel, Crossroads. (Penguin Random House/Shelby Graham)

Story Transcript

Jonathan Franzen has a habit of proclaiming his latest book to be his last, but his new novel comes with an addendum that belies any such prediction. Its full title is Crossroads: A Key to all Mythologies: Vol. 1

In other words, there's more to come. 

"There was a part of me that wanted to dispel the notion that I was done writing novels," Franzen told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"This was also a rare instance where I was responding to some of the press about me and I thought, let's just correct that notion. I'm not going away."

A family affair

Franzen's new novel is the story of a suburban pastor, Russ Hildebrandt, and his family — with chapters narrated by Russ, his wife, Marion, and three of their four children: Clem, Becky, and Perry. 

Each of the five is dealing with a personal crisis very much of the early 1970s, when the book is set. Marion chafes at a life of domesticity that knows nothing of her turbulent past. Clem contemplates the possibility of forgoing a student deferment and allowing himself to be drafted to what he considers a morally bankrupt war in Vietnam. Becky has the good fortune of looks and likeability, but finds herself uneasy with the social status they afford her. Perry's formidable mind is only imperilled by its genius. 

Russ Hildebrandt's crisis, meanwhile, is that of a man who has failed to come to terms with his own age. 

Franzen, pictured at the Budapest International Book Festival in April 2015, says he still has plenty of stories to tell. (Attila Kovacs/MTI/The Associated Press)

"If there's an inciting incident to the book, it is that Russ has essentially been kicked out of the youth group that he ostensibly was the leader of," Franzen said. 

"This, of course, is humiliating for any adult to be rejected by young people. But it also strikes Russ as very unfair because he was once cool … and, poor Russ, he grew up in a Mennonite community. He's very innocent. And he never really had an adolescence. And a way to look at him in this book is that he is, at 47, having his adolescence with all of the dubious behaviour that comes with that." 

Much of that dubious behaviour unfolds over a startlingly short time span for a book of nearly 600 pages. 

"I was intrigued by the possibility of writing a book that largely takes place on a single day," Franzen said. "And a big part of the challenge was to plausibly set up five crises in the lives of the five point-of-view characters so that they are all unfolding and intersecting and reacting to each other in the same 12 hours, two days before Christmas in 1971." 

Teen angst and American exceptionalism

Franzen may have been inspired by the prospect of capturing a single day, but Crossroads is equally a portrait of the decade in which it's set. It's a time Franzen says encapsulates many aspects of American culture that endure today, beginning with its emphasis on religion and morality. 

Most people consider themselves pretty good ... and I think the best literature for me interrogates that proposition.- Jonathan Franzen, novelist 

Franzen was, himself, a member of a religious youth group not unlike the fictional one from which Russ Hildebrandt is banished and for which Crossroads is named. 

"It's difficult to convey to someone nowadays, especially in liberal circles where Christianity has become kind of an almost dirty word ... how powerful and attractive that experience was back then," he said. 

Part of the experience, he says, was to behave rightly — and to produce brutally honest criticisms of those who didn't. 

These questions of morality and goodness have long been a preoccupation for Franzen. 

"Most people consider themselves pretty good ... and I think the best literature for me interrogates that proposition," he said.

"You can see it even on a national scale. America considers itself a fundamentally good country. Yes, there was slavery. There was genocide of the Indigenous Americans. But you know, really, we're the good guys.… We're the force of light in the world.

"There's something really queasy-making about that notion … that Americans can't see how infuriating that that posture would be to another country." 

Write what you know

As ever, Franzen's work remains as personal as it is political. 

"I think the emotional basis for this book was the ferment in my own household a year earlier 1970," he said. 

Franzen was not yet a teenager when he witnessed what he calls a "battle" between his father and one of his older brothers. 

Frazen, right, pictured in the As It Happens studio with host Carol Off, left, in 2015 to promote his novel Purity. (CBC)

"My brother was part of the counterculture and my father was a very culturally conservative and a powerful figure. And [there was a] clash between the two of them, which resulted in my brother running away from home, disappearing for some weeks after a tremendous fight like I'd never experienced as a child." 

At first, Franzen thought this familial altercation might lend itself to a chapter or two, but he quickly realized there was more to it than that. 

"It turned out I had so many memories and that that was such a significant time for me that I thought, hey, there's a whole book here." 

Franzen would go on to have his own conflicts with his parents, too.

"They were children of the Depression and they could hardly imagine a less promising financial future than that of being a fiction writer," he said.

As far as his mother was concerned, Franzen says, he was "telling lies for a living." 

Pleasure has to be the principle

But over the years, those "lies" have revealed great truths about the mostly white, midwestern Americans he portrays. And they've paid the bills too.  

"I wish my mother could see that," he said. 

Part of Franzen's critical and commercial success may have to do with the fact that he no longer fancies himself a "status writer." He articulated the concept a 2002 essay in The New Yorker, which differentiated such high art from what he called "contract writing," wherein the writer seeks, at least in part, to entertain. 

Today, Franzen insists that "pleasure has to be the first principle." 

It's why he's equally adamant that Crossroads won't have a sequel in the conventional sense. 

"I want each book to stand on its own terms. I want to write a book that you don't have to have read the first one to enjoy, to appreciate," he said. "What bedevils me as a writer is a horror of repeating myself and a propensity to get bored if I'm not doing something that feels formally new and interesting." 

While the next book may not pick up precisely where Crossroads left off, he's done suggesting there won't be one. 

"There will come a time when I really don't have anything left, but I don't think I'm quite there yet," he said. 

Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes 

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