Jonathan Franzen Thinks People Can Change
New York magazine|October 11 - 24, 2021
Even if his new book suggests it’s nearly impossible to make it stick.
By Merve Emre

In the first pages of his new novel, Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen introduces us to Russ Hildebrandt, a man who, soon after, berates himself as a “fatuous, obsolete, repellent clown.” Three years earlier, Russ, an associate minister from a Mennonite background, was expelled from his church youth group— for his uncoolness, he claims. Now, two days before Christmas 1971, he is nursing his wounded pride by lusting after a sexy parishioner. Over the next several hundred pages, naïve and self­deceiving Russ remains insensible to the desires of his wife, Marion, who makes plans to reunite with her old flame and rediscover her former uninhibited self. Both parents, in turn, are oblivious to their four children, as the eldest three begin to fall into disrepair in various historically appropriate ways.

The first book of a three­part “supernovel,” Crossroads (see “Critics,” p.74) is preoccupied with not only the difficulty of wanting to be good amid the rising tides of temptation and doubt but whether being an essentially good person and wanting to be perceived as one are incompatible desires. Perhaps because I had just finished the book, there were moments during my interview with Franzen when I couldn’t dispel the disapproving, combative feeling that Franzen himself was intent on coming across as a good man. But my suspicions were dissolved by his humor,his thoughtfulness, and his impassioned defense of novels and their enduring ethical function. “I hope this has been moderately fun for you,” he said as our call neared its end. “God bless you for doing this.”

In all your novels, marriage is the domain where our moral character gets tested, the domain in which the way we imagined we would behave suddenly and frighteningly looks very different from how we actually behave. Why, for you, is marriage the situation where morality repeatedly gets tested and fails?

Not to quote myself, but I’ll quote myself: There is a line in Purity to the effect of “Don’t talk to me about hatred if you’ve never been married.” It’s part of my larger attraction to all kinds of family relationships as a domain for drama. So much is optional. If you don’t like your friends, you can stop being friends with them. The essence of consumer society is a choice and changing your mind. You don’t like that—okay, go do this. But you can’t move away from your mom. And you cannot move away from your spouse unless you get divorced. And because you can’t escape it, you have individual people with their individual personalities that are constantly grating on others. I feel like I could almost answer any of your questions by saying, “Yeah, that’s just fun to write about.” As a novelist, I’m all about fun. And fun for me is a scene where two people want different things very badly.

Here’s a question I don’t think you can answer with “Because it’s fun”—or you could, but it would be unsatisfactory. This novel begins in December 1971 and ends in 1974. Why did you decide to set it in the past?

I had the wicked thought, People think I’m a family novelist. I’m not really. But maybe, finally, I’ll write a book about a family. And to me, a family novel spans generations. There were some disasters in my own family in the early ’70s. If any event in my childhood could actually be called traumatic, it was the horrible fight between my father and my brother Tom in 1970, which resulted in Tom running away from home and disappearing. It was very much a clash between my brother’s counterculture and my parents’ conservatism, and it kind of blew the family apart. The most important decade of my life, and I had never set any fiction there.

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