Love it or hate it, Jonathan Franzen sparks conversation


You saw him in the metro or in the bus, hidden under an arm or ostensibly exposed; you saw it at the airport, crammed into a ziggurat in front of a thousand bookstores that only sell three books; you haven’t opened a major newspaper or literary review (including this one) without seeing a review, a reflection, a brief review: that’s crossroads, the last notice that Jonathan Franzen is officially back. Love it or hate it, Franzen gets the clicks, as kids say these days. (I’m pretty sure I used that expression correctly.)

Like Halley’s Comet, Jonathan Franzen attracts a lot of attention on the rare but regular occasion for a new novel. One review will note that he is “widely regarded as the foremost novelist of his generation”, another that he is a George Eliot for our time, sparking a thousand indignant reactions and hot shots – note the joy with which the Los Angeles Times asked “Is Jonathan Franzen Too Fat To Fail? Because you know Jonathan Franzen has half a dozen unfinished manuscripts on a mediocre white man in 2008 who works for a bank too big to fail.

Robert Rubsam: “It takes guts to catch up with the greatest social novel in our language, and Franzen more than deserved the right to try.

Franzen seemed to burst onto the scene already a legend in 2001 with The corrections, a book that won him a 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. (He lost the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for fiction to Richard Russo Empire Falls.) The corrections accomplished what seems impossible for the modern novel: it was critically acclaimed and commercially successful at the same time.

Franzen had indeed published his first novel in 1988 and a second four years later, but The corrections was the one Oprah Winfrey picked for her book club juggernaut (then canceled the selection when Franzen acted like a jerk about the selection). While his novels have not found commercial or critical success since The corrections, he remains among the handful of novelists who can compete for a Pulitzer Prize and top spot on bestseller lists every time out of the gate.

crossroads could win him both. While critical opinions have been mixed, the book made its name and ubiquitous face last month, with reviews (including Robert Rubsam in America) calling the novel Franzen’s attempt at a Middlemarch, the great “social novel” in the English language. “It takes guts to catch up with our language’s greatest social novel, and Franzen more than deserved the right to try,” Rubsam writes of crossroads.

Through the sprawling story of a family’s sins and struggles, “he wants to weave together those forces that have defined life for much of the American century, from economic turmoil and radical politics to evangelicalism, counter-culture, the legacy of colonialism at home and their implementation. around the world through the Cold War. Through this disintegrating family, he will show the disintegration of a country.

Rubsam is not entirely convinced by Franzen’s story about the Hildebrandt family, each of whom is in search of ill-conceived personal fulfillment; he notes the “particularly mean feeling” of the story. “crossroads channels every gesture, every experience, to the one in the frame. The characters suck in the slightest light, leaving the world in all its richness and its strangely dull and obstructed tumult, ”he writes. “The cinematic sweep of the novel can sometimes resemble a painted panorama, overflowing with detail but without relief. It often seems that the 20th century conspired to ruin this suburban family. “

Over the years, America reviewed a number of other books by Franzen, including his 2010 novel Freedom, his 2015 novel Purity and his collection of essays from 2011, Further away. Real bookworms will also enjoy this 2014 review by America Boris Kachka’s Deputy Editor-in-Chief Maurice Timothy Reidy Tight, the story of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the small publishing house which nevertheless publishes many literary lights of the country, including Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides.

NB: All of Franzen’s books – novels or memoirs or essay books – are rude efforts, and crossroads is no exception at 592 pages. Just a warning if you plan to use it as a replacement Franny and Zooey as your ostentatious metro used to say.

crossroads is 592 pages long. Just a warning if you plan to use it as a replacement Franny and Zooey as your ostentatious metro used to say.

If you’ve noticed that the above is a bit deeper dive into an author or theme, you are a keen reader of American literary criticism. If you read this line, in fact, you have over 95% of readers attention spans. But you’re right to notice something different, a new adventure for readers and fans of the Catholic Book Club: this is the first of what we hope will become a weekly column on all things books. In this space each week, we’ll feature literary reviews and commentary (new and old; our archive spans 112 years), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that is not featured in our newsletters.

In this regard, October marks the arrival of America“Fall Literary Review 2021,” one of two special print issues that we publish each year that focus exclusively on the world of literature (despite the occasional publicity of winning the battle for bladder control ). The wide range of genres and styles makes it difficult to choose a particular theme for a collection like this; while I can try to tie Edgar Allan Poe’s jones for science to what it’s like to grow up Catholic in Las Vegas, that’s overkill. With my apologies to Walt Whitman, this problem was important: it contains multitudes.

One of our two articles in the issue was an excerpt from the literary memoirs of W. Ralph Eubanks, A place called Mississippi. Writing about his home state, Eubanks asks and answers an intriguing question: Why does a small, struggling state occupy such a disproportionate place in the world of American letters? “It is the beauty of the land mixed with the complex history of the state that inspires and puzzles its writers,” he writes. “It’s the burden you feel when writing about Mississippi, because it’s a place that everyone knows – or at least claims to know – but few are ready to understand.”

Mitali Perkins: “Each time I reread a novel that I loved as a child, the encounter is richer and deeper, perhaps because I myself have changed as a reader. “

Few people think of Mississippi without then thinking of Moscow (what?), And our second feature film was the portrait of a Russian writer still little known in the United States but who is a leading intellectual figure in her home country. origin: Olga Sedakova. Poet, essayist, translator and ethnographer, she is also “the most important Christian poet in the world today”, according to Jim Curtis. In his investigation of her literary output, Curtis reflects on an intriguing theme: “Is Olga Sedakova the next Nobel Laureate in Russia?” “

On a lighter note, the issue also featured Mitali Perkins on childhood books – and why we should read them over and over again. While readers should perhaps not be encouraged to take Katherine Rundell’s advice to “think of children’s books as literary vodka,” Perkins emphatically argues that the classics we read as children still have a lot to do with them. offer us as adults.

“Each time I reread a novel that I loved as a child, the encounter is richer and deeper, perhaps because I myself have been transformed as a reader. Like aromatic leaves that eventually turn water into tea, so these stories changed my psyche, ”writes Perkins. “But the process takes time. Madeleine L’Engle told a class of fourth graders in 1985: “The good thing about aging is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve had.” When we reread books, we come across them at all the ages that we have had as well as the ages that we are now. Our souls are steeped in stories.

There’s plenty more to find, including Mike Mastromatteo on the writings of Roland Merullo, Hannah E. Ryan on Flannery O’Connor, René Ostberg on the de-Christianization of Ireland and more.

Two poems also graced this special issue, including “Eviction — Paterson 2020” by Gerald McCarthy. Readers (you subscribe, don’t you?) Can access all of American poetry here. And if you want to join us at the Catholic Book Club, we read and discuss Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut novel, The five wounds; you can visit our Facebook page for the latest updates, as well as our web page.

Good reading!

James T. Keane

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